On the same occasion last year, it all looked different: more promising. Behind the screen of excitedness, we could see even a local neighborhood school in Jerusalem as the gateway to a shining future. The teachers, it seemed, all had halos of compassion and grace hovering over them.
But yesterday, as we, a mother and child, arrived at the Yefe Nof school to start second grade, a gray reality awaited us. A year has passed, and all the greetings, all the cliches about a "fresh start" could not succeed in lessening the sorrow of the first day of school.
In the morning there was a feeling of a Jerusalem fall in the air. Children looked worried, racing to make it in time for the bell. When they reached the schoolyard, they were happy to see the friends they had not seen for ages. But the worried look quickly returned.
At the entrance to the classroom they unenthusiastically removed the burden of their backpacks and sat down at their desks. At the same time, their parents crowded over them in little groups, whispering to each other with forlorn looks. A rustling of discontent spread through the classrooms like a cloud, traveling through the corridors, wafting in the air - whose presence weighed down on everyone in an almost concrete fashion.
"The classrooms are so small," someone complained. "There is no air in the rooms," added her friend. Her worries showed clearly on her face, almost on the verge of tears. She told them about it a long time ago, she said, but they did not listen to her. "Why did they stick more children in this classroom?" she asked without waiting for a reply. She knows that given today's reality, we should be grateful for only 34 kids in a class.
A short time later, in the playground of a school in the capital's Beit Hakerem neighborhood, there was a ceremony welcoming the new first graders. While the little ones were excitedly passing through an arch of flowers accompanied by the song "Children are a Joy," their parents - and, as in every school, they were mostly mothers - never stopped videotaping the event. And the entire time, the veteran parents of older children continued to recount their troubles in a whisper.
In the city of Jerusalem, where the amounts invested into education by both the Education Ministry and city hall are minimal, the start of the school year is no time for uplifted spirits. A few of the parents who filled the Yefe Nof school yesterday are graduates of only one year of the educational system, but they have already experienced a year with a number of cutbacks and they have been exposed to the Education Ministry's patchwork of policies. It is hard to blame the parents for their wary approach to the educational system.
The smell of the white-washed walls yesterday did not make any parents happy. They knew that behind the renovations in the lower grades are changes forced on the school by the city. In the Beit Hakerem neighborhood, there are at least three more classes in each year due to the construction of a new neighborhood, Ramat Beit Hakerem, as well as an influx of new residents. But the city does not want to open a new public school.
The whispering in the classrooms is not just the complaining of normal parents. It is the story of the tense relations between a waning secular population and a city that is deaf to its needs. This is the story of parents who feel they are the last secular holdout in Jerusalem, and for whom education is the most important thing. They live in a relatively expensive neighborhood because of the availability of high-quality education. Now the question is what they will do next. It seems their patience is running out.
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