Wednesday morning was our first day back to school and real life. As I watched my girls walk down the large staircase to their school, the feeling of worry returned. Since we had a nice long break from school, I had not worried like this in a while. Each time I send them off into the school building, I throw them a kiss and hope that they don’t get too overwhelmed by the difficulty of the day. We are blessed that each of the girls has students in their classes that speak English and can help them navigate through the day, but everyone else speaks Hebrew. They sit through hours of class and do not understand the vast majority of what is said. They go to recess and are surrounded by unfamiliar games and faces. As I stand at the top of the stairs and watch them enter into the unknown, I am astounded that they have smiles on their faces when the go and come from school each day.
A few weeks ago we had a back to school night at their school. I had been warned that there is such a night and that it is important to go. But, since I do not get all the school emails and have difficulty understanding them when I do receive them, I missed the announcement for when back to school night was. Thanks to a Whatsapp message I received on one of the class chats, I figured out when back to school night was only hours before I had to be at school. I quickly texted my fellow olim and made sure everyone knew. Since I have a second and third grader, I had meetings at 5:30 and 6.
I got a ride with a friend, and we walked into the second grade meeting a few minutes late. We quickly took seats in the circle, and started to tune into the teacher. She spoke clearly and slowly and I was able to follow most of what she was saying. Relief swept through my body. I was going to make it through the night.
After the teacher had finished her shpeil, one of the parents started asking about continuing a program from last year. The teacher answered that they would. My friend’s husband raised his hand and asked what they were referring to. Obviously, as new olim, we were not familiar with last year’s programming. The teacher responded by saying she would explain it slowly and in English after the meeting. We were a little insulted. We had been listening to the whole half hour in Hebrew and had been doing fine. The teacher then went on to explain to all the other parents how there were new olim in the class that knew no Hebrew etc etc etc. I felt a bit uncomfortable as the parents all looked at us. I am sure this is only a tiny taste of what my children experience everyday. Eventually a father who had children in the school for years asked the same question we had just asked. He was also unfamiliar with the program from last year. The teacher happily explained, and we got our answer. I stuck around after the meeting for a chance to ask the teacher if she could switch my daughter’s seat. My daughter made a friend who was able to speak both languages and would not mind helping my daughter when necessary. My daughter had requested that her seat be switched to the one next to hers. The teacher agreed and I was finished with one meeting. I took a breath and was ready for the next one.
Third grade was a whole different story. Since second grade ended late, I was late for the next meeting as well. I opened the door and noticed everyone was sitting in their child’s seat. A friend pointed to my daughter’s seat and I slid in. Her teacher spoke three times as fast. I caught every other word, and missed some of the main ideas. All I could think about was how could my daughter possibly sit through this all day. I know a lot more Hebrew than her (at least I do for the next few months until she surpasses me), and I was having a hard time keeping up. A mother raised her hand to ask about math enrichment for her daughter. That would have been me in America. My daughter excelled in school and we were always asking about ways the teacher could challenge her. This year, was a whole new situation. I was just hoping she would be able to grasp the basics and not fall too far behind while she learns the new language. What a new reality we were living.
By the time I got home, I was home sick. I was ready to go back to our amazing chevra and school in Passaic. I was ready to sail into back to school night in my mini van, park in the parking lot, see my friends and make cute pictures to leave in my childrens’ desks. I was ready to be confident that my children were going to succeed in their education. I was ready to be able to ask a question without stumbling through the words. This was quite a different kind of night than I was used to.
A few days later I made an appointment to meet with the guidance counselor. The Yoetzet, as it is called here, is a very warm and friendly person. She even speaks some English which was a welcome surprise. She spent about a half hour with my husband and me. The Yoetzet suggested that homework and tests not count for the first six months of school. She advised us to focus on math and ulpan and not worry too much about the other subjects. The Yoetzet reassured us that we moved at a good time, and that our daughters will pick up the language quickly. She helped us figure out which books we still needed to buy and where to purchase them. We talked about ulpan and our concerns.
The Yoetzet had some interesting advice. She suggested we go around the dinner table and each share new words we learned that day. This will show our children that we are all learning the language together. She also told us about something she does in her house. She said that she likes to bring up one strange scenario that happened to her and ask her family to suggest how to handle it. She explained that with so much newness and uncertainty it is healthy for our children to understand that we can work through problems together by discussing them. Her example was to say: ‘I was waiting in line at the grocery store, and someone cut me off, what should I do?’
One piece of advice that I found surprising was to have one night a week for playdates. The Yoetzet differentiated between American culture of coming home after school completing homework, and getting ready for bed and Israeli culture where kids have playdates during the school week. She reiterated the importance of feeling social and making friends and suggested that we take up this norm as well. We resigned to make this part of our weekly routine after Sukkot. This morning, I spoke to my girls about trying to invite someone in the beginning of next week.
When my girls returned home from school on Wednesday, they were all smiles as usual. They were thrilled that they were able to go on the hassaah - transportation. They were excited for Thursday which is when their ulpan teacher comes. They were excited to be back at school.