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The Faces I See: The Children of El Razi Elementary School

Today’s participant blog post comes from Jillian Gogel, a current participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Jillian’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was adapted from Jillian’s personal blog.

Hey, y’all.

Let’s talk about my placements. Specifically, let’s talk about El Razi, the lovely-but-insanely-challenging elementary school I attempt to teach English in.

Let’s talk about my kids.

Obviously, at the heart of the school is its pupils. If no one is there to learn, what good is a place of learning? Of course, don’t let me detract from the value of the learning that happening as the teaching does – more than just students receive many lessons there, the best of the good, bad, and ugly.

But what an assortment of kids we have there. The more I come to learn about these students, the more I understand the diversity of the stories they carry with them.

Which brings me to this blog post. This post will be about the narratives of the students I work with, specifically and mainly, in El Razi, and my thoughts as I continue to engage with them on a deeper level.

On the Daily

On the one hand, a large part of my experience with these kids is, of course, my experience with these kids. As such, I feel it important to paint the picture of life on the daily in El Razi, a culture shock, I imagine, for many of my friends and family- especially those with teaching experience in the States. It wasn’t the first day that was the biggest shock, seeing kids run around screaming (literally), throwing a variety of small and sharp objects at one another, slamming doors, and generally meandering the halls in the case of a few. The biggest shock for me in the school was the fact that it continued to happen, and still does, to this day. I will say now though that, given that I’m not a teacher (as well as not at all fluent in Arabic), it is not my job to dole out any discipline at all and thus, with this buffer in place, I’ve come to grow rather fond of the hullabaloo when it softens upon interacting with me. In fact, days that are actually, literally, quiet are usually the most boring and also make me nervous, as occasionally this may mean something drastic has happened.

So then you have this – a collection of kids who are, collectively, regrettably poorly behaved, but simultaneously, especially individually, are also some of the sweetest and occasionally some of the most thoughtful elementary school humans I’ve ever met. Thinking linearly, it makes sense that many teachers may be frustrated by the lack of discipline and subsequent general lack of enthusiasm for learning in their students. Which brings me to the body of my thoughts…

Under the Surface: The Narratives These Kids Carry With Them

Now, this contrast has been happening in my mind with only very minimal information about the backstories of each of the students I work with, much less those of the roughly 300 kids at El Razi. Nonetheless, learning about the weights already riding on the shoulders of these very small children has been enough to really perplex me and make me feel like I’M the child out of all of us.

As both a legal concern and a human rights courtesy, I will avoid the specifics that I’ve been told by teachers who are intimately familiar with the stories, both good and bad. I will say that I’ve been shocked by the extremity, abuse, and general depth of suffering that has been present in even a handful of cases. I also want to, again, highlight those students who are able to combat their challenges and end up on top. I don’t want the fact that this school, like many other schools and places, is full of tough tales to become a channel for sensationalism in this blog, because the bottom line is just that everyone is trying to live on this earth as best they can.

My focus here is on the fact that this school, like any other situation or place or any general aspect of life, is a container for a group of kids and teachers who are comprised of far more than meets the eye. The difference for me is that I’m starting to get to know them intimately. And I’m starting, even, to get to know the surrounding community, whose many factors are starting to inform the stories inside the school walls. I’m fascinated and inspired and shocked and deeply saddened by what I’ve heard so far, for the past and the present and the future, and I feel as though I’m sitting on the tipping point of action. Ready to do something but staying myself patiently because I know I need to be better informed, if at all.

I’m slowly gaining more experiences working with cohorts (in some sense or another) of kids (I am so grateful) and each time, I feel my heart expand more and more as the time I spend with them extends and/or we mutually find new ways to reach one another intimately. I LOVE working hard, through the worst days and the best, to win the hearts of the next group, finding, in the end, one thing or another to share and smile about. Simultaneously, each time, it becomes harder and harder to move past the immobilization that seems to occur with the love I’ve conjured. I feel frozen, loyal to the little faces I work with, and persistently thinking about new ways to please or comfort or empower. I know each time has been rough-hewn and imperfect, and each time, all I want is to perfect the art a little more. However, I still can’t help but feel I find myself all too often on the edge of an abyss that any practitioner I imagine faces at one time or another: appropriate questions of where and why and who, if at all, of intervention and resolution.

Not everything in this world is meant to be fixed. I feel inexperienced enough to know that “What do I do on a small-scale to add some light to this school and for these kids?” may even be too much. And yet, what I do have is my love and the current connections I have with everyone that I have in the building of El Razi. More tangibly, I also have a lovely website project (which you can find here, should you so choose) going with them. While it may not be the most interesting to a handful of my hardest-to-please, it is creating something solid that I hope these kids might be able to look back on and be proud of.

I don’t dream of past or pain erasure, or changing anything at all in the current lives of my strong, strong students. I don’t even necessarily dream of “change” at all right now, dirty word that it is. What I continue to confront as I learn more and more about these kids is that same raw, inexperienced question: is there light that I, Jillian, can and should bring to the school that will create a smile or a happy moment one day, if at all?

I also just guess this post is: oh man, how much I love those kids.

I will surely be sad to go, taxing as the experience is on me, but I’m learning a lot lot about life and learning and school and teaching, and have utter respect and awe for many people, adults and kids alike, in that place.

Shukran, amigos 😉

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