In twelfth grade, I was chosen to go to Baltimore for the annual Bais Yaakov Convention.
The Bais Yaakov Convention gathers girls from Orthodox schools all across the US, Canada, and sometimes even Australia. The location rotates between three cities (Cleveland, Toronto, and Baltimore).
For the “out-of-town” Bais Yaakov schools, where each grade could be as small as 5 students, the entire senior class attends. In my school, where each grade was as large as 1,000 students, representatives of the senior class were chosen.
The same few girls were chosen over and over for important jobs and honors throughout high school. We expected it. We sometimes called it the “recycling program.” Other times, we called it other things…
I had never thought of myself as chosen by the hanhala to represent Bais Yaakov. My two closest friends were chosen for things like that all the time, and we all fully expected Laya to be one of the convention representatives from our class.
(In retrospect, I can see that I was chosen by the hanhala numerous times: in ninth grade, I was chosen as head of a committee for Freshie Shabbos. In tenth grade, I was head of a committee for Sophie Shabbos. In eleventh grade, I was chosen for the newsletter committee for School Shabbos [story about that to come soon…]. In twelfth grade, I was Associate Editor of the yearbook – not as choshuv as Hebrew Editor, but still, I was chosen by Rebetzin Schweitzer for yearbook, and that did bestow a certain status on me. Even with all these honors, I never thought of myself as “one of those girls.” I knew I wasn’t “one of those girls,” after all, even though the hanhala rarely got evidence of that.)
The hanhala asked the twelfth graders to vote for two girls in each class. My classmates knew me better than the hanhala did. They knew I wasn’t “a true exemplar of Bais Yaakov High School,” as the award I would eventually get declared.
But somehow, in ways I’m still struggling to understand, I was chosen. Along with Estee K from my class and two girls from each of the other classes, I was being sent to Baltimore as a representative of my Bais Yaakov class.
We were all placed in Baltimore homes by the Baltimore Bais Yaakov seniors class’s convention committee. I was placed in a home with a few girls from my school, along with some girls from Lakewood’s Bais Yaakov. The family themselves had a girl in twelfth grade, as well as a girl in tenth and another in her first year back from seminary in Israel.
The convention itself was a lot of activities, performances, inspiring speeches, and a walk through an “exhibition” that the Baltimore Bais Yaakov had been working on for months. Back in our host family’s basement, we had a grand old time every night.
On the last night before we left, back at my hosts’ house, we all acted silly, as high school girls tend to do. We played some silly games, laughed at ridiculous nothings, took wacky pictures…
The older sister took most of the photos. We invited her to join some photos, but she declined. It made sense – this was a high school event, and she was, after all, mature and sophisticated by now… It was obvious that she was enjoying this as much as we were, but she also put on a good show of being amused by the silly high schoolers’ antics.
I tried to get her in at least one picture, over and over again. She started avoiding me by the end of the night. I could tell I was being ridiculously insistent, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. But it mattered to me. I needed to have a picture of her.
She eventually went back upstairs to sleep, and we continued our silliness till the wee hours of the morning.
In the morning, as we grabbed breakfast and headed to the buses, I tried one more time to snap a picture of her. She covered her face with one hand, said a quick goodbye to us, and left the room.
I didn’t know it then, but I had developed an intense crush on her.
I had no idea what a crush felt like, though I had read about it by then and had even seen teenage romance in movies. I knew that I liked looking at certain actors, but I didn’t associate it with this intense desire to look at and be close to someone.
There were no opportunities in my life to develop a crush on a real boy. For all my non-Bais Yaakov behavior in terms of reading and watching things that were absolutely forbidden, I followed the gender-segregation religiously. I was, after all, keeping up the public pretense of being a “good girl,” even while I felt like a dirty bad girl when away from public view.
I knew what would happen if I joined the girls who did socialize with mixed groups, and I was terrified of the fallout. My group of friends wouldn’t understand, my parents would be disappointed, teachers would try to reverse the damage. So as much as I knew that teenagers having crushes was considered normal in the “outside world,” I never allowed myself to be in a situation where I could know what that normal teenage experience feels like.
Even if I had known what a crush feels like, I wouldn’t have known that it’s possible for a girl to have a crush on another girl. Somehow I had never come across gay relationships in the books I read.
Years later, when I was in college, I finally learned what my parents called an “alternative lifestyle” actually was.
I thought about this incident that had happened at the Bais Yaakov Convention but immediately dismissed it – it couldn’t be that I was attracted to her, because I know for a fact that I’m attracted to men! Think about all those movie stars I love watching! Guiltily – think about all those guys in my classes I can’t stop looking at…
And then I realized that there were plenty of female movie stars I loved watching in the same way…
And that although I was afraid of admitting it to myself, there were people in my real life, both men and women, that I liked “that way.” I was still in shidduchim, and was still stuck in trying to ignore actual attraction, to explain it away as merely “appreciating god’s beauty.”
Figuring out I was bisexual was a long process. I think back to this incident at the Bais Yaakov Convention fairly often. I was a creep about it – but it was definitely a crush.
It’s a nice memory to cherish, even with all its complexities. And I’m glad I never got that photo of her, don’t remember her name, and can barely conjure a mind-image of her face. The abstractness of my first girl-crush is precious to me.