On the Same Side of the Divide

At first it was embarrassing, when the teachers revealed their salaries, their motives for choosing a teaching career, when they spoke of their sacrifice.

When I was a student, I am not sure we knew what education was. We were intimately familiar with only our daily grind. We knew how to study, some of us more than others. The last years of high school I remember mainly as running the hurdles from exam to exam. Days and nights of endless memorizing with no real purpose except for the grades. Only in looking back, years later, can I discern the process that educational philosophers call the "industry of education," and wonder what my place was in it.

I went to a religious school, where the concept of "respect for the teacher" expressed itself in tangible and extreme ways. We stood up as soon as we heard her heels clicking in the corridor, before she crossed the threshold of the class. We never called her by her name, but rather addressed her in the third person. She never told us anything about her personal life. We were forced to respect our teachers and we were in awe of them. The principal was God himself. But secretly, we mocked them and him. We lived side by side in different spheres with no real connection between them.

During the present strike, a new alliance has been forged between the teachers and the students, with both groups struggling for better education. In light of this new alliance, the old theory dissipates that a lack of respect for teachers is part of the problem with young people today. You could not miss seeing that masses of teens came to the rally Saturday night at Rabin Square. On the grass around the protest tent near the High Court of Justice last week, teachers and students came together to listen to classes led by other teachers. An alternative school, they called it. From the street it was impossible to clearly tell the teachers from the students. Everyone was talking and laughing, and for a moment, the traditional teacher-student hierarchy seemed artificial.

This new fellowship comes to the fore not only in the young people streaming to the squares, crossroads and marches, but also in the feeling of sympathy and real partnership. These feelings have sunk deeply into their hearts without the teachers having lost any of their professional authority, their morality, or their responsibility toward their students. This fellowship was created at students' meetings and in private conversations during which the teachers asked the students to help them in their struggle, after they realized that the students were a force to be reckoned with.

At first it was embarrassing, when the teachers revealed their salaries, their motives for choosing a teaching career, when they spoke of their sacrifice. When all of this is over, some are sure to argue that it was uneducational to involve the students in the struggle. But it seems that this argument is valid only in a perfect world. In an age when children are exposed, sooner or later, to the adult world anyway, this was a step that had to be taken. It helped the kids grow up; inside of a day they understood that they had the right to talk about their education, that they, too, could demand what they deserve from the state.

This is still not a mass movement. Most of the kids are staying home and sleeping late. But there are many groups at work, and they are multiplying. New groups of teens that are talking about education at eye level are springing up every day. "We lifted up the teachers' masks and discovered that they are struggling to make a living, and are really sacrificing for us. We discovered human beings, and that did not make us respect them less," a student at Boyer High School in Jerusalem said last week. Her classmate told me he believes that after the strike, relations between students and teachers will not go back to what they were before. "No one, not even the teachers will say anymore, 'Oh, the youth of today...'"

Even if the teachers' struggle does not produce the desired revolution, the indelible impression of this time-out, during which teachers and students were on the same side, and the closer ties that were forged, may be the true gains of the strike.