Today is Day 17 of 31 for 21, a blogging effort to raise awareness of Trisomy 21/Down syndrome. Thanks to the recent birth of our baby who has an extra chromosome, this is the first year that I’ve been a participant.
Yesterday morning I got a call from ds6′s teacher at Amichai. After she told me how wonderful he is (nice when your child’s teacher appreciates him so much!), she got to the point of the call. She heard about what was going on with the cheder giving us the runaround about not accepting our kids, and wanted to offer her support in advocating for us if we wanted it. I thanked her and then spent the next half hour explaining why we’re going to keep the boys at Amichai. Not just until the end of the year, but with the intent to continue there long term and we plan to enroll ds5 in Amichai’s first grade next year. She kept asking me if I was really okay with this decision or if I was assuming this position by default because we had no choice. I explained that we aren’t leaving the boys at Amichai because we have no choice – the cheder will definitely take ds6 and it’s possible they’ll eventually take ds10 if we continue to pressure them. But we decided that’s not what we want and to drop our pursuit of this school transfer - and we did it from a position of strength.
My husband and I do a lot of talking about the education of our children and the values we hope they have, but this has been seriously ramped up in the last six weeks, as we’ve been deciding where the best elementary school for our elementary aged boys is. We had decided to transfer them to the local cheder from the school they are currently in, then ran into trouble when we were told our kids wouldn’t be accepted. But because it wasn’t a real ‘no’, we were in limbo for a while. This provided us with more opportunities to think again, and again, and again about if this was really the best decision for our boys. (I wrote about the differences between the two schools here.)
To recap, we thought that making the transfer would assure their social transition into our community and that being in a different school from everyone else in the charedi community would be a big strike against them. We also felt that the boys in the school we wanted to transfer to have a more carefully guarded home atmosphere, which is similar to ours in many ways. And yet the school they were in- Amichai – still had all the positives that we saw when we made the initial decision to send them there.
There were so many issues involved in this – the macro and micro view both religiously and socially, which are intrinsically intertwined. Religiously things are much more stratified here than in the US, and the boxes you need to fit into are much narrowly defined. If you don’t choose your box, others will do it for you, but you can’t stay outside of the box. A big part of this decision was about choosing our box.
There was a strong emotional pull towards and away from both choices, and the more we talked the less clarity we had. Finally, we sat down and wrote out a list of what our values are. Decisions this big aren’t based on little things like how long summer vacations are (actually, that can also be a values decision since a longer vacation can mean more family time), but about how well your values match the institution where you send your child. And to be fair to our children, the school we send them to and ourselves as parents, I think it’s important that we’re consistent in the spoken and unspoken message we project. I don’t want my children caught between different world views and feeling they don’t fit anywhere.
Writing out our values was important because it took the emotion out of the discussion. We looked at each value, as well as the advantages of each institution. When we did that, we were able to clearly see that the main value in sending to the cheder was social and that our desire to transfer the boys to the cheder was motivated by fear: basically, fear of doing something different. I’ve never believed that fear is a good place to make a decision from. But we are looking at the realities behind those fears in order to address them.
When we looked at the positive values we have, we were able to clearly see (once again) that Amichai came out ahead in almost every single category. One factor we discussed at length is the long term view: what do we want our children to be like religiously and spiritually (those aren’t the same thing!) when they’re adults? These decisions are being made when you put your children into elementary school, because the schools are tracked and once you’re in one track, it’s not so simple to transfer your child to a school that is in a different religious track.
One issue in which our thinking differs from the charedi community is that we see a positive value in our children learning secular subjects at the high school level. However, secular subjects not being taught during the elementary years wasn’t a major concern - this is something we could and would supplement on our own. I know quite well as a homeschooler how little time it actually takes to teach these subjects once a child is ready for them. So we would have been fine sending our boys to a school without secular subjects for the elementary years.
What I was more concerned about is how this attitude towards secular subjects as well as towards those outside the charedi community would influence their long term choices and their self-image if they chose to make decisions that were different from their peers. I felt it would be unfair of us to have expectations that our boys would get a certain kind of high school education, but put them in an elementary school that had different definitions for success.
We’ve talked a lot about how to walk this very fine line – how to affiliate with the charedi community while not going along with the party line in some areas. This was a tough, tough decision that requires a lot of independent thinking and willingness to walk a non-mainstream path. You can see how hard this was since we were initially so clear about what we wanted but then we still got off track after hearing opinions from others. This won’t be an easy thing to do (nor would it have been easy to deal with the challenges we would have faced at the cheder), but it resonates with us emotionally and intellectually.
This decision follows over a decade of homeschooling. For years, we had to walk our own path and believe in what we were doing without any positive feedback from others; certainly in the very beginning we would have been strongly dissuaded if we had asked for advice. But as the years went by and the kids got older, people started to see how our kids were turning out and they started telling us how lucky we were, that hey wished they had the courage to do what we did, and asking us how we had the strength to swim upstream.
Similarly, this isn’t a decision that we’re going to get much support about and in the short term I think very few people will be able to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s just too different a way of thinking about education and the goals of education. This decision was really hard but we’ve learned again and again that you get the best results when you act in line with your deepest values and conscience.
Our family is in a unique position to be a bridge for others who may want a choice within the charedi world that allows for more appreciation of diversity, and I hope that more families moving to Karmiel will seriously consider Amichai. I’ve said before that I really think it’s a much better fit for American immigrants than the cheder in a number of ways. However, regardless of what anyone else chooses to do, we’re glad to have gotten clarity and realigned our actions with our beliefs.