Haim Yavin - A lifelong trauma

Haim Yavin, 79, attended a high school in Kiryat Motzkin that was considered a branch of the Reali School in Haifa (and is now called Levinhertz High School ). "I remember it as an anti-educational, snooty and sickening institution," says the veteran journalist and television news anchorman. "I was the worst student in the class, which was made up of the finest youth of Kiryat Motzkin and Kiryat Bialik - kids who saw themselves as the leaders of the future. I sat there in class, hating the teachers and detached from what was happening around me.

"Dr. Levinhertz, the principal and math teacher, a very stern man, would walk around the classroom and lecture in a condescending tone. He derived sadistic pleasure from the low grades he gave me. I have mathematical dyslexia - an inability to deal with numbers and arithmetic. I had no idea what he was talking about in class, and I didn't want to take the tests, but he forced me to, saying: 'If you don't know how to answer, at least copy the questions.' One day he tried to explain a complicated equation. Even the best students in the class didn't understand it. I had a feeling that I knew the answer. I raised my hand and gave my answer. There was total silence in the classroom. Then Levinhertz said one word: 'Idiot.' Everyone burst out laughing. That traumatic scene has always stayed with me."

In the middle of 10th grade, Yavin's mother was summoned to the principal's office, he says. "'The boy's not lacking talent,' he told her, 'and there are two possibilities: Either he stays back a grade or he leaves school.' I chose to leave."

Yavin started working as an apprentice in a welding workshop, but wasn't happy there either. "I was terrible at it, with two left hands."

During his military service in the Nahal paramilitary brigade, Yavin was sent to a medics' course, which included anatomy and physiology classes, and he says this awakened his appetite for knowledge and studying. After some private tutoring, he enrolled in 12th grade at the Even Pina School in Haifa: "I was studying there with 17-year-olds and after my first year I completed all the matriculation exams with good grades and with a perfect grade in math," he relates with satisfaction.

"School is an institution that is good for people who are average in the broad sense of the word," says Yavin. "People who are individuals or are unusual, for better or worse, have nothing to gain there. There are so many people who do poorly in school but then thrive as soon as they are free of this rigid and depressing framework. I still bear the scars from it, and I'd say that the situation has only improved in recent years."

Aviv Moshe - Skipping school for soccer practice

"Masada, Denmark, ORT Nevi'im, Hadassah Ne'urim boarding school, ORT Kennedy," says chef Aviv Moshe, 36, one of the owners of Tel Aviv's Messa restaurant, ticking off the schools he attended while growing up.

"Despite the frequent transfers to different schools, I remember that time as a lot of fun. I don't like frameworks and get bored quickly, and as a kid I was a lot more interested in running away from school and hanging out with friends, girls, going to parties, riding horses and playing soccer."

He grew up in the Katamonim neighborhood of Jerusalem, "which you could say is a neighborhood of all the kids who didn't manage in the school system," he laughs. "We were mischievous and we would meet every day in a place we called 'The Crime Park.' We sat on the railings and concocted plots to bring down the government."

In 10th grade, Moshe decided he wanted to go to boarding school. "A teacher from ORT Nevi'im told me to consider this option. I visited Hadassah Ne'urim [near Netanya] and it seemed like summer camp. It was obviously the place for me. At first I studied to be an electrician, but it bored me and I switched to auto mechanics, and that was okay.

"I lasted for two years there. It's hard to say that I really learned anything. We would hide in the closet until the housemother left the dorm, and then we would escape to the gorgeous Beit Yanai beach or play pool in Netanya. It was a cool period in my life, liberating. We would run away to the grapefruit orchards and eat fruit off the tree. But after two years I was bored with this framework."

Moshe then transferred to ORT Kennedy in Jerusalem, which he describes as "the last chance for problem students."

