The room didn’t have any side windows, only an overhead that let in a little bit of light and a lot of noise from the screaming kindergarteners on the roof. Zen music was being played a little aggressively to tune them out.
It was the last period of Friday, Tefila, Jewish prayer, except through the lens of meditation. It wasn’t a very important class to my school’s administration, and any Friday event that needed to be squeezed into the schedule inevitably came at the expense of meditation Tefila, which in turn came at the expense of real Tefila, where we would actually pray, like our Jewish school advertised. I had written about this in the student newspaper I started, which had survived a prolonged battle with the school for two years. Every two weeks, on Thursday, my small staff and I printed dozens of twenty-page copies, and on Friday we gave our hard work out to the whole school. I had thirty copies in my backpack.
I’d been late to Tefila, and when I ran in the door, I could tell I’d upset the atmosphere. I shrank back a little, abashed, but looked over to see a friend David laughing, and so I smirked and tossed my backpack into a corner. Now, I was slouched in one of the hard chairs like my friend. I had my Miami Beach hat pulled tight above my eyes, my coat zipped, and my glasses pushed up on my nose to focus. I joined him in his little bubble of showy cynicism about the opening five-minute silence. I looked around for something to do, recalling that I’d survived the last few “meditation Tefilas” by reading my book and doing homework. It came as a crushing realization that I’d left both of those activities in my locker. I couldn’t actually meditate; it hurt my back, and it made me feel moronic. I thought of passing the time by making jokes with David across the room, or indulging the expectant eyes of the a few middle schoolers in the room who’d heard I was funny. The last few times I’d done this on and off. This time felt different, though, or, probably more accurate, I felt different. I shifted from the chair onto one of the folded blankets on the rug.
That day hadn’t been great, just in general, which had started with my latest math test. The lesson had moved really fast, and the practice packets we’d been assigned confused me. I got most of the questions wrong on the packets, which I got handed back for corrections, got the same questions wrong, and got back for corrections again without being told how to do the problems. Shockingly, I got a seventy-nine. I hated our teacher, and I hated the class. I knew none of the skills we were using I would use again, as a humanities student, and additionally, the class was unbearable. Singapore Math, the curriculum we used, went so fast, and didn’t ensure that the students really knew the material, instead using a continuous bombardment of new work to let stress hammer in the material. Most of our classes were like that. I can’t totally blame them, though. I wrote my newspaper articles like that.
I wanted to ace my retest, on which I could get up to a ninety, so I got all the practice packets I could from my teacher, and woke up early the day of the retest to do all of them. I studied the study sheet, which didn’t have a sizable portion of the material and I suspect had been copied from a different website. I got a seventy-nine on the retest as well. Above the grade, my teacher had scribbled a sardonic note. When I told her how hard I had studied, and that I had in fact really tried to get a better grade, she gave me a taut, pointed smile, and admonished me for managing to get a failing grade even after studying. In general, I thought as Laura’s rotating fan wafted air across my face, I was getting dumber. You always think that, I countered in my head. Calm down. Just think about philosophy, or something.
Instrumental music floated around the room, punctuated every once in a while by a percussive stomp from the kindergarteners. One of the fifth graders was playing with the fake candles. Otherwise, the room was still.
Laura loved meditating. Her posture was perfect as she activated only a few fingers that deftly swiped her little pestle against the copper bowl. “Okay,” said Laura, as the vibrations rose up to each person in the room. The meditating people slowly opened their eyes and smiled, while the ones who were picking at the carpet lazily lifted their heads. I felt a little stifled in my coat, so I quietly unzipped it and let it fall off my shoulders. “Let’s go around the room and share some things that we’re feeling today. Remember after you finish, you say Dibarti, which means ‘I said,’ and then everyone responds, Shamati, — ‘I heard.’
I heard… who doesn’t want to be heard?
She turned to her left. “You can start.”
