Meitzav: Big clouds give little rain

16 March 2015

So I am writing in my notebook with Winnie the Pooh printed at the bottom of each page. I do have to re-evaluate the items I hold in my possession. It is one thing not ever actually wanting to grow up, staying creative, a child in the positive meaning of this word and actually coming across as a person who should have grown up by now. Well, at least today, I was the grown up. It was the day of the Meitzav – the Israeli national exam for 5th graders in English.

In a nutshell, if you ever want to see panic and tears among the children, while nothing terrible is actually happening to them under peaceful conditions (which are a prerogative in Israel) this is the place to go, on that day, and see it for yourself.

I was probably more stressed than the kids. Why? Because I very dearly hold on to that silly notion of success. The notion, successfully executed, facilitates the growth of pride and the sense of achievement.

I have to stop because I honestly can’t focus. I am writing this as I am sitting on the bus to Jerusalem. One man insisted upon sitting next to me and he takes up more than the regulatory amount of space given to him by default of two seats joint together and thus I have very little freedom to write. In these moments I wish I was mixed-handed, but no, I have to be right-handed and he is blocking my elbow. Silently I curse all preschool teachers who forced me to write with my right hand despite my determination to write with the left. Silently I think of all possible Hebrew words I could tell him to express my displeasure; I give up, knowing that nothing substitutes my mother tongue in these situations and as much as I can tell someone off in Hebrew or English, nothing sounds as colourful as the good old-fashioned Polish telling-off. The advantage that a regular man has sitting next to a woman on the bus or any means of the public transportation is the assumption that the leg space which women do not presumably use is up for the taking. Unless you are a female soldier with a huge rifle between your legs, you probably sit, they way that I do, as if you were holding an aspirin between your knees. So that is how I am sitting now. On the contrary, he, fair enough he is taller than a regular Israeli, sits as if he is riding a horse, with his armpit resting on my shoulder and an occasional hand stretched over my head resting on the head-rest when, I assume, his armpit is tired of my shoulder. I do notice that his bag is sitting next to him by the aisle. I wonder for a second why he insisted to rest it there and not between us (that would be very nice of him to do that). Against my better judgment I can’t help myself and I take a small and careful whiff… Thank G-d he doesn’t smell. I avoid eye contact and pray that he doesn’t understand English and can’t read what I am writing. He makes no comment apart from an occasional glance. I quickly flip the page and feel safer now getting more accustomed to the ‘rider’ sitting to my right. I resume writing, but I suddenly feel exhausted because of all the internal conflict with my soul screaming and rebelling against such imposed and unwanted proximity, the armpit, the numbness of my legs and the disappointment of not seeing any other seats available. Then my arduously acquired English side starts speaking loudly in my head that it would be rude to move even if there was a space. Well, he doesn’t smell so I guess I have no choice and I still count my blessings that there is an air-con, which I quickly direct on me and take a sound nap of an eligibly exhausted traveller.

I wake up and remember that I still didn’t tell you why I was so exhausted in the first place, beside the armpit on my shoulder. I did mention the Meitzav, but really to understand the magnitude of this day, one had to be there. I can only tell you how it looked through my eyes and I hope this will give you an idea of what has just happened on the national scale.

I showed up in the morning greeted by visibly relieved English teachers and others with their thumbs up and words of encouragement. I almost felt like a champion, for a second, until I saw the children. I quickly prayed in the teacher’s room and ran to the class to see the unusual amount of children praying Shmone Esre. Usually there are around 5 – 10 girls who either mess around or don’t pray at all. This time all of them did. The Adon Olam was louder that usually, the tefila l’medinat Israel sounded also unusually profound as the anxiety started reaching the alarming level. Some girls grabbed the Tehilim (the Book of Psalms) and continued praying. Quickly we run through some exercises to reignite their brains and hopefully give them a little reassurance that they do know the material. We, the teachers, knew that this was not the case, but we had to keep the poker face. The girls were showered with sweets to give them sugar rush and hopefully encourage interaction with us. Then their favourite song was played. Yes, Frozen “Let it Go”. Then the leading teacher played something happier and all girls started dancing. Many girls ran towards me to ask if I was going to stay with them. I had to tell them I really didn’t know.

