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Memories of school life Memories of school life
by Joseph Gatt
2021-01-18 09:28:39
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Memories of my middle school-graduate school life. Key words: extroverted, usually refused private conversation and made sure most conversation was held in the public sphere. Asked stupid questions, hoping to get answers and gradually elevate the debate.

Why was I an extrovert? I could have been like most students and stuck to a clique. I stuck to a clique in sixth grade and quickly realized that involved internal clique politics and fighting for who gets to decide to do what. I ended up getting severely bullied by my clique members in the sixth grade, and decided every since that if you want to fight me, you're going to have to fight a public figure, not some random individual.

schoo0001_400Why did I usually refuse to hang out with classmates in private? I was broke, an orphan, and always teetering towards homelessness or getting kicked out of my foster home. That's a recipe for disaster. If any of my friends found that out, they might have intervened and offered the wrong kind of remedies or shock therapy. So if you wanted conversation with me, it had to be in the agora.

Why did I go around acting stupid, asking stupid questions? I didn't want people to feel uncomfortable by lecturing them about history or biology or any other topic of interest to me. But I did want to test the waters and see if the debate could be gradually elevated from some dull, dumb topic to something a bit more sophisticated.

Now I'll admit this was rather unique, and a lot of people tell me they don't meet a lot of people that had my personality type. Most students, be it in high school, college or grad school has something called uhm... friends. Most hang out with their group of buddies and try to keep a low profile in class and in school.

So here are few memories of middle school, high school, college and grad school.

Middle school

I quickly learned that people rarely attack you when you're a public figure and that everyone knows who you are. I came from a foster home where, as a Jewish kid “invading” the comfort of an Arab Muslim family, to them, I couldn't do anything right. Food allergies were my fault, bad grades were my fault, good grades were my fault, I had the wrong friends.

To put things in perspective, in the sixth grade, the French school in Bogota, Colombia decided to put me (I was assumed to be Algerian) with another Algerian classmate. That Algerian classmate got a kick out of kicking my ass during recess and any time he could, and to my foster family, getting my ass kicked was my fault (for example, the foster mother did not bother calling the kid and asking him to stop kicking my ass).

Other example in sixth grade: the French teacher would improvise oral tests with me and fail me at those. He only did that with me and did that with no one else. Again, no one I could complain to about this one!

So in the seventh grade I moved to Ankara, Turkey (which kind of felt like home) and after a brief friendship with yet another bully, I quickly realized that I had to become a very public figure if I was to survive.

So in middle school I got elected class president (or vice-president) and was very verbose during class president meetings, talked a lot, made people laugh a lot, said lots of smart things. I was also super-talkative in class, and some teachers allowed me to make a show in class (which I was super popular for) while other teachers prevented me from talking in class (and I would slip in the occasional joke or comment).

Other trick in my bag to get the show rolling in class or during meetings was to ask deliberately dumb questions, wait for the answers, and take the debate a notch higher when it came to intellectual quality.

Some teachers were fooled by this trick, and I would debate them for, in some cases, the entire hour. Example of this was one day a math teacher asked us what job we wanted to do in the future, and I said I wanted to work in garbage disposal. I said that with a dead serious tone, and that led to an hour-long debate about how urban hygiene is important and how to try to make a living on minimum wage.

High school

High school is when I realized I couldn't have the kind of life ambitions that involve competition. I couldn't aim for medical school or pharmacy or business or physics or what have you, because if the system failed me, I'd be in the streets somewhere in Algiers begging for coins (and waiting for the Israelis to come pick me up).

Now in high school, I used the same principals: talk to me all you want in public (in a classroom setting) but avoid any private chatter.

People often ask me why, when I moved to Algiers in the 11th grade, I told everyone that I was Jewish, in a country with a reputation for openly hating Jews.

Two reasons. First, I was kind of hoping that would lead to incidents that would get my out of the country (and allow me to openly discuss my Israeli roots).

That trick didn't work. No one hated me, despite being Jewish. Why? Because I didn't bother anyone. I talked in class (and kept things politically correct) and kept my mouth shut during recess or lunch breaks. What people were saying about me behind my back I have no idea.

Second reason I openly discussed being Jewish in Arab turf was to make it clear that I was no dating material. My eyes were toward Zion, and I did not want a Muslim honey (there were so many pretty ones) to hold me back.

Now I did have a huge crush on this one Muslim girl, but fortunately enough, we went to different schools and never had the opportunity to date. There was also this other girl I had a crush on but things did not go very far.


As I said, I could not aim for elite colleges or take risks with competition. I settled for linguistics at a Paris University (because I spoke a few languages).

And again, I'd be super talkative in lecture halls, and very quiet in recess halls. My nickname was “the star of the lecture hall.”

Oddly enough, colleges in France strongly discourage students from saying anything in the lecture hall, and I sometimes had to fight with the lecturer to be allowed to talk in class. Lecturers did not appreciate the fact that I was constantly publicly chipping in my two cents in the lecture hall when they should be the ones lecturing.

Other odd stuff about French colleges: there is no “group” mentality in that most students will hang out in restrained, closed cliques and won't talk to anyone. Also, being the star of the lecture hall doesn't make you dating material, because most girls are worried you'll embarrass them in the lecture hall.

I also constantly introduced myself as being “Algerian” and then acting out in ways no Algerian would act out. I was hoping that would get picked up and I'd be thrown on a plane to Tel Aviv, but tough luck, that didn't happen.

Grad school

Extroverts should never move to Korea, especially when they're the talkative type who like to interrupt (and occasionally embarrass or tease) professors in class.

In my Masters' program, to be honest, the first year, I had lots of trouble with the classes and class materials. I couldn't understand how you could teach a 15 hour seminar about International Relations without discussing World War II, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, the League of Nations, the United Nations, or other obvious stuff.

But then my flexible brain adapted to the readings, but by then I had understood that I'd get failed if I talked too much in class. So I was rather quiet in class, and didn't talk too much of anyone during recess.

When I started my Ph.D. program in Korea in 2011, by then, I had gulped down quite a few books. Again I was the star of the show in class, and professors saw me as a threat. Some professors were furious that I wasn't taking their class, and saw that as a sign that their class was not the kind of quality that could absorb a student like me.

In sum, when I ditched a professor's class, the saying went “Professor X's class is so bad Yossi Gatt wouldn't take it!”

Now by then I was in my 30s, and I had been put in a situation where I was de facto homeless, in Korea, with no citizenship, and no family or friends. I called my foster family, but of course everything was my fault.

Trying to get a job

I'm probably one of the rare people in the world who wrote op-eds in national newspaper columns begging for a job. And got nothing.

So I'm still debating ideas in the public sphere, still talk to people, but I still refuse friends.

Why? Because I feel that “friends” tend to downgrade me in the private sphere (like “you speak 9 languages, but so could any dog!”) but they tend to stay quiet in the public sphere (because if they attack me in the public sphere, I could attack them back in the public sphere, and I could throw in some painful punches).

Now I've been punished for trying to defend myself (Israelis are all too familiar with this one!) and rather than try to understand me most people will simply think I'm crazy or something (again, most Israelis are familiar with this). In some, I'm nothing more than an ordinary Israeli who went through unusual circumstances. Nothing unusual.

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