"There were some disturbed kids there," he admits. "I graduated with a vocational certificate in auto mechanics. During that whole time, I played soccer. I was the goalkeeper for the Beitar Jerusalem youth team. I was always skipping school to go to practice. I remember teachers telling me that I would never make anything of myself and would never succeed at anything. It didn't hurt me because at the time I had no concept of what success meant; it didn't threaten me."

At 16, Moshe started working in kitchens. "I worked in catering halls, cafes, bakeries, and that's how I learned. I'm an autodidact. I never had any formal training in the field. I never took a single course or did any kind of internship. I'm a hard one to teach, apparently," he laughs. "I didn't know that I would grow up to become a chef. I do remember once telling a friend, 'I won't be a cook, I will be the cook,' but that was just because I felt ambitious, not because I was dreaming of a career as a chef."

Today he teaches his employees that one can go far if it is done with real love and interest: "At school I didn't like the method of learning. It was all based on intimidation and a strict attitude, and it put me off. You need to foster curiosity, to get close to the children and help them develop a love for the material."

Yehudit Ravitz - Music saved her

"In first grade people were impressed because I learned to read very quickly, but from there everything went downhill," recounts singer Yehudit Ravitz today. "In the middle of third grade, we moved and then I experienced something like culture shock. We moved from a simple, low-income neighborhood to an affluent one. The kids in the new neighborhood were spoiled and very materialistic, and thought very highly of themselves. I felt very distant; I became very introverted and never spoke up in class. In sixth and seventh grade I'd started learning guitar and that saved me. It separated me from the outside world and protected me."

She says the teachers were aware of her abilities, but that wasn't enough for them. "In eighth grade I remember sitting there surrounded by teachers and the school inspector, and they said there was a gap between my high intelligence and my achievements in school," she recalls. "I still remember the inspector saying, 'It's a tragedy that there's intelligence, but no evidence of it in her grades.' My mother and I walked around Be'er Sheva in the hot sun, searching for a school that would accept me."

Ravitz, now 54, was accepted by the Mekif Gimmel vocational school, where she was put in the fashion track. "Yes," she smiles. "I studied the history of fashion, cutting, sewing. I love fashion in terms of dressing up, but it was disheartening for me to be in that course." Two years later she enrolled in the Mekif Alef vocational school in the secretarial track.

"I traded in the sewing machine for the typewriter," she laughs. "But I learned how to type blind and that's a skill I still use today in writing emails. "It was a depressing time. You had the feeling that the system was bigger than you, that it doesn't see the individual. Today the system puts the child at the center and there is more transparency. I grew up in a different atmosphere: The parents and teachers were immigrants from a completely different generation. As a child, everything seemed hostile and difficult."

Did she know that her future would look different? "I think that inside I knew that I had to survive this long wave, dive under the water, and that it would pass one day."

At 17, during the summer vacation before 12th grade, she auditioned for the army entertainment corps. "I sang for the judges - Matti Caspi, Ehud Manor and Tzedi Tzarfati - songs I wrote myself, and they crowded around me and asked, 'When are you enlisting?' I said, 'I have to do 12th grade,' though I played with the thought of leaving school and becoming a soldier. A few months later, the Combat Engineering Corps troupe started its rehearsals and my parents signed some forms approving my early enlistment and I showed up there at 17. I remember feeling on the way there that now I was spreading my wings."

Ruth Calderon - 'Disruptive and nonconformist'

"As a student I lived a double life most of the time," says Ruth Calderon. "I knew how to survive within the confines of the school system, but I didn't really manage to be there: I was often absent and my mother would cooperate with me and write notes to excuse my disappearances. Having to sit still for a long time, the kind of focus that was required, and not being allowed to move around - this was hard for me. The teachers did all they could, but the structure of it bored me. I went to the Magen elementary school and then to the Lady Davis high school [both in north Tel Aviv], whose building won an architecture prize, but to me it was a cold concrete building that reminded me of a dreary factory."

