Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Somebody Special + Non-Fiction Piece

In all the years I lived in Israel, I thought I was a special social-cultural "groupie" because I was an American, former Manhattanite, (ex "Greenwich Villager) AND I was teaching English as a foreign language, which was a much in demand profession. (It still is!)

Those early years of teaching English to elementary students in the development town of Beit-Shean brought me even closer to that special cultural place because I had never taught English to Moroccan Jews before. I had a lot of "goodwill" and support from the Ministry of Education as a new teacher-immigrant, but I often felt a certain cultural disconnect. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't feel "at home" in the cultural EFL classroom.

I was dealing with families, some of whom had a very different world and cultural concept/experience/expectation of what it meant to learn English. For some of them, it was exclusively limited to pop and cultural media of the time. For others, it was met with frequent antagonism to study English and I was met with all kinds of discipline problems and unruly students.

And, in many ways, I felt silenced at the expense of a cultural/social/linguistic disconnect.

This is the conflict that "traps" every immigrant. The journey for coming to live in another country is rich and special, but the emotional and social transitions are not always clear-cut.

What I Tried to Do


I didn't listen to many pop international culture songs (and especially in English) when I lived in Israel, but the one that brought me closer to the concept of "special" to my Anglo-Saxon world was Depeche Mode's "Somebody"

When I was in a state of "not here nor there" and "trying to figure it out," I listened to the melody of this song and after all those years, I felt "quieted" and "at peace" even with the silence voice that I had and that was okay.


The other outlet I had was writing. After a full day's work teaching 4th, 5th and 6th graders, I would record the events, the feelings I had (past and present) and how I tried to make a connection with teachers who weren't the most friendly/sympathetic to me - maybe due to a cultural disconnect, I don't know and students.

Those early voices shaped a piece of a recent piece entitled, "In the Principal's Office" (note: this is still a piece in transition)

"In the Principal's Office"

The bare white principal's office is now a place of confrontation. The fact that I am a newly arrived English elementary teacher at a development town in Israel hasn't sensitized loud-mouthed teacher to collaborate with me. When I finally told Tziona, our mentor, the real deal of our collaboration, I knew that I would have to work even harder to make my silent "teacher" voice heard. The voice I perhaps didn't know existed.

The aggressive principal speaks. (I can still hear Lina's voice) "Yael," Lina says. "Dorit's a new teacher. If you're both teaching the same classes, I don't understand why you are both working separately. So, ma koreh, what's going on?" Lina asks. I have to wonder what looks tighter: Lina's intent expression or her bun.

Yael, the other teacher who prefers to teach English "her way," doesn't say anything. Tziona sustains our eye contact long enough just to reassure what she has said to me before, Yehiyeh besder, "it will be okay." But we both know it will be a long way. She leans forward, crosses her legs a bit and says, "We need to find a way to work things out together. You both can't continue working in isolation. It makes no sense."

Yael looks at me. I nod.

Okay, it's time to make my silence heard.

There's more that Lina and loud-mouthed teacher need to know. Much more.

For example, what about the time when I introduced myself to her classes and all I got was a Mona-Lisa smile …from one student?

Or when I tried to "socialize" with loud-mouthed teacher and all I heard was the noise of crunching carrots.

There is no cultural-linguistic shield to protect me now. (it's a confrontation – how do you rely on your Israeli smarts)

I try to discern the "loud-mouthed" teacher's eyes from her thick rimmed glasses but the light refracts what appears to be a stare. I know she's thinking "go home you American. I take no prisoners. I'm better than you and you're not going to change the way I work."

Since the beginning of school, I've honored the Israeli teaching motto of "don't smile before Chanukah," and so perhaps I've received Lina's goodwill. But now I have to find the right Hebrew voice. To articulate Hebrew assertively. To undo my silence. But between Lina's tight fisted bun and zippered mouth and Tziona's fidgety look, I'm hoping I won't need to talk.

Loud mouth teacher is the first to speak. She's of course the one with "kfiyoot" – the seniority. She moves her hands in and out as if to open an oven. "Tziona," she says raising her voice. "It's close to impossible. We teach at different hours in different places."

Loud-mouthed teacher now points to me. "She teaches small groups. I teach the large classes."

"Yael, you don't have to work together on everything. There's no point if you have the same book and grades and you're both working in isolation." Tziona says. Lina nods affirmatively.

Loud-mouthed teacher looks at me. The words don't come.

"How about if Dorit pulled out some of the lower-performing students from your group and worked with them?" Tziona suggests.

"Ze lo ya'avod, it won't work," loud-mouthed teacher says.


"Because …they are at different levels."

What does that have to do with anything?

I say something that I hope will turn the discourse around. Even though I am still figuring out which word to say, I speak anyhow.

"I think the students I teach are at a lower performing level. They cause problems." I am both nervous and relieved that I've got now everyone's attention.
"Exactly. That's why I don't think it's good to take my students out." Loud mouthed teacher says. Her words rise like huge hot air balloons in this small office.

"Aval achav hadivarim nirgeo, but now I feel things have settled down." I say in a calm Hebrew voice.

"Ze lo yishaney kloom, it still won't make a difference," loud-mouthed teacher says. "It's too difficult of a situation." She still won't look at me so I look to Tziona for support.

"And if Dorit takes the hours she has with the non-readers and works individually with one or two students?" Tziona suggests.

"Still won't work."

""Yael, you've got to be flexible here." Tziona now speaks more emphatically. "This is a very difficult situation."

"Yael, I don't understand you. We're talking about the students here." The aggressive principal says something I didn't expect to hear. "Give it a chance."

"Okay, I'll give it a try, but I still don't think it will be successful." Yael says.

All I hear is the "ani" for "I."

Tziona looks at me, "How do you feel about that, Dorit?"

"That's fine. I have worksheets prepared for their level and everything."

Tziona nods in approval. "That's a good start."

"But it's a difficult group. A harder group." Yael says.

"Is there anything you want to say Dorit?" Lina asks.


We talk it out - in their language.

Not mine.

We don't really find a solution in their language.

Not mine.

When we leave Lina's office, I whisper to Tziona, "That wasn't easy. With Yael, I mean."

Tziona says, "I know. She's difficult."


"It's not going to be easy."


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