Can flowers grow in anarchy? If you would have asked me this question three months ago I would have said no, but now, three months later I think it might be possible. What is anarchy? I define it as a complete state of chaos, no order no rules. The Israeli classroom is just that, pure chaos, a big balagon if you will. Contrary to the U.S. school system, there is no assemblage of rules or order. The students yell at the teachers and the teachers yell back. Instead of the organized straight rows of desks there is no layout. Students move the tables and chairs freely to sit as they feel fit, if they choose to sit at all. There is no silence, no quietness.
To the naked eye it seems impossible for learning to happen, but through my time here I found out otherwise. Now often when we think of anarchy we associate a pentagon an image of anarchy. The pentagon is symbol linked with devilish things, it represents chaos at its best, and it it ironic that this story came to me through it. For it was the first day of Kathi’s 11 grade class and I will never be able to forget the first day. We were told that this was the brightest of the grade (each grade is tracked to three levels according to the points of bagrut they will take. 1 being just a graduation pass and 5 giving you almost all the benefits society has to offer. a 4 minimum is required for university and higher level army jobs), yet had the most disciplinary problems. I didn’t really understand what that meant and just kind of ignored the statement all together. In a U.S. context, there is no such thing as “the brightest class” and “disciplinary problems” in reference to the same group of students. But, I, however am not working in a U.S. context. It quickly dawned on me that I was in Israel, and although it seems impossible to have these things exist together, they do. I can bear witness to this “balegon.”
The class was divided into the usual groups: the Russians, the popular girls, the religious boys and everyone else. Scattered amongst them were a few native speakers (one parent spoke English in the home), a couple of quiet kids who usually observe and a few overly loud disruptive types. No one was willing to learn this particular day, not only was it the first day in class from Sukkot vacation, but we also served a distraction being the new American girls in class.
Nothing seemed abnormal on first sight, at least not in an Israeli school. The usual loudness and hum of class existed and a steady level of jokes, curses and random people walking in from the hallway ensued. Things seemed to be okay. Then I was instructed to sit with the Russian boys.
The Russian boys are actually a mixture of folks who come from all over the Former Soviet Union, mainly Russia and Ukraine. They usually sit in the right front corner of the room, clumped together with one girl. I call them the Russian boys out of convenience and the fact that they all speak with a Russian accent, listen to metal, have terrible mullets and interspersed Russian words and phrases in their Hebrew. Minus their clothes(except the puma track suits), everything about them looks stereotypical Russian. I go over to motivate them to begin working. That’s when I see it; the disciplinary problems of the class.
One student roars in a deep heavy metal voice “If I’m 555, then I’m 666!” he repeats, and this time around, all of his buddies, laughing hysterically join in “If I’m 555, then I’m 666!” One kid gets up and begins head banging. Kathi starts to scream wildly. It is not unusual, quite the contrary teachers shout at the students all the time. Students shout back at the teachers. This behavior is widely accepted, although at this moment in time, I am amazed. One boy jumps on the desk, head banging “If I’m 555, then I’m 666!” I am flashed his hand. He drew in a pentagram in it with 666 printed in the middle. In a deep voice I hear intense profanity, and look over to see more students join in the head banging. I decided to leave and return to my chair in the back of the room. Melissa looks at me. “I know” I mumble to her in amazement. For the first time I notice the other half of the class that Melissa was working with. “Wow!” we both laugh. What else can you do when don’t know how to respond.
After that we began rotation with the Russian boys. It was obvious to us that they we talented and bright, but had little motivation to work and moreover, enjoyed causing problems in class. It took every ounce of energy we had to keep them focused for five minutes, and this was an accomplishment. Most days neither of us wanted to go over, but it was needed and we had no choice. These were paper, scissor, rock days and the looser had to go over for the duration of the class, while the other person floated with the other students. This particular day I won, but I could see the hesitance in Melissa’s face and I just knew it would be best if went over anyway. The time before Melissa was caught dealing with one of them sneaking beer into class. I think that did it in for her, so I went instead. By then I had prepared several catch phrases to combat the usual 555,666 chant (apparently words from their favorite band Slipknot) and the random head banging and cursing. I decided that today, I was going to bullshit with the kids, push their limits back and hold up my wall, establish my line, in hopes that some work will get done. I knew in order to be successful I had to cross my personal lines, the ones put there by my upbringing which told me what I could and couldn’t do in schools. This continues to be a challenge for me, but slowly I am finding my ground. The Russians definitely have helped me with this.
I was sitting next to them and the ordinary crazy behavior began. This time I didn’t ignore it and attempt to push through. I recognized it and began to combat it. Every time 666 was mentioned I said “equals 18, life l’chaim!” When head banging started I said “It’s hard to read with the book still” then I proceeded to pick up the book and follow their head, reading loudly the practice bagrut. When a curse word was dropped, I simply said “the what ?” and repeated this over and over again, until they got it and we all laughed. Then I found myself talking about vampires, random Russian movies, sharing stories and basically doing everything else except what we were supposed to be doing, but it was all in English.
I have claimed the Russian boys now. Word spread and its no longer just Kathi’s class, I have developed a personal connection with all of them throughout the grades. I joke with them all the time. I sit with them in class. We box together at the gym. They call me “dafukah” which mildly translates into “Crazy girl” except its a curse word made into a noun. The funny part is that it is Russian curse word that has been infused into Hebrew, like so many other curses. I guess that has been one of the effects of 1.5 million people who migrated here from the Former Soviet Union.
All of my students were born abroad. They don’t speak Hebrew at home. Their parents know English well from their studies in Russia. They have stylish Middle-Eastern mullets and they listen to terrible Techno and Heavy Metal. They came into this world out of chaos and still thrive in it in this small town in the desert. To an outsider it makes no sense. For me, having made my way in, I get it. They respect me and listen to me. I no longer fight with them. They view me as part of their crew. The lines were established and walls of loyalty were built. They feel a sense of ownership to me, a claim if you will. I’m their’s. I work with them and talk about their problems. I helped with Bagrut projects, preparation and everything else. I hold them accountable and don’t let me bullshit me. Truth. I am one of the few who has broken in and can see the sweetness and talent of them all.
Amidst anarchy, I planted the seeds of change. I pampered and pruned and tilled the soil so that my seeds could sprout a new life. After months of work, spring has come, the rain has stopped and flowers grew, blossomed and smell so sweet! The world around them is a desert, filled with insanity of the unknown. It is a place of things with no order and only the survival of the fittest. I had to become one with the desert so my flowers could grow, work within its chaos and temperament. My flowers grew in anarchy. If you would have asked me three months ago if it was possible I would have said no. But I am, they are living testament to beauty that lies within something so ugly.