Calderon has a doctorate in Talmudic studies and is the founder and executive director of Alma College in Tel Aviv, which promotes Hebrew culture. She continues: "I had average grades, I didn't put much work into school and I ran away from it a lot. My soul was hungry and curious, but the method of education didn't arouse in me any desire to learn. It was only as an adult when I was exposed to a beit midrash [religious study hall] that I found myself as someone who studies. The traditional Israeli classroom seemed like a Christian church or an Ashkenazi synagogue - everyone seated in rows and a person standing in front preaching. The learning method of the beit midrash is ancient but revolutionary, and offers a brilliant learning space: Small study groups of up to four people that study at their own pace, with each group having the independence to decide about its progress. And since the beit midrash operates inside a library, the information is not limited to what the teacher says in a regular classroom: You can get up, open a book and use more sources and include them in your studies.

"When I studied at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I saw how much power there is in this study method. I saw the tremendous impact it had on me: I would sit there for hours and study. And it also made me understand how little of my aptitude for learning was tapped when I was in school.

"I don't feel traumatized by school. What I remember is just a boring method that didn't captivate me. Although as a child I did see how school can be an oppressive, cruel and even dangerous place for children. My brother, Dr. Ilan Calderon, who studied medicine at the Hebrew University and is now a senior physician at a hospital in the north, was a kid whom the teachers wanted to hold back a year. They were bent on sending him to a vocational school. To this day I still remember the teachers' surprise when he was accepted to medical school. It was a perfect example of how a child can be overlooked in a big system."

The beit midrash, adds Calderon, who is 49, "is actually more demanding than a regular school, but it offers a lot more freedom in the learning process." Education has to be an intimate experience, she says. "And the regular school system makes it hard to create that kind of atmosphere. An educator has to be like Janusz Korczak [the famous educator from the Warsaw Ghetto] - an adult who is dedicated to the young child and wants to nurture him and convey knowledge to him. In the greater educational enterprise there are many excellent teachers, but the system defeats them and grinds them down."

Haim Be'er - Bored at school

"My mother, who was born in 1905, got her education at night school, in correspondence courses, and mostly thanks to a lot of reading," says writer Haim Be'er, 66. "As someone who acquired all her education on her own, she believed that a reputable school would pave the way for me. The Ma'aleh School in Jerusalem was far from my house, but it was very prestigious and elitist, and she and my father invested most of their money in paying for my schooling there. I went there from first through sixth grade, but then was told that if I wanted to keep studying, it wouldn't be at that school.

"Basically the problems started early, in fourth grade. There was a total lack of understanding between me and the system, and hostility. We were taught by intellectual Yekke (German-born ) teachers, the education was Prussian, very strict. The principal would slap pupils and the teachers were quick to hit us, too. The French teacher told me I was like a piece of furniture in the classroom. Another teacher told me, 'You are a toad' [He imitates the man's strong Yekke accent]. I still see him in my nightmares. The math teacher once gave back a test and I got 4 out of 100. I liked the history lessons and when I got a 90 on one test, teachers from the whole school came to see if it was for real."

Be'er was bored at school. "One time I almost had a heart attack," he says. "I received a watch for my bar mitzvah. I was proud of the gift and showed it off; the whole class was looking at my new watch. The teacher asked me to hand him the watch; he put it on the floor, waved his foot above it and kept saying: 'I am about to crush your watch.' He didn't do it in the end, but he did confiscate it for a few days."

Did the teachers' attitude hurt his self-esteem? "Luckily, my parents were very loving," he recalls. "Their love protected me from the teachers from elementary school through high school; they could all say whatever they wanted. I had a different view of myself. The teachers might upset me with the things they said, but not really hurt me. Their attitude didn't leave a mark on me. I never took their comments to heart."

After 10th grade, Be'er transferred to the Mizrahi Seminary High School (an extension of the Lifshitz Teachers Seminary ). "There were wonderful teachers there who talked to us like we were human beings. There was none of the arrogance and condescension like in the school in Rehavia. Those were two wonderful corrective years for me."

