Behind the Headlines About Israel

March 7, 1996

This week, early Sunday morning - when our work week begins and all is getting in gear again; and the hustle and bustle picks up from Shabbat; and soldiers are returning to their bases, workers are going to their work places, and people who need to be in another city are heading for the central bus station - a bomb went off, ripping apart one bus and damaging another that was standing nearby. The toll in lives was twenty-three people. It included a couple who were new immigrants from the former U.S.S.R., leaving as orphans their eight-year-old boy and their five-month-old baby. The toll also included many soldiers, two of whom were students of mine. A sixteen-year-old youth, who had been on his way to a course, was killed. He had asked his mother, who was on the bus with him, to get off two stations before the central bus station so that his friends would think he was "cool," thus saving her life. Many others were killed, too.

Ten minutes later another bomb went off in another city, killing another group of people. This time the dead included a soldier who had been standing at the hitch-hikers' hitching point and talking with her mother on the phone, telling her she had arrived safely at the intersection.

All in all, three graduates of the high school where I teach were killed on that one morning. The third was the son of a well-known journalist. And to get a picture of the intertwinedness in Israel: This leftist journalist came and covered a funeral in Kiryat Arba for two Yeshiva students who were killed on the bus we take to our meetings there. This journalist had been physically attacked by the settlers and protected bodily by the leader of the settlers, Shalom, who attends our meetings. This is a small country, and possibly through this description it can be felt.

Last night I visited one of the families of someone who'd been killed on the bus. There is a traditional week of mourning. Many customs are observed during this week. For example, the mourners sit on low stools or mattresses and are visited by relatives and friends and anyone else who comes. Relatives bring food and serve the immediate family and the mourners, care for the young ones, keep the house clean, and offer drinks to the visitors, who are known as "comforters." Last night the youngest daughter of the family, and now the only child, told me she had identified the hand of her sister (my student) by the watch she had been wearing. Other parents flew in to Israel to identify their children's bodies and to attend their funerals.

The mother of my student told me they had lost a seven-year-old son some years earlier, and that this time, when officers came to tell her that her daughter had "been killed in a terrorist attack," she cried and screamed and "went wild." Last night, she was able to be close with her daughter's friend, a soldier, (who had also been my student), who had come to comfort the family.

The mother was able to stay "up," but the father, unshaven as is customary during mourning, looked sunk. After spending time with the ladies, I went over to talk with him, and he cried a bit. Later I left, feeling that I had not done enough and promising myself to visit the family of my current student, whose older son had been killed in a similar explosion near Netanya last year.

While all this is going on, life continues. With all this and more in the background, lessons continue and classes meet. Yesterday, it was as if the bomb went off in my classroom. The students, who have a hard time even on a good day, were not able to sit down and start the lesson for quite some time. Many of them needed individual attention from the principal and myself before they could begin trying to learn or even just copy from the board.

There is a conception here that in order to do we11, students should study with others of the same "capacity" as theirs. Students are divided into different groups according to their "capacity." While the different groups were originally intended to eventually reach the same level, they never do. Those in the "slower" group lose ground and self-appreciation as the year progresses. It seems to me that being labeled group "B" or "C" acts as such an invalidation that the students are pulled to give up quite quickly.

The special program I teach in is set up to enable these students to return to the mainstream groups so they can study at the highest level along with their friends. The principal of our program believes that all, or at least most students, should be in the main class. The teaching hours allocated for the "slower" student groups are to be used for extra practice and for going over what is learned in group "A." Students come to us immediately after school, and we go over the material they covered that week. We teach them for one-and-a-half hours. We give them homework in addition to what they get in school, and we give them tests and quizzes.

We are expected to be very strict. In my mind, it's the "old" approach to teaching - very straightforward and with no major effort to provide other motivations for study than just doing well. For some of our students, doing well in math or English has enabled them to begin doing well all-around.

We don't explain why they need to study this or that. Admittedly, this is not the "ideal" situation. However, when people have been hurt, as have these students, and their feeling of self-worth is diminished, their major interest, at least at first, is to restore their feeling of self-worth. They want to do well exactly where their friends are doing well. From there, after succeeding, they can go on in a much more informed and grounded way to make decisions for themselves.

I can see this approach as a solid "old fashioned way" that can work for the thousands and millions who have been hurt already. It isn't fancy or advanced or super-smart - it's just a lot of plain old hard work. It includes keeping after the students, watching their progress, and keeping after the other teachers to be encouraging to our students, who are making great efforts. There is also a lot of coordinating work to do, as we like to be informed about exactly what has gone on in the class that week so we can give exactly the help that is needed and not confuse the students with new or different approaches from those being used in their classroom.

I think of us as a team, holding hands and forming a circle around the students, telling them we know they can do it and not letting them get away - no matter what discomfort comes up, and believe me, discomfort comes up.

This week, when even more distress was pulling at the students' attention, their behavior was three giant steps back from where we had managed to get to after months and months of work. Whenever the students stray too far from cooperative behavior, I take them for a talk with the principal. She turns to their sense of themselves, appealing to them to act in a way that guards and keeps their honor. She interrupts any attitude that they are disturbing us or that their behavior is some kind of achievement and puts the issue back in their field, close to home, in their hearts.

The principal has set up the program with a lot of feisty spirit and chutzpah. She's had to fight with the principals of the schools where our students study during the day. She has stood up to the people in charge in the Ministry of Education. She has seated the conditions where we can now fight together, hand-in-hand, for the students.

On Wednesday, three days after the first bomb, and four and five days before the next two bombs, I was glad to be there to catch the "fallout" with my trusty friend, the principal, at my side. It was a real battle. I was tired at the end but pleased I had been at the right place at the right time.

Sara Kallai
Jerusalem, Israel

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