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On Boredom

            One of the most painful things I can hear from my students is “I’m bored.” I can work with “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t like to draw/read/write/sing/play.” But “I’m bored” feels like a condemnation of my ability to be the fun teacher.

            And I hear it all the time.

“That means you’re boring.”

            So, okay, that’s clearly one of my own issues. I want to be loved. I want to be the favorite. I want to be the teacher everyone thinks back on as the best, most insightful, blah blah blah. And I do need to work on that.

            But there might also be something going on with the students, something I need to help them work on. Because, first of all, walking into the class and saying “I’m bored,” as if the teacher is supposed to keep you entertained from the word go, with never a blank moment, is just not possible, let alone good for you.

            Some people say that kids have become more entitled, more used to having things done for them and given to them, and more used to having access to passive entertainment and whole worlds of TV and video to keep them from being bored. But I’m wondering if there’s more to it.

            I wonder if, for some of the kids, “I’m bored” means, I really need to be distracted from the low grade depression and anxiety that I live with on a daily basis, because I don’t see it letting up anytime soon. Or, I need you to keep me entertained because I feel under-loved and I equate your constant attention and energy with love. Or, what I really am is tired, overwhelmed, hungry, sad, or lonely – but no one responds when I say those things.

I remember being bored as a kid. I remember sitting in my bedroom on the weekends and not knowing how to fill my time when I didn’t have homework or a play date or something to read or something to watch on TV. We didn’t have smartphones and 24 hour TV and internet back then, so I really was left to my own devices if Mom was busy (and she was always busy keeping those plates spinning).

“Is plate spinning fun?

            But looking back, I was a kid with a lot of internal resources and interests, so it’s unlikely that I was legitimately bored. I was much more likely to be depressed, lonely, sad, angry, frightened, hurt, etc. I just assumed that the name for my problem was boredom. I would gladly do math homework or read social studies or do chores around the house, just to avoid having to sit with my own feelings for long enough to feel bad.

            And then, when I first started going to a commuter school for college, my classes were all packed into two days a week, because I couldn’t drive so I had to be dropped off in the morning and picked up at night, and I had classes starting at nine in the morning and ending at five or six at night, except, there was an hour and a half break in the afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go. If I’d been at home during that hour and a half it would have been fine; I could read, or exercise, or watch TV, or do my homework, or go for a walk, or whatever. But trapped on campus, in full view of other people, I could barely concentrate and I felt like there was a video camera on me at all times, judging my use of time, my personality, my outfit, my food intake, and on and on and on. That’s what I think of when I think of boredom: that overwhelmed state where I think I need to be accomplishing everything at once, and yet I can’t concentrate for five seconds at a time. But I don’t know if that’s what the kids are feeling.

Sometimes when my students say they’re bored, I think what they mean is that they resent having to be at synagogue school, and I know this because when I ask what they’d rather be doing they say, sitting in front of the TV at home, with the dog, eating pizza. And I wonder if what they’re actually saying is that they feel overstimulated and need a break from being productive and social. School, by its very nature, requires them to be both.

            Or maybe some of my students are bored because they really do need more of a challenge, or because they need activities that are better tailored to their specific abilities and interests, or because they need more structure and guidance from me. I don’t want to assume that I’m not at fault. But sometimes I have to accept that the task we are working on in class may be less exciting than they want it to be, but is still necessary. There are certain prayers they need to learn, and lessons from the Hebrew Bible, and that just may not be something they value at this point in their lives.

“I’m shocked.”

            I keep reminding myself that just because boredom was a sign of toxic things in my own childhood, that’s not necessarily true for my students. A little bit of boredom can be a spur to creativity, or at the very least be a manageable annoyance. But I feel bad when they seem bored, or distracted, or annoyed by what we’re doing in class, and it doesn’t feel safe to just let it go and assume it’s healthy or manageable boredom when it could be a sign that they are in pain or that I am failing them as a teacher.

            I remember, years ago, when my cousin’s son came to visit from France with his grandmother. He was five years old and learning English but still very French. We were sitting at a table full of adults and even though there was another child there, he was barely two years old and sitting at the other end of the table. And then there was me. I was twenty-three years old and not sure where I fit in. The five year old was sitting next to me and at one point he mumbled something under his breath in French that I couldn’t quite hear and I asked him to repeat it, because I was curious, and because I wanted to see if I could understand his French, but then he told me, louder, and in English, that he was bored. Immediately, his grandmother, sitting across form us, corrected him, saying that in French the term is reflexive, which is more correct, because you make yourself bored. And I got really annoyed and said, no, he’s bored because he’s five years old and sitting at a table full of adults speaking in a foreign language, talking about things he doesn’t understand or care about, and he needs something age-appropriate to do so he can feel engaged. I hope I said it a little less aggressively than that, but I was remembering so many times when my needs had been ignored, and it just pressed my buttons. And then, of course, I was volunteered to take him, and the toddler, into the living room to find toys to play with. The five year old, of course, complained that what he really wanted was to watch TV, and not to play with some baby, but at least he was smiling when he said it, and he wasn’t complaining about being bored anymore.

            That experience taught me that sometimes boredom is about not feeling heard, and not feeling like you are being taken into account, and I try to keep that in mind with my students. But it’s hard to balance everyone’s feelings at once, especially when most of them start out angry that they have to be at synagogue school in the first place, and nothing I say can convince them that learning Hebrew is more fun than watching TV and playing with their dog while eating pizza. Weird.

“We want pizza too.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?