Today Be'er knows the school system through his grandchildren: "It's hard for me to complain. The teachers, gray soldiers on the battlefield, are always the ones who get the blame. But the real blame should be cast on the government that shoves 40 kids in a classroom and doesn't support the teachers or ensure their supplementary training. I think the situation is worse today than it was in my time. When I was in school, our teachers, even the bad ones, were very highly educated people."

Evgenia Dodina - Still can't use a computer

It's a little hard to believe, but Evgenia Dodina wasn't accepted to acting school and almost became an electronic engineer.

"I was 16 and didn't pass the entrance exam for acting school in Russia," the actress says today. "My parents didn't want me to sit at home and be idle. I had to do something, so I went to study computers. I sat there at the entrance exam with the textbooks on my knees and I copied all the answers. I was hoping that I would get caught, but no one noticed and I got a top grade. That was the first time in my life I got a scholarship because of copying. So for a whole year I kept on copying the answers to all the tests, and would sit in class and dream about other things. It was a crazy nightmare.

"In math class, there would be equations all over the board and I would hide a poetry book on my lap and read until the teacher would come and toss away the book and pull me away by the ear. I wasn't a very industrious student. And today, of course, I don't even know how to use a computer."

Dodina, 46, recalls a talk that the educational staff had with her. "One day I drove everyone crazy because I was so bored and all the teachers scolded me, and I cried and promised that I would show more interest and participate in class." In the end, the teachers accepted her decision to leave school with relief: "At the end of the year, I told them I was leaving and going to try out for acting school again. The teachers applauded and said thank you for leaving, and the dean was grinning with joy."

Dodina passed the auditions for the Royal Academy, but was caught copying on a test about the history of the Communist Party ("I don't understand that stuff" ); her punishment was that for the first year, she could sit in the acting class, but not as a regular student. At the end of the year she failed the test on the history of the Communist Party again - and that was almost the end of her studies altogether.

"But then the teacher told me she would give me a passing grade on the test if I could get her tickets to the hottest show in town," she laughs. "That was the only way I could continue with the acting classes like the rest of the students."

She says the attitude toward her at the acting academy was also ambivalent: "There were days when they said, 'We see your potential, but you're not showing your talent.' And somehow, by chance, the last year of school a well-known director came to do our final play with us and gave me a leading role. My teachers, who were sitting in the audience, were asking: 'Who is this? Is she one of our students?' And right after that I was accepted into Mayakovsky's theater in Moscow, and that was the start of my career."

Lea Tsemel - Parents pulling strings

"At the Remez Elementary School and the Bialik Gymnasia in Haifa where I went to school, I was disruptive and nonconformist," says veteran attorney Lea Tsemel, who specializes in human rights cases and often represents security prisoners. "My mother had to come to the principal's office for a talk once a week. She would come out of there with a big smile and say, 'They say you're a big troublemaker but very sweet.' My family and I didn't take this in a negative way. I wasn't upset or depressed by it. It just had no effect on me."

In eighth grade, the school refused to give her a report card because of her behavior. "It was intolerable and described as 'totally unsatisfactory,' and because they wouldn't give me a report card, there was a problem: I couldn't get into any high school, so my parents had to pull strings. They went to the Education Ministry and explained that it wasn't [due to] my academic aptitude or lack of studiousness, but wild and rebellious behavior."

Tsemel says she spent most of her time outside of class: "Teachers were always kicking me out of the classroom. Today when I'm in military court and I infuriate the judges and they threaten to have me removed, it doesn't faze me and I say: 'I'm used to being removed from the classroom.' There was a teacher in high school who, as soon as he entered the classroom would say, 'You know what to do!' And I would get up and leave and on the way out I would quote the proverb, 'A righteous person knows the soul of his animal.' In high school there was a whole group of us that was always thrown out of class and we would meet in the stairwell. I used to joke about everything during class, I was very impudent and naughty. One time we snuck into the high school at night and took the discarded stencils for a test out of the trash can in the office. We went over the questions and came to the test the next day all ready. I used to drive the teachers crazy and the whole matter of bad behavior didn't bother me ... It was all for fun - a good prank or funny joke was worth the risk of getting in trouble," she adds.

