From the age of three, and most probably before, her parents have been embedding her with a love of God and a love of Judaism. They have instilled in her the most important of Jewish laws: to love one’s neighbor as thyself. There are days when she’s angry at God, or when she wishes Judaism weren’t so strict. There are many days when she doesn’t treat a friend as she’d like to be treated. But even in these moments, she knows that she loves God, and that, as her Father, He will help her.
You warily smile as you enter the blue and yellow room, and scan it for the one person you know. A fifth grader in a new school, you need that familiar face to guide you. You’re scared that, even with Leah, this school will be all too similar to your last. Will the girls all be bratty divas? Will they reject a nerd who reads, has glasses, tucks in her shirts, and gets straight As? Your old class treated you like trash, always scooting away from you in disgust and laughing at your lack of athletic skills. They made fun of the food you ate and thought you unworthy of their friendship. In fourth grade, the bullying intensified, and you came home crying every day. The teachers did nothing, no matter how many times they were confronted. Would this school be like that?
Your fears abate as a girl with a sunny smile comes up to you. She introduces herself as Sara and gives you a welcoming hug. Your anxious smile quickly brightens up in response to hers, and your heart does a joyful loop-de-loop. You learn that she is a friend of Leah’s as well. Little do you know, your instant friendship will continue to grow firm and strong in the years to come.
I skip into the library, and head for the familiar Children’s section. I find my favorite Dr. Seuss book on one of the red plastic tables and jump onto the soft, carpeted steps below the windows on the back wall. I slowly turn the pages, too lazy to read the words but adoring the pictures.
Mommy walks over to me, and I look up. “Am I being too loud, Mommy?” I ask in my Library Voice.
“No, you’re fine, Katy,” she replies. “I want to show you something. Come with me.”
I take Mommy’s hand and she leads me to towards the back of the library, where the Big Girl books are. “Katy, why don’t you try to read this?” she suggests, taking one down.
“But it’s a Big Girl book!”
“It’s a book for eight year olds. I think you’ll like it.”
“But I’m seven and a half!” I continue to protest.
“Still, try it.”
I warily take the book back to the steps of the children’s section, unsure what to think of reading a book from the Big Girl section. I look at the cover: a picture of a striped gray cat with pure white paws. I slowly read the title, “Socks,” and I’m soon immersed in the world of Beverly Cleary.
She leans against the oak banister with a paper and pen in her hand. “Ima,” she whines. “I have no idea what to write for my speech!”
Her Bat Mitzvah is four months away, and in accordance with the family tradition, she must write her own speech to commemorate the day.
“What do you want to write about?” her mother replies.
“That’s what I need help with!”
“Well, I won’t help you if you’re whining. Come back when you can talk to me like an adult.”
She huffs away, too immersed in self-pity to think at all. “I need guidelines!” she thinks, lying on her bed. “How am I supposed to write a speech if Ima doesn’t give me guidelines?” Staring at the cracks in the ceiling, she slowly calms down, and an idea starts to form.
“Hey, Ima!” She skips back into the kitchen. “Can I write about my need for structure in life and how Judaism fulfills that need and use this speech as an example? Of how the lack of structure made it really hard to write?”
Her mother beams. “Great job, Sweetie! That’s a great idea!”
It’s amazing how much you’ve grown and changed in just a year and a half. Now, you’re giggling with Leah, Sara, Naomi, and Rachel, the last two new additions in your tight-knit group. Who knew you could giggle?
“Wasn’t Chana’s Bat Mitzvah fun?” Sara exclaims.
“I can’t believe we have to invite the principal to our own Bat Mitzvahs!” Leah rolls her eyes.
You gossip about everything from homework to vacations to inhumane animal treatment. You are considered “the nerds” by the rest of your class, but in a loving manner. Although you don’t share common interests with them, they respect and care for you because you are one of them, and you thank God for the every day.
Although you’re glad to have such great friends, you’re sort of scared. Giggling? Discussing girl stuff? Disliking a teacher? These are all new experiences for you, and although your parents assure you they’re normal, you still fear them. These were attributes of your former class…the one that hated you. Would you start to hate? To say and do cruel things because a girl is different? You’d rather stay a kid forever than risk it, but that’s not an option, is it?
I scan the books, deciding which to check out. The Lives of Christopher Chant? No, the series is too long. Book of a Thousand Days? Read it last week. Dealing with Dragons? I’m not really in the mood for Fantasy… I find Blue Jasmine, a book with an enticing blurb and a photo of an Indian girl fingering a blue flower comprising the cover. Apparently about an Indian girl who moves to America with her family and has to adjust here, it somehow sounds relatable. Maybe it’s her age, eleven, the same as mine. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s an outcast in her school, a subplot that never bores me. No matter the reason, I take it.
I’m in the middle of looking for another book when Mom comes over to me. “Katy, Leah just called. She invited you over to her house at one. I said yes for you, is that alright?”
Something inside me breaks a little. I really wanted to read that book, and Leah is so active…she’d never accept that excuse. “Um, Ima… I really wanted to just laze around this afternoon. Can you call her back and tell her I’m busy?”
