Shrapnel in the School Yard

As the school year opened at Kiryat Yam's Hamifalsim Elementary School, which took a direct Katyusha hit, teachers realized that emotionally speaking, the war wasn't over.

Immediately after entering the Hamifalsim Elementary School in Kiryat Yam, the students rushed to the areas damaged by a Katyusha. The older students approached the wall of the lab that collapsed, now surrounded by a fence, to try to get a peek. The younger students stood for a while and peered at the shrapnel marks on the gym wall.

"I was sad when I heard the school was hit," said Yarin Garfi, a third-grader. "Now we won't be able to use the gym; we'll have to use the little field."

Some 40 Katyushas fell on Kiryat Yam. On the last day of the war, Hamifalsim took a direct hit. The wall of the gym was damaged and it was declared unsafe, the biology lab and the adjacent math room were damaged, equipment was ruined and the school's windows were shattered. The area was cleared of glass shards, but the damage to the walls has not yet been repaired. Only yesterday, property tax officials and the municipal engineer were discussing the necessary repairs.

At 8 A.M. the fifth-grade students entered their classroom. The homeroom teacher, Liat Baron, asked them to write down on a wish list their expectations and concerns for the coming year. They were to be hung on the wall. Along with the usual wishes - to succeed in their studies, to be a DJ - students asked "that there won't be any more false alarms," "that Iran's nuclear program be stopped," "that no atom bombs are launched at us" and "that Nasrallah and the president of Iran drop dead."

At 9 A.M., the festive opening ceremony of the school year began. Mayor Shmuel Siso and the Ministry of Education northern district supervisor, Nira Rosenheimer, were there. Due to the damage to the wall of the gym, the official ceremony was relocated from the large playground to the small yard, but afterward, in the large yard, the teachers handed out balloons and the children were asked to close their eyes and make a wish before releasing them.

At 10:30 they returned to the classrooms. Two girls proudly displayed the shrapnel they collected in the yard; others held fragments of the Katyusha that struck the school. Homeroom teacher Baron asked who spent time in a shelter during the war. All the children raised their hands, their stories mixed and they enthusiastically interrupted each other.

"There was a siren and mom and dad weren't home. Just my sister and I were home. The rocket fell next to our house and we were really scared. After that our parents came and we left the room and saw that all the blinds in dad's office had flown off," related Moran.

"Our shelter was locked and by the time we broke the lock, we were already hearing the booms," said Daniel.

Roman related, "On the first day there was a siren and I was very nervous. I didn't even know what it was. I ran to the shelter with my little brother, because mom and dad weren't home. Afterward I went up and turned on the television and understood Katyushas had hit Haifa and people were killed."

Multicultural school

Hamifalsim is located in the heart of Dalet Quarter, an impoverished neighborhood, or in the Education Ministry terminology used by the principal Vered Fisher: "A neighborhood with a high nurturing index." Fisher has been principal for two years at the school, which until a year ago faced the threat of closure. It has 192 students in seven grades, a long school day and a food program.

"This is a multicultural school in the truest sense of the word," said Fisher. Twenty percent of the students are the children of Ethiopian immigrants, and 60 percent are the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, she said.

"For most of our students, Hebrew is a second language. They are indeed Hebrew speakers, but after school, by the time they reach the school gate, you hear them switching to Amharic or Russian to talk to the grandmother or grandfather who has come to pick them up. These are kids who come to the parent-teacher meetings and translate what the teacher says for their parents. Most are children from single-parent families and half are being cared for by the municipal welfare offices."

Last Wednesday, four days before the start of the school year, the school was bustling. The chief maintenance man, Malikhov Good, led the volunteers, a group of high school students sent by the municipality to help with repairs, and issued instructions. The teachers were arriving for a meeting with the principal.

A day earlier, Fisher had held a darbuka drum workshop for the teachers to ease some of the tensions. "It was liberating," they said, acknowledging with a smile Fisher's decision to hold a similar workshop for the students.

In addition, the teachers met with school psychologist Itzik Vilnai and discussed their war experiences.

