Reliving childhood through the eyes and experiences of my own children gives me a greater appreciation of my children, my parents and my own life experience. Shemer, my oldest child, just started first grade. I empathize with him and think of something my Hebrew high school teacher at Temple Beth Shalom, Woody Pollack, used to tell us as teenagers – “Yours is a great age to be”, he would say, “but I’d never want to be it again.”
I watch the smallest children in the elementary school, the first graders, pass through one of the most difficult transformations of their lives. They are being absorbed into society, having to follow instruction and authority in group settings that compromise and sometimes ignore their individuality.
Never before have these six-year-olds had to sit in one place for such a long time, have their freedom determined by bells or been legislated to as part of a group of several hundred peers.
After the second day of school, Shemer told me that he and his friend Ezra had gotten in trouble. I asked what had happened. They had still been enjoying the freedom of choosing with whom they sat before being assigned seats so Shemer sat next to Ezra. “Batsheva [his teacher] yelled at Ezra and me,” Shemer said and paused, checking my face for a reaction. After questioning him with my expression, he continued with an air of innocence explaining, “It’s really hard not to talk!” And I know it is. How could I not be sympathetic?
In Shemer’s class there are a little over thirty students. His is the smallest of three classes in his grade. While these children have recess and a few other breaks throughout the day, it is no longer a day full of fun and play as it was in nursery school and kindergarten.
A week after school started, Shemer said with a sense of anticipation and excitement, “Tomorrow’s Friday! I hope we’ll be baking challah. All we do is learn, learn, learn!”
As an adult it seems to me that they have a lot of fun. While it is true that they no longer bake challah on Fridays, their regiment of Hebrew, math and mishna is supplemented by sports, drama, art, computers, traffic safety, nature, game time, music, story hour, legends of the rabbis and a weekly story from the Torah portion. However, the transition into society – learning all the rules and obeying them is what is most difficult to these kids.
Speaking to the parents before the first day of school, Ziva, the principal of Shemer’s school, Efrata, reminded us of the difficult transition into first grade. She urged us not to worry about our children’s academic performance, stressing that in addition to learning the academic material, our children are learning how to cope with a new place, new people and a whole new system of behavior. She assured us that if our child did not learn to read this year, he or she would learn next year; that all children who finish second grade in the school know how to read, but that some may excel in other areas and we should emphasize that. If a child is talented in art, she suggested that we encourage his talent rather than asking him why he can’t read or count to a hundred. By encouraging our children, focusing on the positive and showing them that we are proud of their abilities, we reinforce their desire to learn and to make us proud. Focusing on their failures, we make them feel like they are incapable. (Obviously some children may have disabilities which the principal encouraged us to be on the lookout for, and which the school treats with a professional staff of specialists).
As a parent, I believe my primary role is to ensure that my children are loved and have a safe, supportive environment. This is a role that I feel never ends. To me, a parent is someone who you can depend on to pick up the pieces, someone who is always there for you.
Like all parents, I sometimes find that I am disappointed and frustrated by my children’s behavior. I get angry, although I try not to take out my frustration on my kids. If I yell at them, they learn to yell back. I try to look beyond their immediate actions and look for the cause of their undesirable behavior. While I want them to be safe and to listen to me, to learn to be respectful and considerate of others, the most important thing I can do is to support them in their journey of self-discovery as they test and experiment. As an adult, I can see things they can’t. I have a different perspective and I try to use this as a guide.
In the wake of Katrina, my children continually ask to talk about the storm. We watched the pictures on television and it still concerns them greatly. Perhaps they are seeking our reassurance that they are safe, that this won’t happen to them. We took the initiative and although Israelis – businesses, non-profit organizations, personally and even the Israeli government – depend upon US financial support for our survival, we in Israel have sent financial aid back to the US to help rebuild after the hurricane. Encouraged by our rabbi, our children poured the money out of our tzedakah (charity) box and contributed that as well. They realized that we, like many others, were helping the people who lost their homes in the storm, that people were sending food to those who were hungry and clothes to those who had none and that even they, as little kids, could help. The people in the storm were not alone and even if they lost everything and were far away, we could help them.
No matter what storms I may weather through life, for me a supportive family and community is essential to survival. As I walk down the halls of Shemer’s school, Efrata, I see children who come from a variety of backgrounds – French, Ethiopian, Russian, Australian, Israeli as well as many other Americans. Parents picking up their children, surround them with care and affection. Even those picking up by a friend or neighbor have a bond to these children that goes beyond the casual nature of convenience.
I am so thankful that we have an opportunity to be a part of this community in Jerusalem, comprised and supported by a community of Jews from the four corners of the Earth. As our children learn to fit into this society which we have created, the Jewish State progresses as well, benefiting from the next generation for whom we have struggled to maintain it, and I pause, mindful of those who came before us who created the State of Israel.