'Even the Youngest Kids Know Things Have Changed'

Sixth-grade teacher Giselle Ayida drives home to Sderot from Harel Elementary School in Ashkelon with greater than usual speed - and stress - these days. In quieter times, the trip took her about 25 minutes, but nowadays, Ayida says she usually makes it in less than 20. She wants to get back to her two children, who go to Sderot schools, as quickly as possible.

Ayida has a lot of experience dealing with Qassam rockets and anxiety. On her way to school yesterday, she was mainly thinking about how to greet her students, what she should say to them after the Grad missile attack on the city last weekend. "It was important to me that I hug them and tell them that they're not alone," Ayida said at the end of the school day. "I think they were a little more relaxed as a result of my experience in Sderot."

Ayida grew up in Ashkelon and has lived in Sderot for 12 years. She is accustomed to being interrupted by the Color Red alert while she is grading tests, planning lessons or speaking with parents. When the Qassams began, she recalled, "I was hysterical and my knees went so wobbly I couldn't even pick up the children to take them to the reinforced room. That doesn't help anyone. The best advice I can give my students is not to lose your bearings or get stressed out. I tell my own kids the same thing."

A few minutes before Ayida arrived that morning, principal Ruti Ben-Walid stood at the school's entrance to welcome the children and hustle them inside. The Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command has issued orders prohibiting kindergarteners and elementary school students from going outside during the school day. (High-schoolers can go outside, but they must be within sprinting distance of a shelter.) So there was no outdoor recess, no gatherings and none of the usual school noises.

A few parents brought their children to the gate. One, Moshe Raveh, said he does so every day, "but now I return home filled with fear. Even the youngest realize that things have changed." Another parents asked whether there are bomb shelters at the school and what the children will do during recess. According to the Education Ministry, school attendance was at 95 percent in Ashkelon yesterday despite the fears, though many children came late.

On the bulletin board in the teachers' lounge, under the heading "security situation updates," were instructions issued by Ben-Walid: "We must radiate strength, maturity and brave behavior in order to support all the students." The principal tried to broadcast a business-as-usual message yesterday. The first two hours of the school day were devoted to classroom discussions of the weekend's events; then the normal class schedule resumed.

Attendance was almost perfect in Ayida's sixth-grade class. One boy said he preferred coming to school over staying home, "because here, you can hear the sirens. Yesterday we didn't hear a thing." That seemed to be the children's main fear. Sophie, another student, added that the school has shelters, whereas her home is not reinforced, and "here, there are people with more experience than our parents have." Ayida encouraged the children to express their fears about the unfamiliar situation while emphasizing the importance of cooperation and togetherness. "At my home in Sderot, the doors are always open, so that if someone passes by when the sirens sound, he can come in and find shelter," she told them.

Next, the children were asked to draw their feelings. The Education Ministry calls this a "venting exercise." Their fears were reflected in the drawings, most of which showed missiles landing on houses while helicopters hovered overhead. One boy added words inside bubbles: "sadness," "worry," "pain," "depression," "hate." A girl drew the borders of the state, inside fences, and then wrote: "Don't worry, because everyone's together."