Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ashalim: The Invisible Child

It is 9 o’clock in the morning and I am sitting in a room full of hope. Piles of books and stacks of games fall against one another on shelves around the room and a large, bent light green stuffed snake threatens to bite me from its perch on the cushion to my side. There are children’s pictures hanging on a bulletin board on the wall filled in by marker. Sponge Bob, Mickey, and Cinderella smile curiously at me from their spots above the schedule of the week. “Shana Tovah” greetings and Sukkot decorations line the periphery of the wall.  One intricately rendered picture stands out from the rest. It is a melting mask, a grotesque face shadowed by navy, pink, and yellow lines. “They’re middle and high school kids,” I remind myself, glancing back and forth between Mickey and the mask.

I am in a meeting with Moriah, the soft-spoken director of the Ma’aleh Room in Tichon Maakef Gilo, a place that promises the invisible child a path to be seen. For the past few weeks, Moriah has been struggling to coordinate with all of the teachers, parents, students, and volunteers to create a perfect schedule that will allow each child all of the support they need. There are 18-year-olds volunteering as their year of National Service before the army and soldiers who were assigned the school as a special job. There are math, Arabic, and history tutors who have signed up to work with individual children. Moriah is a social worker and in charge of creating an inviting atmosphere, managing all of the students cases, keeping track of individual goals, schedules, and needs. Each day I’ve seen her pulled into the hallway to mediate a problem between a student and their teacher or solve a fight between the students. She is pushed and pulled all day long and she hopes I will be able to be her right hand and keep the room running when she is dealing with a disaster.

I will be working here two days a week, providing informal educational and emotional support to a group of five middle schoolers, one-on-one. It is one small room on a sprawling campus serving hundreds of youth in the Gilo area of Jerusalem. We are discussing the backgrounds of each child I will be working with, all ages 13 to 15, all with stories of neglect and lies, constant violence and academic failure. They have spent years in the system, gaining little more than a bitter package of disappointment, ridicule, and lowered self-esteem. My main goal is to show them that there is not only someone who sees them, but someone who also believes in them. I will do this by gaining their trust and then using informal educational activities to support their academic growth. I will try to discover their talents and interests and use them to nurture a project they can succeed in and present proudly at the end of the year.

We are in deep discussion when in a sudden burst of activity the door crashes open and three of the boys in the program tumble in, one yelling at the other that he’s a homo, the other retaliating by swiping his bag and flicking him backhanded on the head. They push and holler at each other for a moment and then settle down onto the dusty couch and begin to play with some clay. Moriah looks up at me and shrugs kindly at the interruption. I tentatively make my way over to the boys, smiling shyly and sitting down next to one as he screams out that there’s nothing to learn in his math class, that his teacher is an idiot and he’s better off throwing some firecrackers at her house. I try to make conversation with the other, but he is absorbed in his game of throwing a ball he has fashioned from the clay back and forth against the wall.

“Now, N.,” Moriah calls,  “you know there is a lot you can learn in that smart head of yours,” She walks over and puts a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Come here, star of mine, I want to talk to you.”

N. shrugs. “There’s nothing to talk about, everything is nonsense.” He mumbles, pulling out an iPhone and instantly beginning to watch an adventure movie. “Whoa, did you see that crazy guy? Whoa, he just jumped across two ceilings!”

“There is plenty to talk about, nu my angel, come over here and sit with me. I want to hear about your weekend.” She ushers him over to a sunlit corner.

N. watches his video for a few more moments and then slinks over to Moriah. She pulls the phone away and slowly, he tells her why he isn’t in class. All his teachers hate him and he is very tired because he went to sleep at two in the morning. He says he doesn’t want to go to class and would rather stay here with us. I watch as Moriah goes and gets a pile of bright colored notebooks and fans them out in front of him.

“I am giving you a notebook and you can choose which one. Did you know that a young man like you needs at least eight hours of sleep to be productive? You can do so much—just think about that 80% you got on your last algebra test! That’s because you worked so hard. But you won’t be able to do it with no sleep, right?” She waits for him to nod. “So I want to make a deal with you that you give yourself enough time for sleep.”

Moriah had already explained to me that there simply isn’t anyone at home to give N. boundaries or rules or generally watch over his well-being. His mother has five other children and was on drugs when he was born. He hasn’t seen his father for three years and thinks that he’s abroad. He’s really in jail. So N. wanders the streets and does whatever he wants when he leaves school.

“I want you to write down when you go to sleep each night in this notebook I am giving you. If you go to sleep at 11pm, then write 11pN. If you go to sleep at 2am, then write 2aN. And don’t come here and lie to me that you went to sleep at 11 if you really went to sleep at 1. That doesn’t help. I’m not interested in lecturing or admonishing you. Don’t be afraid of showing me the notebook if you haven’t been sticking to 11pm, either. That’s OK; I’d rather know what is really happening. That will make me the happiest. Do you understand, my prince?”

She explained that he was to have three goals: to show up to school every day, to try to go to bed on time, and to keep track of how he is feeling each night and anything else he wants to write about when he records his bedtime. Together they would go over what has been happening to him and make new goals.

This is the work of the Ma’aleh room in a nutshell. It is a place to give a voice, comfort, and warmth to the children that only have a silent wall, anger, and cold. This past week I have been fortunate to go visit different sights around the country that JDC-Israel has created, supported, and disseminated. The Ma’aleh program represents a resource room within a school, the Moadoniyot are after-school programs that provide a hot meal, homework support, and enrichment activities, and the Pnimiyot are boarding schools that give all-inclusive care for children whose parents simply are unable to care for them. All of these institutions are headed by a group of social workers, educators, and counselors whose main purpose are to form ties with children who had never had a real family or home before, and eventually to send them back out to society whole. For my small part, I will be working with five children, two days a week. My focus will be English Language support, but through it my goal is to develop a project with each of them that will highlight their interests and strengths, and then they will hopefully learn something along the way. 

The invisible child exists in every country and every culture, regardless of its noble values or lofty goals. Despite our promise to leave no one behind, in spite of our ideas of helping thy neighbor, the invisible child is everywhere to be unseen: wandering through the streets because anywhere else is better than home, sitting in their homes yearning for the one moment their parents will acknowledge their needs, and getting into trouble wherever they go because at least then someone is reacting to what they are doing. I witnessed these realities countless times throughout my years of teaching and now, sitting in this airy happy room, in a high school surrounded by strong tall palm trees, wrapped up in winding white chalk stone, muraled from floor to ceiling with vibrant promises of bright futures—I see it again. But this time despite the insurmountable odds that grow impermeable like a twisted thicket, during my first full week of work I have learned about the picks and hammers that might push through the thorns.

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