Saturday, March 01, 2003

Getting In

Jewish parents around the world would love to have the problems we are having right now.

Too much choice. In schools, that is.

And not just any kind of school: junior high school. Perhaps the most important of them all. A choice that will affect the next six years of our child’s life. Where he goes to college. What army unit he gets into. Who he’ll marry.

Suffice it to say, the burden was weighing heavily upon us.

The reason is simple enough. Elementary school in Israel runs for six years. Most automatically feed into a junior high. But not all. And not every child wants to continue on at the school into which his or her elementary school feeds.

Amir is in his last year at Amit Dror elementary school. Dror is a remarkable place that bills itself as a pluralistic, creative, artistic state-religious school (as opposed to a private ultra-orthodox school or a state-non-religious hiloni school). Dror stresses hands-on, experiential, interdisciplinary learning and for the most part it works pretty well. Amir’s made good friends, learned well and had a lot of fun.

Amir at first was content with continuing on at Dror. But then some of the boys in his class started talking about two other schools which hold out particular appeal to the more academically inclined: Hartman and Himmelfarb. Amir became interested. We did the same: who doesn’t want the best for their son?

And so we began the process for kids who are thinking of changing schools (public and private alike). The open house. The test. Assembling all the papers and the registrations fees. The personal interview. All this just to get into junior high!

As always, the contrast with the old country was on my mind. I went to Meadows elementary school. Why? It was down the block. All Meadows students went to Taylor Junior High. And all Taylor students from my neighborhood went to Capuchino High School (it’s the name of a Spanish horse ranch that used to be on the site of the school, OK, and no I didn’t misspell it…)

I didn’t have to make any choices, take any tests. While Amir was sitting in a room full of 200 boys competing for 15 open places, I was riding my Sting Ray to the mall.

Did I mention boys only? While most of the elementary schools are coed, all but two of the religious junior and senior high schools are segregated by sex. Not what I would choose for myself, but Amir doesn’t seem to mind. Yet.

The open house for Himmelfarb was intimidating. The school sits on a huge campus and has no less than five classes for each grade level. Kids can “major” in different subjects and there are truly excellent facilities.

Hartman is also known for its academic rigorousness, plus an openness to questioning, creating a university-like atmosphere. It is part of the Hartman Institute, which promotes coexistence and religious tolerance. Institute founder Rabbi David Hartman’s daughter started the “Shira Hadasha” minyan, which pushes halachic Jewish egalitarianism.

In short, it’s exactly the kind of place where I’d love to be going to school if I was eleven again. It quickly shot up to the top spot on my, I mean, our list.

Before the interview for Hartman (with so many applicants, Himmelfarb doesn’t even do a personal interview), we prepped Amir for the experience.

“It’s like a job interview,” I explained. “You wear your best clothes. You sit up straight, don’t pick your nose, say only the right things. For the first week of the job, you keep it up. Then by week two, you put on your jeans and your t-shirt and act yourself.”

I didn’t sleep well the night before. I think I was more nervous than Amir. The interview was with both the child and his parents. They ask the child to bring in an object to talk about. Harry Potter is always popular. To his credit, Amir discussed karate (he brought in his belt: high purple) and his after-school job (he walks kids to and from their after-school classes for 10 shekels a pop).

“An entrepreneur, just like his Dad,” I burst in, trying to impress in my shaky Hebrew. Jody shot me a look.

As we left the interview, I began doing what adults do so well: wallowing in self-doubt. Did it go well? Could it have been better? Did Amir stress enough how much he valued the pursuit of excellence?. Or his appreciation of balance and tolerance.

And: what will we do if we don’t get in?

But how much of this is Amir and how much is me? I so see myself in him that I too often forget that we are not one and the same. Indeed, he is far better socially adjusted than I ever was at that age, he isn’t fighting a weight problem, he doesn’t get beat up walking home from school.

In short, Amir is a normal well-balanced kid. So, again the question: is Hartman the right school for Amir...or for me?

After the interview, we were told we’d get the results in two-to-three weeks. We focused on other things, like the war and the faltering economy. We tried to get used to not getting into Hartman. Amir remained calm. It wasn’t fazing him in the least, or so it seemed. But in various conversations and off-hand comments, it became clear that he wanted this too.

A week ago, we got a letter from Himmelfarb saying sorry not this time. Then, this past Friday, a letter from Hartman was waiting in our mailbox. It was thin. Not a good sign. It takes less words to say no than it does to say yes. We brought the letter to the living room couch and called Amir.

“This came for you, sweetie,” Jody said.

Amir grabbed the letter, scrutinized the return address on the envelope. He started to giggle. Nervous. I’d never seen him like this. He held the letter at arms length. Then close. He didn’t know what to do.

He ripped open the envelope and started to read. Tears began streaming down his face. And then he jumped up off the couch and gave me a great big hug. And then Jody. And then he was grinning from ear to ear.

We were in!

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