There were four boys in the meditation Tefila, compared to easily three times that number of girls, and a woman led the whole thing. The energy in the room was, now that we had come out of the individual meditation, decidedly effeminate. (Dibarti, said the girl. Shamati.) It was a little annoying, because that meant that any social part of the class operated by a totally alien set of rules, which discouraged the boys from sharing. The other times, I either hadn’t shared or made a joke out of it. I wasn’t some sort of teenage girl who desperately needed everyone to hear her bland thoughts (Dibarti. Shamati.) about how weekends and breaks were fun, just to engage in a dangerous social theater. I looked over at David, who seemed bored to the point of self-reflection, and to Laura, whose face was a serene mask. The girl sharing giggled, and finished her thought. Laura smiled at her expectantly. The girl looked confused and then embarrassed, and then she giggled again. “Oh yeah. Dibarti.
Laura looked towards me. I hadn’t figured out what my joke was going to be yet. I was going to mumble, “pass,” but for some reason instead I softly recounted a summary of my sadness about the Math test. I left out the part where my teacher had somehow made it a mark of shame that I’d studied since 5:00 in the morning, or where she walked away before I could respond. I just said that getting the same seventy-nine had made me feel depressed about myself and my intelligence, and that I felt angry and sad. I did. Dibarti. Shamati.
When everyone was done, Laura brought out a little packet and started to talk about a teaching she’d found. “In the day,” she said, “You’re supposed to do all of the commandments and pray with your community. In the night, though, you’re supposed to study, and build your faith.” A few people gave their ideas on why this was before Laura referred to the scholar whose work she’d brought in. “In the day, you spread kindness and joy, like the sun coming up and spreading it’s rays across the land. It illuminates everything and touches everyone. In the night, when there is no sun, you must look to yourself, and spread yourself and your happiness inward, and sustain yourself until the dawn.”
Somewhere in the middle of her teaching I removed my hat. It was too hot, and besides, it blocked my vision of the top of the room. Now, as we went into the ten-minute meditation, I took off my glasses, and wiped the sweat off of my nose. My periphery swung open without the limits of my glasses frame, and the fan’s air drifted on my eyes, and the magnified center I was used to faded away. The whole room went equally out of focus, and became a swirling haze, but at the same time it became clearer.
I wondered if any teachers would come to harass me when I went to hand out the newspaper. It didn’t matter, I thought. Just be in the moment. Just be with yourself. Don’t try to pursue anything. Don’t try to be anything right now. You’ll read when you get home, after you hand out copies of the newspaper and before you start on your Math homework. Don’t think about philosophy if you don’t want to, or do, if you want to, no, not your goal, not your projection of yourself, you, your present self, who doesn’t have to train right now, who has these invaluable minutes to himself, with his eyes open or closed, alternating, leaning against the bookshelf and not meditating, not like they are, not like you should, but meditating, yes, meditating perhaps more than they are and perhaps more than you should.
But here I am, aimless, alone, in empty and mutable space, and happier than I’ve been for a long time. The clock reports five minutes until dismissal, until I give out the copies of the newspaper and then rush home for homework and rush to sleep until I can rush up to hurry through the sunlight. Laura starts chanting the first line of the Shema, six words, saying each of the words like they are heavy throated “Om” chants, but keeps her eyes closed and everyone else does the same. Shemaaa. The room vibrates powerfully. Yisraael. The reverberations are in me, whoever that is, and they follow me as I clamp on my hat, the visor reminding me where the successful people keep their gaze. Adonaaii. I slide on my coat, which blocks judging eyes and always puts on a professional front. I paused to look out at the class with their eyes closed before viscerally breaking myself from the spell they were still under. Eloheiiinuu.
Silently, I put on my glasses and strode out the door before they finished the prayer, dashing down the hallway to greet the regulars and give them copies before they rushed off too.
Benjamin Samuels enjoys history and using the past as a lens and divining stick for the future. He is also a vehement opponent of the encroaching advancements of big tech. He lives in an undisclosed location.