Sometimes decisions of which you are not even aware can have an enormous impact on your life. The autumn of my second year in elementary school was a traumatic time for me. The public schools in Queens must have adopted the educational principles of John Dewey, because in October the classes were split up and new classes were formed. To me, this meant moving from a class full of bright kids to a mixed class in which I was far and away the smartest child. The move toward an equal treatment of all students extended even to reading groups: instead of the groups reading on different levels, we were all expected to use the same second grade reader and write answers to a list of questions before we could do anything else. If the other students had seen me struggle with my own portion as they struggled with theirs, they might have accepted me. Instead, they saw me finish in just a few minutes and then sit reading my own book for fun while they struggled with the difficulties of learning how to read. I was the “whiz kid,” annoying in my smartness and attacked with schoolbags as I left school each afternoon. Going to school became a tormenting mix of intellectual boredom and social anxiety.
There was one oasis in my education: Hebrew school, which I attended for two hours each Monday through Thursday and all morning on Sundays. At Hebrew school, no one appeared to care about educational theory—most of the teachers had never heard of John Dewey. They simply wanted to teach Jewish kids enough Judaism and Jewish history to inoculate us against disappearing into the American “melting pot.” These teachers had no ambitions to nurture self-esteem or even social cohesiveness; they just wanted to teach the lesson plan. And they certainly didn't want to cope with the boredom of a very smart, very eager student. So they kept “skipping” me into higher grades, a