It was 5th grade. Connecticut. Middle school. I didn’t have many friends at that time. I was trying. Oh G-d, I was trying. But my best friends ended up being an Asian guy and an Indian guy. And I was a sephardic Jew (still am). All that stuff doesn’t equal coolness in the world of white, super-gentile, public schools.
We were all sitting in a room, this dark room. I don’t really remember what it was. Maybe a kind of theater or something. A spotlight was on this guy Greg. Greg was kind of nice to me since we were both into theater. I liked Greg.
Greg was doing a presentation. We were all supposed to pick someone significant from history and pretend to be the person. Explain why you were significant and whatnot.
Greg had chosen the first female astronaut. I’m not sure why. I guess he thought she was interesting.
And so there he was, talking about how much he had to overcome as a woman, and how hard he had worked to achieve something no other woman had achieved.
I was sitting there, trying to get comfortable, my legs up to my chest. We were all sitting on the floor. I was sitting next to these two guys. I guess they were popular. They had friends, at least.
They were whispering to each other and every now and then one would snicker. They were super careful, and it seemed like both the teacher and Greg didn’t notice.
I leaned in because, you know, I wanted to feel like I was a part of something. Maybe they would be my friends if I slipped in there and laughed at their jokes, acted like one of them.
As I leaned in, they laughed again. They were laughing about Greg. Making fun of him for being a woman. It was kind of funny from what I recall. And yeah, I know I liked Greg, but this was an opportunity to be friends, friends, with other guys in my class. White, normal guys whose parents didn’t have accents because they were from Israel or India. Ugh, what a dream that would be.
So I laughed and I snickered at their jokes. Ha! Greg. Pretending to be a woman astronaut who had achieved amazing things. Loser.
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if they accepted my presence or didn’t realize that I was listening in. It could be either one. Either way, they didn’t seem to protest my presence, which I considered a big win.
That’s why when Greg’s presentation ended, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. What a golden opportunity! And over so quickly. What would I do now?
But there was a pot at the end of this rainbow. I had forgotten that after each presentation, we all had a chance to ask the presenter a question.
As a few kids asked some forgettable questions, my two new friends were snickering again. I leaned in to hear what they were saying.
“Why aren’t you wearing a dress?” the one kid said to other, and they almost both lost it. What a funny question! Greg should be wearing a dress because he was a woman, hahahahahahaha.
And that’s when I saw my chance. This was it. My chance not just to be casually accepted (or possibly not noticed), but to really make my presence know. To be taken seriously. To be taken into the fold. Yes, here it was, all laid out before me.
I threw my hand up in the air to ask a question.
I waited patiently as Greg explained to a student what it’s like to be in space. My hand held high, I didn’t see any other kids ready to ask questions. I was in.
And when Greg finished, I stuck my hand up even higher, making sure the teacher would see me. He did, and he looked mildly surprised. See, I wasn’t that good of a student either. I was a real winner back then.
He called on me. “Elad, go ahead,” he said, and I could see this glimmer of hope in his eye.
I smiled, grinned, could hardly contain how much I was going to make everyone laugh. I almost laughed before I had a chance to ask. This was going to be great.
Finally, I got ahold of myself, and I mustered up the concentration to ask my question.
“Why aren’t you wearing a dress?” I asked.
Everyone fell silent.
Silent like you’ve never heard before. Silent like all the air had been sucked out of the room.
And for a moment I waited. Maybe it would take a second for everyone to understand the joke? It was pretty sophisticated, I guess.
But as I looked around, I noticed that people weren’t even smiling. No, the other thing. Glaring. Like, hardcore glaring. Staring at me like I had just shot someone.
I looked at my two buddies. They would be on my side, at least.
But they weren’t. One of them had dropped his jaw on the floor. The other was shaking his head in his hand, hiding his face.
I couldn’t believe it. I was all alone. And everyone hated me.
But it was funny! I mean, those guys thought it was funny! Why didn’t they think it was funny this time? It was the same joke. The same exact joke they made. I just took it to the next level. How could that not be funny?
I didn’t have too much time to introspect about the way humor works before my teacher barked, “Elad, get out of here. Go wait in the classroom, and we’ll talk when the presentations are over.”
As I stood to walk out, and the sea of kids split before me, I wanted so badly to explain, to help everyone understand that I was just trying to be funny, just trying to make friends. Didn’t they understand?
But when I turned back to look at everyone, I caught a glimpse of Greg. His face was ashen. He was looking down at the ground and rubbing his neck, trying not to make eye contact with me. I had hurt him, I guess.
I walked through the path to the door, wondering the whole way why it was that it was okay that I got made fun of every day, but when I did this, everyone thought I was horrible.
And as I sat in the classroom, I thought about it, and I knew that I was wrong to do that, that it was dumb, that I had really hurt Greg’s feelings.
But it wasn’t fair. Why, why, could I never be the bully, or the funny one? Why not? Why was Greg the victim now but I never was?
And as everyone flowed into the classroom at the end of the period and people came up to me, shook their heads, and all the girls said, “Elad, how could you?”, I felt my heart sink more and more, and I knew that I would never be accepted by them, and that I was alone, and I was dumb, and no one would ever like me.
And I guess when I look back on that young Elad, there are so many things I could tell him. I could tell him that context matters, young one. I would tell him that making fun of people only works when it’s hidden and under the radar, away from the teachers and the girls. I would tell him that he was very bad at being mean, and that really that’s not such a bad thing, and it will serve him well later in life.
I would tell him that mistakes happen. That this was just one of the many he would make.
I would tell him that instead of trying to fit in so hard, the way he tried so hard not to speak Hebrew or acknowledge his heritage because kids didn’t think it was cool, he should embrace who he was fully.
But most of all, I would tell him that I know he’s a good person. That even when you do the stupidest thing in the world, and everyone hates you, and the world is coming down on you, and the girls are giving you that horrified look, and the teacher gives you two weeks detention and the cool guys pretend like they were never making fun of Greg, you have to remember that you are a good person. You can always redeem yourself. Always do teshuva.
And the thing is, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point where I can move that message beyond Young Elad. If I can look at the other people out there doing the same mistakes. Saying the wrong things for the wrong reasons. And understanding that they are good. Good, sweet, wonderful people that aren’t thinking.
We can always hope. In the meantime, try not to make any mean jokes in front of me. I need all the protection I can get.