Tsemel, now 66, managed to graduate from high school and during her army service began studying law.

"My teachers were surprised when I chose to go into law," she says. "And they were even more surprised by my choice to represent Palestinians and focus on human rights. To them, I was a girl who came from a good Mapai family [referring to the precursor of the Labor Party]. But at the same time, it also fit in with their picture of the girl with the rebellious and defiant nature, who rejects the consensus and is ready to pay the price. Rebelliousness definitely was a part of me even then," she laughs.

Yossi Yonah - 'A sense of failure'

Yossi Yonah, a professor of the philosophy of education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is a founder of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow organization, a member of the board of the Adva Center (a social justice organization ) and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem . But in his youth, no one thought there was any point in sending him to the regular high school in his town, Kiryat Haim; he was sent to a vocational high school where he was expected to learn to be a welder.

"I knew that if I didn't accept the decision I'd be left with no school framework and would have to work as a youth apprentice in a factory," says Yonah, who is today 58. "I was very reluctant to do that, so I tried to adapt to the program that was offered to me." But it was harder than he expected. "I didn't have the necessary motor skills. The sense of failure really stung."

Yonah made it to 10th grade thanks to a deal that one of the teachers offered him. "I'd failed completely and he came and said to me: 'You want to go up to the next grade? I have an offer for you: Paint the classroom and I'll give you a passing grade.'"

In 10th grade, he used a different method to get by: "I still had trouble at school. I had a good friend who was skilled at drawing and didn't like literature and history. So I would do his homework in those subjects, and he would do assignments in drafting. And so I was able to survive another year."

A look at the professor's report cards from those days clearly shows that he was assigned to the wrong kind of school: He got low grades in all the vocational and mathematical subjects and decent grades in the more academic subjects like language, literature and history.

"There was no real justification for promoting me to 11th grade, but it happened," he admits. "In that grade, it started to dawn on me that maybe I'm just better at other things. I stopped struggling to fit in."

In 11th grade the school held a three-day test sponsored by the Labor Ministry that was supposed to reflect the pupils' skills in metallurgy, welding and engraving; in the end they were to be issued certificates.

"At that point I didn't care about succeeding. I no longer had the fear of failure," he explains. "I sat there in the school yard while all around me everyone was welding and polishing and so on, and I wasn't doing anything. The principal said to me: 'Mr. Yonah, so you don't care? You think you're a big hero? Well, I promise you that after you finish your army service, you'll beg us to let you be tested again so that you can obtain a professional certificate.' I told him, 'Mr. Principal, I can promise you that this is the last day in my life that I'll be coming to your school.'"

Yonah failed the test - and kept his word. "I started working with my father, who was a worker for Solel Boneh [the road construction company ]. In the mornings I worked and in the evenings I studied in the Technicom Haifa preparatory course for matriculation exams."

After the army, Yonah enrolled in the University of Haifa, and studied philosophy, history and art history. "I had a passion for learning. I'm still restless in that way and skip from one field to another out of curiosity and a hunger to learn."

Yonah graduated with honors and was accepted into a master's and doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Israel in 1987 with a doctorate in the philosophy of ethics.

"A week ago a former student of mine sent me a message on Facebook," he says. "She told me she had just got a job running a school and asked if I could give her any advice. I wrote her: 'Remember that each child is a world unto himself.'"

Roni Somek - Three high schools

"I have a list of lines that I've sworn I will never say," says poet Roni Somek. "The list more or less revolves around variations on 'It's a shame he doesn't fulfill his potential.' This line, to me, is a candidate for the world champion of banality. I made up this list the day before I started teaching at the Ironi Yud-Alef High School in Tel Aviv, and it was part of a decision to try to make improvements in the way things were in my school days.