“Why don’t you call her?”
I hesitate, then take my mom’s cell-phone, walk outside the library, and make the call. I know that it is necessary I take this break, this day of just me and my book, even though Leah will probably be a little hurt. I need the quiet time to clear my mind and rejuvenate myself. I need a balance of social-time and me-time.
I feel guilty, but the guilt is worth it, isn’t it?
She’s curled up in a tight ball on her bed, tears slowly leaking from her scrunched up eyes. It’s night, and the whole house is asleep, except for her. She’s not crying because of physical pain or because of something someone else said: she is crying because the agony of growing older seems too much to bear.
She had entered her bed only fifteen minutes before, and had begun to meditate, a routine she had been doing frequently lately. There just seemed so much more to meditate on now, as she began to feel emotions that had never troubled her before. She began to doubt her personal decisions—is this or that friend a bad influence on her? Is she starting to flaunt herself immodestly? Do any of her friends actually like her, or are they just too polite to mention how boring she is?
And then her emotions erupted into utter confusion. God, how could she continue? Everyone said the world only got more and more difficult to survive the older you got, and this was already too much. How would she succeed?
These are the thoughts flooding her body and streaming down her cheeks. She doesn’t know what to do or whom to turn to.
And then, she remembers the lesson her parents have imbued in her from day one, the lesson her people have used to survive throughout the ages: when in doubt, turn to God.
“God,” she prays. “God. Please, please help me. I need You to help me find myself, to help me form myself. I hate this teen-angst and these awful thoughts and feelings. Help me control them, conquer them, and figure out who I am in this world.
“God, my life has practically just started and I’m already lost. Help me figure out where to go. I beg of You.”
Putting the matter into God’s hands, she’s suddenly content. She knows that she’s done everything that can be done at this point, and she settles down to sleep.
“Sara, Naomi’s finally come!” you shout, running towards Naomi while trying to keep the hunter-green cap upon your head. It is graduation day, and all fourteen of your classmates are clad in ridiculous amounts of make-up, hairspray, and the matching graduation gowns and caps. You give Naomi a bear-hug, and then quickly enter the line. Tears start gathering in your eyes and the celebration hasn’t even started. You don’t let the tears fall though; they must wait for the right moment, after the ceremony.
God, you’ll miss these beautiful girls. You’ll miss their energy and lighthearted mindset. You’ll miss their “fifteen-musketeer” relationship: with these girls, it’s always all for one and one for all.
You remember the birthday parties you threw for the teachers, which usually included cake, balloons, cards and gifts, plus numerous ways to waste class time. You remember the cake fight that one such party started. The principal was so mad, seeing every single wall, floor and student smothered in cake, frosting and whipped cream. She almost canceled your graduation!
But here it is, and graduation quickly passes as you watch a slideshow of Senior Trip, the best three days of your life, and the other memories formed over Senior Year. You listen to lots of adults talk about how amazing you guys are, and you stand up to say your own speech. Although your classmates’ speeches will include thank-yous to parents, faculty, and each other, your speech consists of only the latter. For three minutes, you talk solely about the wonders of your class, and how they have raised your self-esteem, confidence, social skills, and your ability to have fun over the years. In short, how they’ve formed you.
You’ll never be able to thank them enough for these gifts.
I know the Children’s section practically by heart, and I amble down the wall. Avi’s haunting mysteries, Brian Jacques’ charming sagas, and Gail Carson Levine’s rewritten fairytales all beckon me, asking me to sit down, stroke their covers, and think about where, when and how I was introduced to them. Every book I’ve ever read in this section catches my eye, and I’m transported into its world and conflict without having to read a single sentence. These are the books of my childhood, the books that have molded me. Many of my values and beliefs, if in accordance with those of my family and religion, come from these pages.
These bookshelves have been my solace for so many years. I now sometimes come to the library to reminisce, not to read new novels. I mean, the novels aren’t up to my reading level anymore, anyways. Meant for eight- to thirteen-year-olds, I have recently past the expiration date.
I consider moving over to the Teen section, but…it scares me. Almost all the books there are filled with lustful and whiny teenagers, and I know such narratives are not what I want to shape or influence my mind. I need something, though. I can’t remain with the Children’s novels forever; I’ve already stayed there longer than other kids are welcome.
I need epics and dramas and reflections, as much as I need God and my friends. As much as I need color and sunshine, or clouds and grass, or my parents and my sisters. These are the requirements of my being, and I don’t know where to go to fulfill my quota of books anymore. Children’s novels can’t work any longer; I refuse to let Teen novels work. That leaves only one option: the adult novels.
Can I find the same fulfillment in those mature pages as in the carefree words of the young? Will I experience the same senses of longing, truth, adventure and romance, but without the sexual connotations found in Teen novels? Is it even possible to read novels without such undertones once I’ve passed the Children’s section?
I hope so. That remains to be discovered. But I know that with God to structure my life and my friendships to strengthen it, I’ll find the right road. I’m certain I will.