Threading My Way Through Confusing Oppressions

Many times I have been offered the direction to "strive for mediocrity" to contradict my recording that says, "I have to be excellent; everything I do must be extraordinary," a recording shared, I think, by many people, certainly by many raised-upper-middle-class Jews. The direction to strive for mediocrity is nearly always effective, mostly getting me to laugh a lot. But recently I've noticed that the word "mediocre" hasn't fully contradicted the recording. I figured out that "mediocre" has a negative connotation and that the hurtful message I received when I was young wasn't that I had to prove I wasn't bad, but rather that I wasn't "just regular." "Regular" or "normal" people were boring, not good enough, not special. When I answer the question, "What would happen if I were not considered special?" the feelings are not only about being loved or respected, but about survival. I think the recording about only some people being special actually translates to "only some people will be picked to survive," which in my case is about my mom's parents surviving the Holocaust. So included in the recording that I was "exceptional" was that there was no room not to be exceptional. I was constantly told I was exceptional and that my schoolwork was excellent (meaning: outside of what "regular" people could achieve -- this was reinforced by the names of the special programs created for the top-tracked students: "Mentally gifted Minors," "Gifted and Talented Education" -- as if only certain people were "mentally gifted"). The message was that I was special not in the way that each human being is special, but as though I was and had to be somehow better than others. So, my new direction for myself is to remember that "I am one of the regular wonderful people" (or "regular powerful people," "regular smart people," etc.). I hope this will be helpful to others also.

I've been moving a long way with letting myself make mistakes and not waiting until I feel like I'll do a perfect job of things before I take on new tasks and new leadership. So, this summer I am the director of Jewish programs at a sleep-away camp for ten weeks. In addition to creating religious and cultural programs, I am leading discussions which I call "Gender Benders" with groups of campers. I use a combination of exercises from Alan Creighton's and Paul Kivel's book, Helping Teens Stop Violence, and some from Cherie Brown's NCBI workshops. Young people from eight to sixteen years old have shared a great deal about what it's like to be male and female and live with the pressures of gender roles. I've been inspired by their ability and desire to hear each other and by their high expectations for how the world should be. Staff people were so intrigued by the title of the program that I led one for staff also and was very moved by the depth of what people dared to share and the care everyone showed each other.

Today I led a discussion about anti-Semitism with eleven Jews and two Gentiles around age fourteen. I did a good job of explaining how anti-Semitism operates and especially of putting out the idea that while it often feels as though having "enough" money is the way to gain security from anti-Semitism, our real security will come from building alliances with the groups with whom we are set up to compete and fight in the structure of oppressions. We ended with "what we want from our allies." Since many had started the discussion with comments such as "Well, it doesn't really bother me, but people at school use 'Jew' as a verb meaning to be stingy or drive a hard bargain," it was exciting for me to hear people consider the idea that we have allies.

I'm also teaching RC to sixteen staff people. I have a wonderful relationship with K'vod, who is my assistant and a powerful leader and supporter. I'm following the example of many of my teachers and not pretending to have it "all together" all the time. It's working really well both for the class and for my life. Several staff have wasted no time in using counseling to help campers resolve conflicts. They have set up times for pairs of campers to take turns listening to each other, without the counselors there, and so far the campers have resolved their conflicts without any extra help.

To top it all off, I've written this whole article while lying on a rock in the middle of the Tuolumne River, surrounded by pine trees, blue sky, and three friends on our time off!

Julie Saxe
Berkeley, California, USA


Last modified: 2015-07-21 10:02:40-07