It was the first day of high school. I glanced around. Everyone looks so similar, I thought glumly. Similar hairstyles. Similar school bags. Similar flats. It was frustrating. Why does everyone have to be the same? I wondered. That question would consume me for the next two years.
I wasn’t a bad girl, and I didn’t want to be “the outcast.” But I did want to be “me.” I didn’t want to be someone else; I didn’t want to be one of 400 others. I wanted to be unique. But the problem, I realized, is that people often think being unique means “rebelling.” Why couldn’t I do my own thing and still be considered a good girl? I was a good girl. I was just a bit different than the typical Bais Yaakov student.
My background was different than that of most of my classmates. I was exposed to and heard of things that many of my classmates didn’t even know existed. It’s not that I wanted to be exposed, but that was my reality. And so I just didn’t fit the typical mold. As I took in the scene on the first day of school, of what seemed to me like 400-cloned Bais Yaakov look-a-likes, I knew I was in for a tough year. Admittedly, I didn’t look much different then them, but I wanted to look different! I was my own person and I wanted the world to recognize that.
And sure enough, as the year progressed, I was expected to conform. At the time, I had long sleek hair and was frustrated when I was told that my hair was too long to wear down. I had to wear it in a pony.
I will never forget that first melave malka in ninth grade. It was the first formal gathering for which we were not required to wear our uniforms. I wore what I thought looked sharp and modest: a colorful tunic.
The rest of my grade may as well have been wearing a uniform: they were all wearing black skirts (why does everyone have to always wear black?), cardigans, and sweaters. Again, I felt like the sore thumb. I had chosen my outfit carefully, and in the privacy of my bedroom it had seemed so “right.” Although it was colorful, it wasn’t too loud. But in the dim lights of the auditorium, beside my classmates, the outfit screamed of loudness, and I felt different.
There were a few others in my grade who were a bit out-of-the-box like I was, and we stuck together and became friends. They weren’t as daring as me, but they did appreciate me for who I was: a breeze of fresh air in comparison to the rest of the class. Despite my small group of friends, high school was very difficult. I felt claustrophobic and confined. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be myself. And the worst part was that no one understood how I felt.
I remember one particular afternoon when a teacher approached me. “Atara,” she said, “I see that you are wearing a shell underneath your blouse.”
“Yes, I am!” I answered. “I thought it was a great idea; my shirt was a little open, and the tznius button was too tight, so I decided to wear a shell underneath it.”
I had honestly thought that the shell was a great idea. My mother and sisters has as well. But my teacher did not.
“That is not an acceptable look,” she said sternly. “Please follow me to the office and I will get you a safety pin.”