Being an immigrant mother means a lot of things. It means struggling to instill your native language in your kids while they slowly start to speak to their siblings in their new language. It means your kids become hyper conscientious about the school supplies they need and their homework assignments because they know mom struggles to read the daily emails. And it means you can’t be the parent who was once on top of everything, which usually doesn’t matter much (I have missed a few bake sales) but sometimes it matters a lot.
In the middle of second grade, after we had lived in Israel less than a year, my son and the rest of his classmates took an exam for gifted education. The letter that was sent home didn’t say much except that 15% of the second grade would likely pass and then there would be another test in several months where the top 1-2% would pass and have the opportunity to learn outside of the regular curriculum one day a week. I thought anything that gets him out of his non-exemplary public school would be a blessing. And, if I’m being totally honest, I wanted him to pass that test to start him on a track toward a cushy intelligence job in the army. I don’t need this kid driving around in a tank in Gaza. Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself but mama bear has an agenda. So he took the test and he passed it.
Two months later I took him to a regional school where hundreds of kids had gathered with their parents to take the second exam. I sat in the courtyard and chatted with other parents. After an hour and a half the kids came out and I asked my son how the test went. He said it was fine. I asked him if he remembered any of the questions. He said no. Then a moment later he said in English, “They asked, what’s Africa?” So I asked what he wrote. He said he circled STATE. So I said, “You know that Africa’s not a state.” And he said, “I know, but I didn’t know the Hebrew word for continent.”
That’s when I started to think that maybe my son was at a disadvantage because his Hebrew vocabulary still was not at the level of his classmates. I mentioned this to my husband who kind of shrugged his shoulders. So I mentioned it to my son’s teacher and she said she would mention it to the principal. I never heard from her about it again and I didn’t follow up either.
During the last week of school we got the results of the test. He had not passed. It was only then that I noticed a website on the letter so I went to the site and started poking around. I discovered that my son could have taken a special test for new immigrants either in his mother tongue or in Hebrew but graded on a different scale. The institute made similar allowances for kids with learning disabilities, kids from disadvantaged sectors of society and the like. I wondered why no one had thought to test my kid as a new immigrant. I mean, he had been in country for less than a year. So I called his teacher and explained what I had found and asked if she had ever followed up with my original request. She hadn’t. After searching the website for more than an hour I finally found a phone number for someone and made a phone call. I explained the situation. The woman I reached was friendly and listened and then told me there was nothing she could do. Had I come to her immediately after the test then maybe, but now it was too late. I explained that I didn’t know about the new immigrant clause. She said, well it’s on the website and the school should have known to ask for a special test for him. I said, well here’s the thing about new immigrant kids, they often have new immigrant parents and we don’t always pick up on the details. We usually can’t even find the phone number we need. Sometimes we can’t even get past the automated phone menu. So how on earth was I supposed to know about special testing circumstances for my kids when I myself have the same special circumstances? And maybe he still wouldn’t pass even if he took the test again in English but I felt he deserved a chance to test on equal footing.
She apologized again but there was nothing she could do. That’s when I almost said, well thank you for your time and hung up defeated. Instead I took a deep breath and I told the nice woman the story of when we first moved to our little community and we were signing our daughter up for preschool. She was four. The woman at the regional Office of Education, let’s call her Sima, said there were no more spaces in any of the preschools so she would be in a kindergarten and then stay in the same kindergarten the following year. I was not pleased with this solution and explained that she’s not old enough to be in kindergarten and she doesn’t speak Hebrew and wouldn’t that be somewhat traumatic? I mean hard enough to switch schools in the middle of the year, but to switch countries, and schools and languages and GRADES in the middle of the year seemed like the wrong course of action. Sima continued to repeat that there were no spaces for my daughter in the community preschools. So I backed down. If Sima said so I figured there was nothing I could do. Developmentally and behaviorally speaking, that was probably the worst year of my daughter’s life.
The woman on the phone came to Sima’s defense. She had worked as a preschool teacher and taught multi-age classes and found it to have great educational advantages. I told her I agreed when the class was truly mixed. Not when there were 30 five and six-year-olds and one four year old. She saw my point and asked why I didn’t ask to speak with someone above Sima. I told her that I thought this was Sima’s domain. I figured there was no wiggle room. And I explained that at the time it was too hard for me to have these conversations in Hebrew on the phone so I just gave up. She said, next time something like that happened I should know there is always someone else to talk to. That’s when I asked her “Are you the Sima in this situation?” She didn’t understand. I asked her again, are you the Sima, as in the woman who would give me a hard answer but who is in fact someone with a manager who might be able to really help? She laughed and said, yes, I am the Sima and she gave me the number of her supervisor and congratulated me for earning my first Israeli stripes.
Over the course of the next few months I was on the phone half a dozen times as was my husband who was now fully on board to try and persuade the Ministry of Education to retest my son as a new immigrant. They wanted a fax from the school explaining why he was never registered as a new immigrant. They also wanted a letter from his teacher. It took two more months of emails and faxes and finally we received a registered letter from the Ministry to invite him to be retested. So he was.
He still didn’t pass. But his new immigrant mother passed. With flying colors.