"As residents of the areas, the teachers went through some difficult experiences themselves and were in need of this as much as the students," said Fisher. "One teacher told me she stopped functioning, and just sat helplessly and waited for the sirens. Others spoke of their concern for children serving in the army and of the desire to pack up a bag and go away."

Fisher instructed the teachers to open the first day of classes with the classic question of "how was your summer vacation?" It is better to ask an open question and not to ask directly about the war, she explained. "Afterward, when the discussion evolves, ask them where they were during the war. Were they at home or were they in the shelter all the time? Did they have to part from their parents and stay with relatives? This is an involuntary separation and sometimes it can leave a scar. Move among the children and see how they are. Write down every experience that moves you. Even now I'm receiving messages from parents that their kids are experiencing anxiety."

Fisher distributed to the teachers an Education Ministry kit to help identify anxiety and informed them that the teacher on schoolyard duty would now have an additional task - identifying children in distress or experiencing anxiety. At the end of the talk, the teachers left to tour the building.

"Each teacher must show her students the protected spaces in the school building and go down to the shelter with them," said Fisher. When the teachers passed the gym wall, they approached hesitantly and touched the cracks.

"You can stick notes in it," laughed one of the teachers. Fisher continued the tour and stopped beside the lab that was damaged. "It's become a Katyusha tour," she said. "Up north, they charge NIS 150 per family for such a tour; that's why I'm offering a union discount."

Rebuilding and moving on

The gym teachers entered the principal's office. "Don't worry, think positive," she reassured them. "They'll repair the gym and the school will finally have a new, painted gym."

After they left she said, "I have to show strength and optimism to give the teachers a feeling that everything is okay. I constantly stress that if equipment was damaged, it's no problem because we'll get newer and better stuff. And that's the message we are relaying to the students. Even though the school was hit, it didn't close. We're overcoming, rebuilding and renewing and moving forward."

Math teacher Rima Kotov stood at the entrance to the damaged lab, hesitating to enter.

"It's very sad to see this," she said. "Before we went on vacation, the children helped to arrange the classroom. Everything was set up - and now it's all ruined."

The first-graders came to meet the homeroom teacher, Shlomit Elbar, accompanied by their parents. They had new schoolbags full of supplies collected by the mayor for the school year.

"I sense the parents are more tense than the children," said Elbar. "There may be problems, but in the meantime I see the children are calm."

First-grader Nicole Vinotevski said she was in a shelter during the war.

"How was it?" asked Elbar and the girl responded, "Fun."

Noy Wasa, who also sat in a shelter, said it was scary. Her mother, Ziva Wasa, an Ethiopian immigrant, was waiting for her outside the classroom. Noy is the youngest of Ziva Wasa's four children. Wasa's husband is in the career army, so she spent the war alone with the kids. Because of her limited means, she couldn't leave the city to get out of the Katyushas' range.

"We live next to the school," she said. "When a Katyusha fell, my kids came to see what happened to their school."

The financial problems overshadowed the joy of the start of the new school year.

"It was tough for us during the war, and now it's also hard to go back to the routine. I have to buy textbooks and pay the school fees, and it's a lot of expenses," she said.

After classes, when the school emptied out, Fisher met with the school's counseling staff. They talked about the Education Ministry's planned emergency drill. Many parents, said Fisher, worry that as soon as the siren goes off during the drill, the children will be flooded with fears and anxieties. The psychologist, Vilnai, said he didn't think that was necessarily bad.

"The drill will awaken what is on the verge of sinking in and being forgotten. Assuming that there is still a need to continue working through the experience, this offers an opening to do so. It may be a challenge. If it happens, thought should be given to how to incorporate it into the classes and regular activities," he said.

"I'm afraid of the day when they'll have the drill," admitted Leah Goldfinger, a remedial teacher. "I believe specifically on that day the tears and anxiety will burst forth, and I must say personally I'm in the same place they are. I even keep thinking that maybe I won't come that day, just to avoid hearing the siren."