The class was divided between the “good children” (the ones that really knew what was happening to them, were able to read English with comprehension and write sentences with correct spelling) and “not so good children” (those that had some understanding of English and those that had absolutely no idea what was happening). The second group was slightly bigger, which made me feel uncomfortable. The girls in the second group were seated in the groups of four plus and each teacher, including me took one group to do the test with, not help them, but let them be helped and copy correct answers, if necessary. Everything, I mean everything, rebelled in me. I wanted to scream in horror, but there was literally no one I could protest to. The rules I was brought up with at school did not apply here. I sat down with some girls. One was very weak. The thing about weak children is this: they know they are weak, but at the moment of increased pressure they work as hard as they can and listen to your guidance. The other two were the ‘chicks’ of the class. Both stunning and well dressed with little to show for in terms of knowledge. One was more intelligent than the other so I counted on that one for commitment. She was also more determined to ‘get on with this thing’. And, there was Miriam, sweet Miriam, who always talked teachers into allowing her to do less, because she was weak, and unfortunately, she performed least out of all my girls. I couldn’t write the test for them, but believe me, I practically did. Yes, there were two examiners walking and looking at me, but what? They literally scared the life out of the girls, I couldn’t get them to focus and then I had to help them get back on track. In between gums, chocolate, tears and prayers we continued with the test.

In terms of the listening part, there is really nothing to say. They weren’t listening at all! None of the kids was listening. I had to repeat every time and slightly nodded at the right answer, if they pointed to it. The weakest girl, surprise, surprise, was the best at listening.

The reading was an absolute disaster. I read the instructions in Hebrew and they still weren’t able to comprehend what the exam wanted from them. I groaned. I read the text and questions several times. These kids either couldn’t read at all or just didn’t want to read. I hadn’t worked with them before so I didn’t know their capabilities and I heard all other teachers reading out the texts so I followed. I had to translate some of the words, because they had no clue as to what was written. These girls were able to spell properly only two words: cat and dog. This would by funny, if it didn’t actually happen; and here they were confronted with a generally sophisticated reading comprehension test and they had to show that at least they knew how to look for answers. Now I am praying for the results of my girls, whom I taught, to see if they did well. They did very well during mock exams. Beezrat Hashem.

The girls started fighting over sweets. The sweets were taken away from them. They started arguing that they were allowed to eat. They were told that they were supposed to write an exam. One was removed from my group. Miriam circled whatever looked good enough to her and handed the exam over. I was left with two. Continuing the power struggle I managed to convince them into trying to write the exam. I beamed with happiness when one of them, the weaker, happened to know the translation for the word “why”. They didn’t know the translation to “to like”, so “why” was a success.

The exam concluded. I was interrogated about the ‘success’ of the children. I said I practically wrote it for them, but I couldn’t write sentences if they didn’t know what a sentence was and had no skills to write anything more sophisticated than “the dog is small” where I had to help them with spelling and remind them that in English we start a sentence with a big letter and finish with a full stop. They wrote it eventually following much ado about nothing. One of the boys I taught apparently did very well. I certainly hope so. He looked stressed, but I did put a lot of effort into him and his friend.

The English teachers, previously pale and stressed, looked exhilarated at the prospect of a successful Meitzav (please G-d, honestly) and did the “Follow the yellow brick road” dance. We were congratulated, I fumed. I decided that I expected too much from life. Then I thought that I really need to have taught children and how much I love my students when they learn. Then I overcompensated with a huge pasta salad. Then I overcompensated with a huge baigel roll. Now that I am concluding this piece, I will overcompensate with an ice-cream. Now I’m thinking about the diet in the sudden pang of guilt. Now I am trading another half a kilometre (jogging) for the ice-cream. Seems fair to me.

Will the Meitzav be successful? Beezrat Hashem. Will I ever consider being a teacher? The moment the Sun rises in the West.

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2 thoughts on “Meitzav: Big clouds give little rain

  1. I hope you’re surprised by the results. But even if not, you should already know that at their age, the key thing is the attitude of the parents. If they get the message that English doesn’t much matter, then they won’t approach the subject with anything like motivation. Unfortunately, that’s the most common situation down here in the south. Bottom line: Don’t judge your own fitness for teaching by the performance of your students.

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