Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ashalim: Changes in the Game

Today we gathered all the volunteers, teachers, and students of the Ma’aleh room together for a special “peilut” focusing on our emotions. It was the first time that we’d gathered all the children together in one room for a shared activity and it was a great success.

Suddenly, instead of fighting separately to help each teen along their course, we were working together as a group. Last week Moriya, the talented social worker who is in charge of this room, told them she was leaving after Hanukah for unfortunate personal reasons.

Drawing how we are feeling (notice a house)
 She is incredibly disappointed, disheartened, and saddened by her unexpected departure but because of political and economic reasons she has had to leave. This is a woman who came into the chaos of this place a year and a half ago and swept up the children who needed her most into what became their only safe space. Now she is leaving and suddenly the central person (in many cases the only person) who is truly there to listen to them, be there for them, understand them, and guide them will be gone.
Me and Moriya

Song for Moriya (How could I forget your face, how will I look in your eyes?)
This shared sadness has pulled the children together and sobered them. It has given them something to talk about. It is hard to stomach that this is what it took to begin making the first step towards community. This entire week the room has been suddenly transformed into a place of introspection and shared emotion—ironically the exact things that were missing up to now have suddenly begun to exist. All the volunteers, soldiers, teachers, and social workers who are involved in the room have been asked to be there to offer support. Instead of the cold, emptiness, anger, confusion, and mayhem, there is the semblance of a sudden family.

Before: shouting, yelling, constant cursing, the teenagers pulling each other down and using words and fists to further pound in their anger against one another. The message: You are hurting so you will hurt others. You will get away with fooling around because no one is really noticing you. No one is really paying any attention.  

Now: as I sit here writing, two of the most troubled boys are sitting quietly together on the couch sharing a game with each other. They are bending over an iphone and whispering advice and help, talking casually, and working together. Earlier, we went around the circle and shared how we are feeling and what the activity was like for us. Moriya spoke about how proud she was of each child who participated. She invited them to continue to use this room all week to work through the difficult emotions they are feeling because of her departure. Teens said they were scared, sad, worried about who will replace her. They said they know it will never be there same. The message: You are hurting but it is OK. We are all hurting and this is a safe space to express our emotions, together and apart. Sometimes you still hurt others and you hold fast to the patterns and actions you are used to, but we are all in it together and it can get better.
Before: a fragmented daily and weekly schedule when teens who weren’t meant to be there stream in and out and the ones who had scheduled sessions never showing up. The teachers and volunteers fruitlessly calling them and searching for them in the hallways. By the time they find them (if they succeed in that) the time is almost over. Meanwhile, the teens are either wandering the hallways, getting into fights, or coming in here when it is not their time just to try to get out of class. There is more yelling, fighting, throwing, cursing, disrespect. The adults are running around searching and trying to control the whirlwind of turmoil that exists. The message: There is nowhere for you and no one really cares. You are told to do one thing but there are no real consequences if you don’t.
The teen's drawings

Now: all the children came at ten in the morning, sat together in a circle and participated in a shared activity. All of the tzevet was there and the room was filled with an aura of support and understanding. Each child had one or two volunteers sitting and working with them, discussing their emotions, what they can accomplish, and reflecting on what they have already succeeded in changing in themselves. After they were finished they were instructed to draw their emotions, filing the entire page with color. The message: There is somewhere for you and it is here. The strength doesn’t come from just Moriya (although she has done a lot for this place), the strength, rather, comes from each of you. When we work together seriously, committed, and reflect, we can make real gains.

Before: a dump zone where teachers and principals throw the “troubled” kid into the room, often without a purpose or assignment, simply to get them out of their hair. Sending them home is more problematic because of what may await them there, so instead they are thrown in here and told to stay put. They are told to sit quietly and not bother anyone. Students doing anything and everything to try to get out of class discover just how easy it is—just wear a certain sweatshirt instead of what you are told and “wallah!” you are made to sit in the Ma’aleh room all day long with no responsibility or work. The message: You are unwanted everywhere. You are a menace. You are nothing. It is easy for us to dismiss you without feeling.

Now: next week we will have a Hanukah party. Two of the teens have taken charge of collecting the money from each student and teacher. Others have said they will prepare a special treat. Everyone is excited to be together. We will eat, create an art project and celebrate the miracle of the eight lights The message:  You are part of a community. You are wanted. You are responsible for this community. You are important. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are getting closer and closer to our goal each day. 

This place is by no means fixed. Rather, on the contrary—I am apprehensive and bothered by what this big transition might mean for these children. I think that there are a lot of problems in the system, in this school, from many of the teachers and leaders that are supposed to be there for the kids but are instead doing everything to continue to beat these kids down.

There are things that are impossible to fix quickly with one person, one room, some well-meaning people.  There are some things that may never be fixed: lazy, angry, sad people who do not deserve to call themselves educators, poverty, broken families, the streets, overwhelmed school leaders, a system without enough money, laws and regulations and decisions that are made because of political reasons instead of what is good for the children…
These are things that could change slowly, surely, along the long run if some serious decisions are made, but for now, all we can do is try to make small tiptoes forward. Tiny, little gains in even one child’s life makes it worth-it. I don’t know what will happen next or if this sudden community feel will last. But at the end of the meeting, when some of the girls and I took silly pictures together and then they thanked us for the activity, I knew we were starting to move in the right direction. 

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