Within the span of just a few weeks, everything I knew about myself and all of my plans were destroyed. I was out of yeshiva, living at home and enrolled in classes at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). I did check to see if NEIU had a football team, but much to my chagrin, I was told they had to eliminate it when they moved up to Division 1 (strike one against Division 1!).
NEIU does not have a good academic reputation. It’s often derogatorily referred to as “North-easy.” Much of the focus of those around me who were trying to convince me that I would do fine, was that it was such an easy school. That really didn’t build my confidence, nor made attending any more enticing, especially because performing academically was the least of my concerns, although in retrospect, that would become much more of a problem than I had anticipated.
There wasn’t much in terms of preparation for school. I was so sure I wouldn’t go through with it that I didn’t take the shopping very seriously. I do remember buying a pack of pens (the cheap bic pens wouldn’t do, I needed fancier pens for some reason) and a back pack (which somehow I knew was supposed to be slung over one arm, as opposed to worn normally).
My overall strategy had not changed. My father made it clear to me that he was going to drive me to my first day of school (I didn’t drive at the time, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t get “lost” on the bus). He could force me to go to school, but he could not force me to go into my class. I knew what I had to do. I would go, spend a few hours wandering about, come home and declare that I couldn’t do it.
For some reason (and to this day I don’t know why) I asked my dad to drop me off 2 hours before class time. I found the “science” building on campus, walked in and wandered around for a few minutes. Other classes were in session. Many of those classes had their doors open, so I was able to peer inside. Doing so only made me more nervous. The students in those classes all looked like they belonged, when I clearly did not. I was sure that this was not going to work.
I walked up the ramp in the rather curiously designed “science” building, and after wandering the halls for a few minutes, located the classroom that would host my first class. This was 2 class sessions before my scheduled time. I sat down on the floor opposite the classroom, and waited. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently stumbled on a typical piece of NEIU culture. Budget cuts made the availability of required courses scarce, and students often sat for long periods of time outside of classrooms waiting for their next class. This made me seem like much more of an insider than I actually was.
I sat there for almost 90 minutes, watching one class exit, and the next enter. The more I saw, the more convinced I was that this was not for me. I’d wait for the class to begin, I would refuse to go inside, and this little experiment in college education would end.
And then the unexpected happened. NEIU had a very small Orthodox population. Over the course of my studies at NEIU, I would have 5-6 Orthodox students in all of my classes combined. While I was staring at the ground, I heard a voice to my left. It was an Orthodox girl I knew from the neighborhood. She said, “Hi Chaim, you are in this class? That’s great, because I like knowing people in my classes.” Those words would change me forever, for as frightened as I was about entering that classroom and encountering whatever I would encounter, I was more embarrassed to be seen by her as a coward who was too scared to go into class.
In retrospect, I could have told her I was in a different class (although she’d probably ask me why I was sitting outside of that one in particular), but I made the decision that I had no choice but to walk into that classroom.
I walked in and took a desk in the front row (which would become a location of choice throughout my college career), next to her. I really wanted to disappear into the floorboards, but that wasn’t possible. I just sat there and watched the clock tick down until the class started.
I don’t remember much from that first class. I know I raised my hand (hoping no one would notice it) when the professor asked if there were any history majors in the class. I also remember taking the Syllabus, too afraid to ask what a Syllabus was.