For 12 Years They Waited for This Moment, and Then the Coronavirus Spoiled It

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12th grade student Yahav Peretz in Binyamina, May 18, 2020
12th grade student Yahav Peretz in Binyamina, May 18, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

“In 12th grade you feel like the king of the world, everything revolves around you,” says Yahav Peretz, a 17-year old student from the ORT school in Binyamina. She waited excitedly for her last year of high school, in order to “come to school, sit with friends and feel that we’re running things.”

But just before spring and summer, when most of the year’s climatic events − like the annual school trip and graduation events − are held, the coronavirus arrived and interrupted all the plans. “It’s a peak moment in life and we’ve missed it,” says Peretz, one of more than 150,000 12th graders in Israel.

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The end of their last year in high school is the moment when the “long, unexpected and non-linear journey between youth and adulthood begins,” says Prof. Edna Lomsky-Feder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in her article about Israeli high school graduation ceremonies. This year, due to the outbreak of a pandemic of a mysterious virus, the unexpected may be the decisive factor.

“Being a high school senior is ‘wow,’” sayd Dvir Navot, a student in Hakfar Hayarok boarding school. “I remember the first day of the school year. I said to myself: ‘Wow, I’m a senior;’ I felt it would be an amazing year.”

12th grade student Dvir Navot, Kfar Saba, May 17, 2020. “I said to myself: ‘Wow, I’m a senior.’ I felt it would be an amazing year”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The stories about 12th grade are passed on via older siblings and relatives. “I heard from relatives who already finished high school that it’s the most fun time, in spite of all the matriculation exams,” says Peretz.

“We see our older siblings, and we waited for this moment when we become adults, less dependent on our parents,” adds Evyatar Bar On, a 12th grader from Nesher.

Evyatar Bar On in Nesher, February 24, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

Miriam Badir, a 12th grader from Kafr Qasem, also says that “12th grade is like a prize for all the years of study. Since 10th grade we’ve been waiting for the graduation party.”

The expectations of students all over the country were shelved with the outbreak of the pandemic and the transition to distance learning. They were less upset about their absence from the classroom and more worried about the cancellation of graduation ceremonies and other events.

In Navot’s school, for example, the annual class trip to Eilat was canceled. “Before the trip the class was on a high,” he says. “It’s the last class trip and everyone was waiting for it, because it’s our last opportunity to be on a trip together, with our classmates. The 12th grade class trip is in a different, freer atmosphere.”

In Bar On’s high school he and his friends eagerly awaited “Senior Day” at the beginning of the school year. “We wanted to leave a mark, to be remembered as the grade that did crazy things,” he explains. They planned to come to school with bicycle horns and organize a party for all the students. The administration tried to prevent the anticipated chaos at the beginning of the year in order not to spoil the learning atmosphere, but promised to allow “Senior Day” at the end of the year. Now, in light of the restrictions in the schools, the event may not take place.

60 days at home

Prof. Lomsky-Feder says that it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when 21st-century young people become adults, but high school graduation symbolizes the start of the process. In Israel the ceremony is particularly meaningful due to the proximity to being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, a clear event of transition from the bosom of the family to that of the state, and the moment when the young people are officially deemed adult citizens.

Students return to school in Tel Aviv, May 19, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The graduation ceremonies have a fixed structure: They begin with the formal part led by the adults − teachers, principals and sometimes municipal representatives – and include speeches, distribution of certificates of excellence and a gift from the school. Lomsky-Feder says that in this part it’s rare to hear criticism or a clear political statement in the speeches. The second part, led by the students, is less restrained and may include a play, skits and satirical segments. It’s the opportunity to mock, to criticize and to challenge the social order.

Bar On’s class started preparing for the ceremony before the coronavirus outbreak. “We started to sit with the director and producer, to bring up ideas for the end­-of-year play.” In addition to the ceremony, his school also has a party like American prom night. “With suits and the whole shebang,” he says. Before the pandemic the students started to organize sales to raise money for the event. In Peretz’s school they planned a similar party. “We dress ‘fancy’ and really look forward to it,” she says.

All the preparations stopped with the outbreak of the virus. “The coronavirus was something you heard about on the news here and there, and we didn’t imagine that it would cause us to sit at home for 60 days,” says Bar On. On the last day before schools closed, nobody imagined that the crisis would last so long. “Friends of mine laughed that had they known it would be the last day of school they wouldn’t have cut school,” he says.

Avigayil Glazer, a student in the Bnei Akiva high school in Hadera, says she realized during the crisis that she couldn’t “stay home and do nothing.” So she volunteered to pick oranges on a farm in Kfar Pines. “If we hadn’t returned to school I’d still be picking oranges.”

Until recently it seemed like all the events would be canceled. In fact, in mid-June events halls are slated to re-open under new Health Ministry regulations, such as taking temperature and wearing masks. But Peretz is not optimistic about the chances of having the prom − matriculation exams will be held throughout July this year, and some of the students will already be drafted or beginning their year of community service. “Everything is intermingled – the end of the year with plans for next year. We’re confused,” she says.

There’s nothing left

For many students the real difficulty this year wasn’t the cancellation of events and ceremonies, but the sudden parting from friends. “These are people whom I see more than my family,” says Dvir Apteker of the Neve Herzog Yeshiva in Nir Galim where there’s a dormitory. “We study together, have activities in the afternoon and at night we sometimes talk until 3 A.M. Now there’s nothing left of the school year, it’s a downer.”

“These were supposed to be our last moments with our classmates, an opportunity to strengthen ties,” says Peretz. “Some of us are going different ways. Twelfth grade is the last opportunity to end things properly.”

She’ll soon be flying to Canada for a year of community service sponsored by the Jewish Agency. The past months were a first taste of being severed from school friends and the scout movement, she says. “I’m afraid I’ll come back and it won’t be the same in terms of friends. I’m a very sociable person, unaccustomed to not meeting friends. That was something I used to take for granted; since the coronavirus I don’t anymore.”

But there were also positive aspects. Shortly before the coronavirus outbreak she broke up with her boyfriend and says that being alone at home gave her a chance to think about what she wanted and felt. “I experienced a crisis and overcame it by myself.”

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