A lot has been written about "kids on the fringe" and the
various causes. Problems at home and failure at school are
often cited. If the child has problems at home but he feels a
success in school, it might make all the difference. And,
although a child may come from a strong and supportive home,
it may not help the feelings of despair that overcome the
intelligent child who feels a failure in school. So success
in school and yeshiva can keep a child off the fringe.
A major part of success in school is being a good reader. But
nowadays, there's a lot of talk about reading problems and
learning disabilities. Are we just giving new names to old
problems, or are these problems new?
It is possible that there are a few new problems. It is
possible that the modern environment creates extra stresses
on the eyes and brain. There are a lot of things around now
that weren't around 100 years ago. Electric lights allow us
to continue working all hours, so our brain and especially
our eyes, work harder and longer and get more over stimulated
(especially with computers) than they used to.
It is known that the incidence of shortsightedness has
increased in the last century. One theory, supported by
research, is that leaving the light on for babies while they
sleep increases the incidence of short sight in later life.
Also, due to the many social and technological changes since
the industrial revolution, many children (and a lot of
adults) are not getting enough sleep. So, besides working
harder and longer, our brains and eyes are not getting enough
rest, and this must affect learning and behavior.
Most likely, though, a lot of the new problems are not really
new at all. It is just that these problems have consequences
that they didn't have in the past. "Once upon a time," not
all children were expected to be academic. Girls had little
or no formal education and boys left school very young and
went to work. Not every boy went to yeshiva. Who could afford
to let a boy stay in school or cheder unless they were
wealthy, and the boy had great potential?
A boy from a poor home had to be willing to give up
everything to study Torah. Learning was placed on a pedestal
and those who could do well at it were highly respected.
However, each man was expected to learn according to his
ability. No one was considered a failure for going to
Nowadays, we have to fear for our children's lives,
physically and spiritually, once they leave the hallowed
walls of our institutions. Now we want our children to stay
in some Torah framework for as long as possible, especially
as there is no alternative to school in the teen years.
Nowadays, success in school is a must, not the `well,
it would be nice' option it was 100, or even 40, years
What we expect now is that every six-year-old read fluently
and be able to translate Chumash. For the boys, we
assume reading and understanding Rashi, Mishnayos and
Gemoro before they are ten or eleven. Every boy is
expected to go to yeshiva and stay in learning until he
marries, and often beyond, for at least a year or two.
If he marries late, that can be a long time. For the boy who
can keep up with the pace, it's fine, but not all can. The
problem is that not everyone develops the right skills to be
able to do this. The boy may be intelligent enough, but have
some learning disability or just not have the reading skills
he needs to succeed in school, and his self esteem will
If a youngster feels himself a nothing, and that our society
has nothing to offer him, one can see how easy it is for him
to get lost to us. And these children are not lost only to
Yiddishkeit; they are lost in many other ways as well.
Girls are not immune to problems, as shown by the increasing
numbers of girls on the streets. Unlike the boys, there is
not the pressure to stay in full-time education, and everyone
is supposed to realize that one doesn't need to be academic
to be a superb homemaker. However, this message is not
getting through to the girls, and much has been written
elsewhere about the intense academic pressure the girls
suffer. Shadchonim certainly take an interest in the
girl's school performance, and which seminary she went to.
We all recognize the importance of a girl's education in the
fight against assimilation, which is the legacy of Bais
Yaakov. And we want our girls to achieve their maximum,
intellectually, and keep their self esteem intact. However,
in order to achieve this, we need to make sure that the girls
also have adequate reading skills to succeed in school.