"My romance with the education system was a good one. We lived in Neveh Mishkan, a neighborhood of former transit camp residents near Tzahala, and I really enjoyed my time at the Tzahala public school. The first high school I went to was Hasharon in Ramat Hasharon. The only teachers whose classes I did well in were George Farkash (gym ) and Raffi Lavie (art ). The others forced me to get to know every tile in the floor of the schoolyard.

"After 10th grade, I went into the principal's office and asked him to 'upgrade' my report card so another school would deign to look at it. To my surprise, he agreed and my father, who saw a report card that wasn't bad, was very puzzled by my choice to go to another school.

"Raffi Lavie, by the way, clipped pictures onto the back of a chair on top of the teacher's desk. His voice breathed life into a one-armed Apollo sculpture. He offered a towel to Aphrodite rising from the waves, and drew sunglasses for the Mona Lisa above the mustache that Marcel Duchamp put there. He explained to us that A.D. Gordon was not just a poet with a national vision, but also the name of a street where there were galleries that we should visit. He spoke about the Beatles with great respect at a time when most grownups just thought they needed haircuts. In short: He was an NBA player in a school where most of the teachers were from low-level leagues."

Somek, now 59, transferred to the Revivim High School in Ramat Gan. "I improved my shooting on the basketball court there. The high school was supposed to be devoted to the history of the Labor movement, and to this day I know all about the doctrine of those who believed that thanks to the blue-collars alone, we would become a nation with character. I didn't have any collar. I had a tank top from the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth basketball team. Actually, there were some great teachers at this school and also a terrific principal named Naomi Midrashi, but I was another story. I got my matriculation certificate from a third school - Mishlav."

 

Roni Somek Three high schools

"I have a list of lines that I've sworn I will never say," says poet Roni Somek. "The list more or less revolves around variations on 'It's a shame he doesn't fulfill his potential.' This line, to me, is a candidate for the world champion of banality. I made up this list the day before I started teaching at the Ironi Yud-Alef High School in Tel Aviv, and it was part of a decision to try to make improvements in the way things were in my school days.

"My romance with the education system was a good one. We lived in Neveh Mishkan, a neighborhood of former transit camp residents near Tzahala, and I really enjoyed my time at the Tzahala public school. The first high school I went to was Hasharon in Ramat Hasharon. The only teachers whose classes I did well in were George Farkash (gym ) and Raffi Lavie (art ). The others forced me to get to know every tile in the floor of the schoolyard.

"After 10th grade, I went into the principal's office and asked him to 'upgrade' my report card so another school would deign to look at it. To my surprise, he agreed and my father, who saw a report card that wasn't bad, was very puzzled by my choice to go to another school.

"Raffi Lavie, by the way, clipped pictures onto the back of a chair on top of the teacher's desk. His voice breathed life into a one-armed Apollo sculpture. He offered a towel to Aphrodite rising from the waves, and drew sunglasses for the Mona Lisa above the mustache that Marcel Duchamp put there. He explained to us that A.D. Gordon was not just a poet with a national vision, but also the name of a street where there were galleries that we should visit. He spoke about the Beatles with great respect at a time when most grownups just thought they needed haircuts. In short: He was an NBA player in a school where most of the teachers were from low-level leagues."

Somek, now 59, transferred to the Revivim High School in Ramat Gan. "I improved my shooting on the basketball court there. The high school was supposed to be devoted to the history of the Labor movement, and to this day I know all about the doctrine of those who believed that thanks to the blue-collars alone, we would become a nation with character. I didn't have any collar. I had a tank top from the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth basketball team. Actually, there were some great teachers at this school and also a terrific principal named Naomi Midrashi, but I was another story. I got my matriculation certificate from a third school - Mishlav."