Thursday, June 24, 2010

No Pomp and Circumstance? (6/24/2010)

I had anticipated writing an article this week about the events surrounding the community of Emanuel. I have seen so many opinions and assumptions on this issue, which quite frankly has disgusted me. I was ready to wade right in, with some choice words of my own but I am so tired of the whole thing that I will only make one comment.

Since I believe that both sides are arrogantly manipulating their constituents in order to make a political point and that both sides are guilty of misinformation, I am outraged at the manner in which they have sidetracked my country into a circus. Neither side is “right” and both should be ashamed of themselves. I have no faith that anyone involved is being truthful, and it is a disgrace.

Thankfully, this space primarily serves as a journal of our experiences here in Israel as olim and this was a very special week for us. After four years of high school here, our oldest daughter, Chaya, graduated with outstanding grades.

The graduation ceremony was incredibly different from anything we would have expected in the U.S. We arrived at 8:00 p.m. and went home at midnight. Even though it had been almost 110 degrees earlier in the day, I was quite thankful that it was an outdoor ceremony. Even with A/C, an indoor room full of people on such a hot day would have been impossible to sit in. There were no caps or gowns, no pomp and circumstance, no processions, and very little formality. Although the mayor did attend and say some nice things.

The mayor had something like five graduations that night. He showed up late and subsequently the graduation started an hour after the scheduled time. The mayor spoke. The head of the school system spoke. The head rav of the school spoke. The principal spoke. A city councilman (whose daughter was graduating) spoke. The head of the parents’ council spoke. A student spoke. There was no valedictorian or academic address. Most of the speeches consisted of divrei Torah and personal messages or charges to the girls.

A major part of the graduation was the awarding of diplomas. Each girl was called up, a Mishna quote was given over (hopefully a quote that reflected upon the character of the girl), and then a personal message was read to each girl. She then hugged the principal, the assistant principal, the homeroom teacher, and the guidance counselor. Then she posed for a picture. With 52 girls in the grade this took well over an hour.

We were incredibly proud that Chaya was able to reach this milestone. It was such an accomplishment on her part that the principal made special mention of her at the graduation. Then, in a video about the students, she also said, “Chaya Katz literally did the impossible!”

In the U.S., Chaya was an indifferent student at best. We always felt that she simply did not care about grades and was more interested in being a friend or helping hand. Her grades were good, not great. We hoped that she would pick up a bit as she got to high school and possibly college, but assumed that we were getting the most out of her at the time.

After coming on aliyah, she did not do much to dispel that notion. Not having spoken Hebrew as a language (beyond learning Torah in school), she struggled to understand what was going on in class. Her principal told us not to worry about things for the first year, because Chaya needed to learn the language and develop friendships with her peers before she could successfully pass her classes and earn a bagrut certificate (similar to a Regents diploma) and graduate. She built a program for Chaya (and another new olah) to study independently with tutors and experience some classroom instruction as well.

The first year, true to expectations, was a disaster. At the end of the year we met with the principal to craft a plan for the upcoming year, Grade 10. She told us that in her opinion, Chaya was too linguistically challenged to continue in the school. Although Chaya had made tremendous progress socially, she did not think that Chaya would be able to pass the bagruyot (examinations). Rather than have to face angry parents after a wasted Grade 10, she advised us to find another school that might be able to cater to her needs so that she could graduate.

Chaya was devastated. She had become attached to her friends and the school and did not want to leave. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her, having moved to a new country and made new friends at age 13. Yet, she was being told that she would have to go through the whole process a second time, with a new group of girls. Girls, who like her, could not make the grade.

We had a simple goal: we needed to make sure that Chaya could go to college if she chose and that our aliyah would not cripple that possibility. Our oldest son, Chaim, had just finished a year-long program and gotten a GED (high school equivalency degree). We liked the program, and knowing that Chaya was having academic difficulties, we had already spoken to the coordinators about enrolling Chaya. Unfortunately, they would not take students below Grade 11, so we knew that we would have to wait a full year before Chaya was eligible to enroll.

So, in the meeting, after Chaya had tearfully expressed her sincere desire to stay in the school, I made a proposal to the principal. Work with us, I asked. I told her about the GED program and that we were prepared to send Chaya to that program for Grade 11, if need be. All we asked was that Chaya be allowed to remain in the school for Grade 10 to see if she could make the grades and pass the tests. I specifically told her that we would have no complaints against the school if Chaya could not keep up and that we had a backup plan if things did not work out.

The principal agreed. She turned to Chaya and told her that if she wanted to truly stay in the school, she would have to buckle down and get incredibly serious about academics. She could not afford to play games with school anymore, she needed to focus on learning and studying. Together, they outlined a series of mandatory classes that Chaya needed to pass in order to graduate; she was exempted from the majority of the electives.

We did not know what to expect. We hoped that Chaya would work hard enough to pass. We were prepared to augment her studies with tutors (as do most parents) and give her whatever assistance we could to prepare her, but knew that it all depended on Chaya’s ability to do what she had never really done before—excel academically.

Chaya blew us all away. I have never seen such an outstanding transformation. She worked incredibly hard and was more focused on school than we had any reason to expect. She studied and studied, and the work paid off. She wasn’t just passing her exams—she was scoring in the 90s on them, regularly.

At the end of Grade 10, we went for a year recap meeting with the principal. At the meeting, remembering the discussion from the year before, I asked her if Chaya would be allowed to stay in the school for Grade 11? She laughed. It wasn’t even in doubt.

She has not only passed, she has excelled. She has certainly earned the diploma that she was awarded, and she did it by wholeheartedly embracing her new school, her new friends, and her new life. She is proof that you can be a teenage olah and still be successful.

We are excited for Chaya, who has been the trailblazer for her younger siblings. She has so much to look forward to and so much to experience along the way. She will be the first of our children to fulfill national service (she will be working in a senior citizen’s residence this upcoming year) and will be the first one of them to go to an Israeli university (we hope).

She has flowered here. She has become such a complete person, despite all the trials and tribulations, including the various family crises which should have made it impossible for her. She can be difficult at times (I think that is the Katz side), but has an intensely beautiful soul.

She could not have done anything without the support of a terrific group of friends at her school, Ulpanat Gila. I thank them for being so open to Chaya, for making her a part of their lives, and for being such terrific friends. Mazal tov to Sarah Fuchs, Leah Fingerer, and Miriam Kinberg (all former Five Towners) as well as Ayelet Gross and Noa Aronson. We hope that your families all enjoy your wonderful success.

I also need to make a special mention of her principal, Mrs. Yael VanDyke. Israeli born, she trained herself to speak American English without a trace of an accent, because she wanted to get it right. She was a true partner with us in making Chaya’s journey so fulfilling. She went through so much with Chaya and with us, and we are grateful to her.

But most importantly, we are proud of our terrific kid. She goes about her business in a very unassuming way, avoiding attention and shying away from accolades. I normally avoid talking about her, but she will be in the U.S. for the next month and I know she will see this paper (when you see her, please feel free to wish her a mazal tov).

So Chaya, I want you to know how proud we are of you. We know how much you have been through these past four years. Each time we thought we were over the hump, another curveball came our way. Yet, you have persevered and risen to the challenge and filled us with wonder at your accomplishments. We look forward to so much more from you and your siblings and hope you are a rebuke to all those in the U.S. who say that teens cannot be success stories. They can, and you are. Way to go, strawberry girl!

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