I am watching my son Seven play soccer from the cement stairs bordering the school court. Twenty-four boys are divided into four teams. The coach looks professional, complete with a shaved head and grey Adidas muscle shirt. He blows the whistle to signal the end of practice. Seven has lost his match, but he doesn’t seem mad. Instead he jogs over to the captain of the opposing team to congratulate him. The captain ignores the outstretched hand and runs to the water fountain with my son trailing behind. I can tell from my son’s wry smile that he is not happy, but he is not giving up. He circles the fountain and cocks his head to meet the other boys’ eyes. His opponent, the winner, flicks his hair back and trots away, out of sight. “Mom, I told you so. Ben [not his real name] is my enemy,” my son sighs as he reaches me.
We have been in Israel for a month now and it has not been easy for Seven. He started in ‘kita bet’, Israel’s second grade, knowing only basic Hebrew. The school is five times larger than his school in the States, and things are a little rough. “The teachers yell at the children, and the children yell back”, Seven’s older brother Nine reported after his first week. During recess chaos and curse words reign and I have been told “Sh*t” and “F*ck” are normal words. Initially, all three children were welcomed with open arms. Within 48 hours they were invited for several play dates. For Seven these were not always successful. He was nervous and didn’t know how to resolve conflicts. One play date ended in a fight over plastic Star Wars figures. Soon his invitations stopped coming.
When Seven and I arrive home from soccer, my husband shows me a letter in Hebrew. It is from school, informing us that Seven has gotten into a fight. When we quick him, he says: “The other boys won’t play with me. On most days I hide under the stairs. Sometimes I cry. Once a girl came to comfort me. Yesterday I wanted to play soccer and they wouldn’t let me, so I kicked away their ball. Then they tripped me and I pushed back. Or maybe I hit somebody.”
The next morning we meet the teacher and the principal. “Seven isn’t willing to accept help from the other kids in class,” the teacher starts. “He is aloof and during recess he is disrupting the play of other children.”
“I think he is trying,” I reply and tell her what I witnessed during after-school soccer.
“Are you telling me that Seven congratulated an opponent after losing a game?”, she says.
We leave somewhat discouraged. “I think the teacher doesn’t believe us,” my husband sighs.
Still, the teacher has promised to find a buddy who will stay with Seven during recess this week. We have committed to ask Seven every day what nice things he has done for his friends at school. I know that Seven himself is ready to give up. We decide to talk to him after school. We try to cuddle the three of us on the big bed, but Seven hops off and hides under the bed instead. I assure him that he is not in trouble. Then he sits tentatively on the floor next to the bed. That’s close enough.
“You are very good at math,” I start. “Your brother isn’t so lucky. Do you remember how many Kahn Academy lessons he watched to master multiplication? He is practicing every day and now he is getting better. Your sister wants to learn how to juggle a soccer ball. Six months ago, she could keep the ball in the air only for one or two touches. Do you remember how she cursed and cried that she would never learn? But she didn’t give up. She practiced and now she can reach sixty touches. It is no different with your brain. You have already learnt a lot of Hebrew. You can also learn social skills. If you study and practice how to be a good friend, the other kids will play with you again.”
My son is still listening, but he looks bored. “It’s like the army,” my husband tries. “They train every day to be ready for war. If they don’t practice every detail before going into battle, they will get killed.” Now my son is leaning in. “This is what we want you to do. You can do ‘feeling homework’ and practice seeing the other children’s point of view or staying calm in difficult situations. My son nods. He understand. We have a deal.
For the next weeks, we work from a workbook called “I am not bad, I am just mad”. I don’t know if it is helping. There is very little feedback from school and even less from Seven himself. At least there are no more letters from school. Still I worry that perhaps sending our children to school in a foreign country, in a foreign language, was a mistake especially for Seven. Still we muddle through, and one week rolls into the next. Seven gets invited to an after-school club called ZooTali. I think it is here that he manages to broker a truce with one of his classmates.
The last week of our three-month school experiment in Israel arrives soon after Seven joins ZooTali. Days before Spring break, I pick him up from school. He runs up to me and asks casually if he can go home with Ben, his former arch-rival. As he says this, he raises his eyebrows and is trying to hide a huge grin. I don’t think Ben and Seven will ever be best friends, but this invitation is a huge victory. As I watch the two boys disappear around the corner, I know Seven has learned a valuable lesson. He can persevere and be successful in new groups.
That same week, at Seven’s soccer practice I am snoozing in the sun. It is now full-blown spring with sweet blossoms in the air and birds chirping overhead. The coach is giving his post work-out speech. “This week I would like to give the prize to somebody who joined us not too long ago. He didn’t know the rules very well at first, but he didn’t give up,” he says. Seven turns his head to look at me. He is right, he is receiving this week’s soccer trophy. I couldn’t wish for a more beautiful end to a three months trial by fire.