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Anxiety

The Hardest Part About Sending My Daughter to First Grade in Israel

First-grade

I’m holding a number 2 pencil and there’s a university issue blue book in front of me. A bland-faced test proctor places a sheet of paper, face down, on my desk.

“Don’t turn it over until the bell,” he says.

It’s my final exam, and the questions on it, and how I answer them, will determine my future. 

Bell rings.

I got this, I got this, I got this.

I take a deep breath and look down at the words…

And, I can’t understand a single thing on the page.

And come to think of it, I haven’t shown up to class all semester.

AND WTF: I’M NAKED?!?!?!?!

You’ve had that dream, too, right? You show up on the day of the final exam only to realize you’ve never taken the class?

Now, imagine that dream–only in a different language (and in skinny jeans, heels, and a tank top), and that’s pretty much what it felt like at back-to-school night for my daughter.

Let me explain:

My daughter started first grade this week. This is kind of a big deal for all the usual reasons that most of you can understand: My Sweet Girl is now out of the kibbutz preschool system where she’d come home covered in paint with dandelions in her hair, where they’d build cities out of LEGO, play with dolls, plant an herb garden, and make challah every Friday for Shabbat.

In other words, my Sweet Girl is growing up.

But it’s kind of a big deal for different reasons, too: My Sweet Girl is now out of preschool, where things were flexible and fluid, where they held her hand. And mine. Because I’m an immigrant mother, still learning the language, still learning the ropes.

But the summer is over, and it’s time for first grade. First grade, where there are school uniforms (with different colors for different days), and rules, and meetings, and homework too, all spelled out in clear, plain Hebrew that I can’t understand.

Cue back-to-school night: Now, usually, my ex-husband and I do these things together, but davka tonight I’m on my own.

I got this, I got this, I got this.

The teacher (Ruchama? Geula? Ofira? I should know this) hands me a piece of paper to fill out–I have a sense of what it’s supposed to say, but the words blur.

This should be easy. I should know this. I’m the mother. And some of it IS easy. Some of it I DO know. But I have to ask another mother for help.

“Um, what’s written here?”

She tells me.

“No, you write it with alef. Not ayin,” she says.

(Thank God for the number 2 pencil, right?)

I erase.

“No, not koof. You write it with a kahf.”

“Thanks. By the way, what’s the teacher’s name?”

“Liora.”

I got this, I got this, I got this.

Only, I don’t. Not really.

But I’m reaallllllly good at faking it. When the teacher says something with a smile, I smile. When her voice drops and the space between her eyebrows crinkles, I nod sagely. People, she might be saying, “Every child in first grade will become proficient underwater basket weavers by the end of the year,” or, “My cat’s breath smells like catfood,” but I am right there with her, nodding and smiling.

(This is too much like my final exam nightmare, and I glance down: Nope, not naked. But I do feel vulnerable.)

I think about the immigrant mothers from my childhood: Those parrots among doves, they stood out with their different voices, different plumage. I think about those mothers from my childhood that never quite made sense, parlayed to the sidelines at parties and on playdates while they’d speak to their children in Mandarin or Spanish or Russian or Persian. Or Hebrew for that matter.

I’m one of them now.

In some ways, it’s freeing.

If we had stayed in LA, I would have known too much, and worried even more: I used to be a teacher once-upon-a-time, and I would have been up all night debating the merits of Reggio Emilia vs. Waldorf vs. Montessori. In fact, before we came to Israel, I remember telling my ex’s mother, “Well, I’m sure the kibbutz preschool is fine, but I will look around the area and make the most informed decision about my daughter’s education.”

For preschool. Not a postdoc.

(Yeah, I was kind of a tool.)

Luckily for me, there really wasn’t much of a choice–and even if there were a choice, I couldn’t understand the nuances well enough to worry about it.

Meanwhile, at back to school night, the teacher’s words flow over me–some of them I understand, but by the time I’m finished piecing together that one sentence that makes sense, she’s moved on, and I’m trailing.

“But don’t worry,” I hear her tell the parents. “By the end of the year everyone reads and writes.”

I get home, and my daughter is still awake, her eyes shining. She’s sitting up in bed, her pink Minnie Mouse backpack tucked under her arm–she’s been sleeping with it all week.

Nu? Is my teacher nice?” she asks.

“Yes, she seems great. Are you excited, Sweet Girl?”

“Very excited! Do you know why?”

“Tell me.”

“Because in first grade, I get to learn how to read and write, and then I get to teach you!”

And it’s true: side by side, we’ll learn together. After all, the teacher said that by the end of the year, everyone learns how to read and write. And that includes me.

We got this.


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