A couple of days ago I enjoyed a mother daughter trip school trip to the Sea of the Galilee/Kinneretwith dd12. This was especially nice because I began my day with a meeting with the school guidance counselor regarding dd12 and ds10 and continued carrying residual tension from this throughout the day.
This wasn’t a meeting I wanted to have or felt was necessary, but as a teacher friend told me, it would be unpleasant for me to go and it would look bad for me to refuse the appointment. When dealing with schools, one thing you have to realize is if there is ever an issue, the school structure is never at fault. It’s always your child’s fault, or you as parents. So they’re a bit myopic when looking at problems, because they won’t consider significant factors that might be the root cause of a problem.
The thought that kept going through my mind after this 90 minute meeting was, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.
Here is an example of what I mean by that:
Dd12 has gotten very limited assistance at school in learning the language – the national decision to do away with ulpan for kids was disastrous but the law is that now students are to receive in-school language instruction – at best, this has been a forty minute session twice a week. Do you know how little this is when you’re sitting for hours in a classroom, listening to lectures with no visual prompts to give you a clue what is being discussed? Dd is a very visual learner and I anticipated that picking up the language wouldn’t be easy for her (in contrast to our auditory learners, who have learned it the most quickly). The assistance she’s received has been very inadequate for her needs and though she’s bright and wants to do well, she simply doesn’t yet have the language skills to make this possible. (For example, she’s an advanced math student but once they moved from equations to verbal problems, she was unable to do the work because she doesn’t understand the questions.)
The guidance counselor told me that she’s too quiet, doesn’t seem motivated to succeed and as such she’s concerned that dd is clinically depressed. Of course she’s quiet, she can’t comfortably converse in Hebrew yet! She’s friendly and talkative when she’s with English speakers. And she’s motivated when she understands the materials in front of her. What she needs is academic help in translating the school materials so she can be successful, which is what I explained to them. But they said, ‘Oh, we can’t offer her that. But a nice thing the school can do for you is provide subsidized psychological treatment.’
Psychological services are the tool – ie, the ‘hammer’ – they have to offer, and she needs to be diagnosed with emotional difficulties (the nail) for them to use their tool. So you see, if we accept their ‘help’, it won’t be what she needs, but what they have to give. (Her tutor knows her better than anyone else in the school and was very disturbed by this assessment; she’s told the guidance counselor that dd is struggling with language acquisition, not emotional problems.)
I’ve run into something that I didn’t anticipate about living in northern Israel, where there are relatively a small number of Anglo immigrants in this part of the country. That’s a very important fact that has some major negative ramifications. In highly Anglo areas, families making aliyah are so common that there’s a pretty good understanding of what the behavioral norms are for families new to the country. There’s also a lot more support.
Here in the north, we don’t have that. Instead of support and understanding, we face unrealistic expectations and far too often, negative judgments and presumptions about our children and our family functioning. When our kids are successful and acclimate quickly, it’s taken as par for the course and not worthy of much more than a passing comment. When there’s any kind of struggle – as it’s inevitable that there will be…you get a lot more than a comment. In the situation with dd, limited experience with new immigrants caused the person doing the assessment to drastically underestimate the language and adjustment factors and to see pathological behavior where it doesn’t exist.
(By the way, I told the counselor that with all due respect, she doesn’t have much experience with new immigrants and isn’t taking into account the most critical factors. She told me that she spoke to two colleagues who live in RBS and did some reading, so she’s up to speed on the topic. But two brief conversations and doing some reading don’t equal real life experience. She’s a truly good person with good intentions, but she is limited in this situation by her lack of experience.)
As part of this conversation, it was recommended that we open a file with social services so we could get psychological counseling for our children, which I adamantly refused. Maybe this was just a strategy to get me to accept the school subsidized offer of services which followed, I don’t know. An Israeli friend who works in the school system was horrified and furious when she found out that we were told this – this is the kind of thing that literally can destroy a family. I’m fortunate that I can defend myself in Hebrew; most new olim don’t have that advantage. Someone who made aliyah thirty years ago, the mother of a large family who has a lot of personal experience with many aspects of the system asked me how I had the strength to advocate for our kids, because this is an unpleasant situation to deal with.
My naturopath told me yesterday that I’m a ‘lioness’ for my kids – and you know what, she’s right. You have to be here, because the system will eat you up and spit you out without blinking, all in the name of ‘helping’ you. Yes, that sounds really negative but that’s how it feels to me. As my friend mentioned above said in Hebrew, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Everyone is very nice and it’s supposedly all about ‘helping’ you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to be helped.
My husband was shocked after this meeting at how the baseline assumption was that we’re a family in crisis, despite the fact that we’ve done incredibly well in adjusting to life here. The fact is, on paper we have significant strikes against us: 1) we’re a large family – this presumes that our children are emotionally neglected because we probably don’t have time for them; 2) we have a baby with T21 – this presumes that we’re overwhelmed with this and we can’t meet the needs of the other children; 3) we’re new to Israel – this presumes that we’re emotionally in crisis; 4) we have two kids struggling in school (never mind that everyone else is fine or that kids who were born here have difficulties in school, too!) – this presumes that they need psychological assistance – and refusing this presumes that we as parents are in denial or problematic parents; 5) we used to homeschool – this presumes that we are dysfunctional and imbalanced to begin with (since homeschooling is so uncommon in Israel). So before we even walk in to a meeting we’re behind the eight ball.
It takes a lot of emotional energy to repeatly counter the unspoken message that something is wrong with you. I often feel like I have to prove myself – it’s not just a feeling, that’s the reality – and recognize that how I present will determine in large part the assessments that are made about my kids. I’ve had a lot of challenges here, but I don’t think I’ve found anything as disturbing as these efforts to redefine what our family is according to their five minute glance. It’s like they want to take away our healthy family identity and replace it with their labels.
If a child needs help, I want him to have it. I don’t assume I have all the tools necessary and welcome the assistance of those whose strengths compliment mine. However, it’s clear that we’re on our own when it comes to finding real solutions – if I weren’t a long time homeschooling mom used to assessing my kids’ needs and finding ways to meet them independently, I would be despairing or apathetic by now. The current solutions include me sending academic materials with dd to work on in class (homeschooling materials- yes, I think it’s ironic), dd16 volunteering to come to dd’s school twice a week during school hours to translate materials so she’ll be able to do her assignments, looking for natural and unthreatening ways to integrate Hebrew at home, and looking for a job or volunteer opportunity where she can use her strengths and build a positive identity not dependent on school performance. (She’s not interested in homeschooling or that would be a possibility as well. )
I didn’t anticipate that putting my kids in school would put us in the situation of being scrutinized and judged to this degree. Being new to a country or being part of the system doesn’t mean that a family doesn’t have a right to privacy or dignity. Even if someone had warned me about this, I would have thought that this wouldn’t be an issue we’d be likely to face since we’re a pretty strong family – but now I know that being stable doesn’t really matter. I’ve wondered if this is harder for me to accept this kind of nosing into our lives than others (my impression is that this isn’t uncommon) since I was used to being independent of ‘the system’. Or maybe others are having it harder than me because they aren’t as able to advocate for themselves as I am. I really don’t know.