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September 1976. I was dressed in my brand new first-day-of-school outfit; my mother dropped me off early to make a good impression on my first day of kindergarten.

It didn’t help.

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As I entered the classroom, I climbed up a bookshelf, knocked it over and kicked off the next 13 years of detentions, summer school, and principal’s offices.

Aside from an undiagnosed case of severe ADHD, I also was blessed with a learning disability, making learning, sitting quietly, listening, reading and test-taking extremely unpleasant. (For the record, I’m 50 and it hasn’t gotten much better.)

I couldn’t relate to the curriculum, let alone rabbis who were more interested in my grades or my davening attendance than, say, whether or not I actually believed in G-d. I was required to memorize countless lists of Aramaic words for Talmud, random Rashis from Chumash, and conjugate Hebrew words that I could hardly understand. While teachers were having us memorize the periodic table of elements or diagram another sentence, I was wondering if G-d cared whether or not I turned on the light switch on Shabbos. But when you’re at the back of the class, who’s listening to you?

When I went to Israel for my gap year to learn, I was introduced to a new concept: learning lishmah. Learning Torah, just for the sake of learning. And while the classes had structure, there were no tests, which allowed me to freely delve into hashkafa, philosophy and basic Jewish concepts – topics that were generally ignored in my Jewish day schools. One day, my rebbe, Rav Hirshorn, took me for a walk and suggested that I might be good at educating others and bringing them closer to Torah. Because I was a terrible student and could not even sit for an hour – or even five minutes – and learn Gemara, I knew that my becoming a rabbi was out of the question. I left Israel, I attended Yeshiva University, got married (yes, to the prerequisite lovely Stern girl), and went to work.

As I got older, those questions that I explored in Israel never went away, and I started researching and compiling answers. Eventually, I started submitting articles and found that they were well-received. Within a short time, I started giving classes at the Lakewood Kollel, the Young Israel of Hollywood, Katz Yeshiva High School, Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami, to name a few, and most recently, just finished my second book: Real Questions, Real Answers.

How did this happen? People who know laugh when they read my books or see me speak. If there was one guy who everyone discounted, it was me. How could someone who sat in the back of the class get to the front of the class?

One study was conducted revealing that many people who survived the Holocaust were generally people who thought out of the box. Many of the greatest inventions and some of the most innovative products were born to those who saw things differently. Albert Einstein dropped out of school when he was 15, yet was beyond bright. Just misunderstood. Some of the biggest CEOs, like Steve Jobs, were individuals who thought differently, and as a result changed the world for the better with their innovative ideas. As quoted in a recent Money.com article, Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, observed 81 valedictorians for several years after graduating and her findings were surprising. She sums it up: “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

I have taught many students like me, and the tendency is to label them. While in most cases, you’d be right, every so often you come across a person who defies the odds, who pushes ahead in spite of his setbacks, and rises above the rest. Consider that Yosef’s brothers never imagined that their “brother of dreams” would become the second most powerful person in the world. The odds against David ever harming, let alone beating, Goliath were a million to one. Moshe Rabbeinu against the entire Egyptian army and monarchy? Unheard of. Israel defeating the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula? In six days?

If life has shown us anything, it’s that we can’t possibly know what a person is capable of becoming, given the proper set of circumstances coupled with hard work and determination.

Personally, I don’t need to look too far. When my father was growing up, he did not receive a Jewish education and attended a secular public school, college and graduate school. And forget a kosher pizza store; he didn’t have one single Orthodox friend. Nevertheless, he continued to put on his tefillin every day and keep Shabbos. He graduated last in his class in law school, but he became an attorney, judge, city commissioner, and eventually the first shomer Shabbos mayor in a major U.S. city, and he even built the eruv.

Sure, my father may not know the intricate halachos of an eruv any more than I understand much of the Talmud, but we both know the critical importance of keeping Hashem’s Torah. Plain and simple. I may not know how to read Tosfos – let alone understand it – but that can’t stop me from discouraging kids from texting on Shabbos, or proving the divine origin of the Torah. Every one of us is capable of influencing another fellow Jew, regardless of where we are seated.

Hitting the 50 mark this month, I’m the first to admit that to automatically make assumptions about a person is wrong, because things – and people – can change. I’m living proof of that. Many times, a person’s talent lies dormant until circumstances change that. It did in my case and l am grateful that I was able to turn my liabilities into assets. So don’t discount the kid at the back of the class. Who knows? One day you could be listening as he speaks from the front of the class.

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Avi Ciment lectures and writes about G-d at www.AviTalks.com.
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