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I knew I was capable of accomplishing more in life outside the confines of my modest kitchen; I had aspirations I could not quite name, or understand. And so, in September 2009, I walked into the registrar’s office at Rockland Community College armed with my useless high school diploma, a rusty brain and deeply bruised self-esteem.
The college scene did not bode well for me. I felt like an old prude who was witnessing salaciousness at the highest degree. These were young, fresh-out-of-high-school teenagers with hardly a care in the world. There were many moments of culture shock and complete befuddlement during those first few months.
I eventually found my niche, thanks in large part to the many Orthodox individuals roaming the halls of the college, located next to the hub of Orthodoxy: Monsey. But I struggled tremendously in that first year. Despite hiring a tutor over the summer to help me with basic math so that I could pass the placement exam, I was still placed in a remedial class, and even the basic concepts of algebra were foreign. Writing my first essay was excruciating — up there with giving birth to my two children. I remember the agony as I struggled to form a coherent paragraph, putting my Yinglish thoughts into an English paper. My best friend, a closeted Hasidic blogger, rewrote, err, edited that first essay for me.
I grew by leaps and bounds that first year, as did my self-confidence. I worked so hard, spending many late nights writing papers and wracking my brain over math problems. In my second semester, an eccentric psychology professor encouraged me to talk to the administrators at the college’s honors program. Since I was so surprised at his suggestion that I — a simple wife and mother who grew up on Satmar Drive and was famous for the best meringues in Kiryas Joel — was capable of being included in the program, I immediately declined. But he did not give up on me, and I eventually enrolled in the program, which would carry me through to Sarah Lawrence.
In the fall of 2012, a few months before I graduated with highest honors from Rockland Community College, I received my acceptance letter from four colleges, all in close proximity to my home. Sarah Lawrence was one of them. From the day I discussed writing courses with my then-close friend, Deborah Feldman — who has since published a sensationalist memoir, “Unorthodox” — to the day my best friend, another woman, was accepted to Sarah Lawrence’s graduate history program, I knew I fit right in with the misfits. The generous scholarship that accompanied the acceptance letter made the offer irresistible.
On my first visit to the Sarah Lawrence campus one frigid Monday morning in October 2011, the first person I saw when I rolled down my window to inquire about parking was a butch woman with more piercings than I could count on my fingers. On that first walk through campus, I discovered a female population for whom long, bohemian skirts were fashionable, not the jeans I coveted and wished to wear. I discovered a group of young adults whose behavior and manner of dress seemed so out of place in little suburbia. They were colorful, confident, liberal and mostly brilliant.
In no time, I fell in love with the unique pedagogy at Sarah Lawrence and its respect for all comers. I found my niche, alongside the bright and fully pierced Sally and the sweet, neon nail-polish sporting John. I discovered my passion for radio and my love for storytelling, writing and Jewish studies. I even delved back into my people’s past, researching Satmar history as my most significant undergraduate project.