My daughter started elementary school this year which in Israel is the first grade. My husband and I attended a “Back to School” meeting where the principal addressed the parents of the three first grade classes and spoke about the school’s mission and policies. It wasn’t especially inspirational and she didn’t have a microphone so I only heard about 30% of what she said and, of what I heard, I only understood about half so that left me feeling very bored and annoyed. My husband promised I wasn’t missing much. One thing I did hear sounded something like, “if a student is good at something we encourage him to further pursue that direction. But if he is not very good, then we say, this activity is not for you, and we encourage him to do something else.”
I sat for the rest of the meeting wondering if I had heard correctly. So what you’re saying is that if my kid isn’t good at math then fuck it and maybe he should focus on Torah or Circus Arts? Come again?
Because I’m American, you see, and we tell our kids they are awesome at everything even when they suck. I saw a friend of mine after the meeting and asked her if I had heard what I thought I heard and she confirmed. She’s an Israeli, born and raised in America, so she’s bilingual in a way that I will never be which now makes me feel like maybe I should forget about Hebrew and focus on something where I really excel like parallel parking or making smoothies. My friend and I talked about it for a few minutes and while this notion that we are not all awesome at everything took me by surprise, it wasn’t so much the idea as much as it being said aloud to a bunch of parents by a school principal. Because I have to admit, a big part of me agreed with her. Maybe that was the most surprising part.
This summer I took my kids to America for a visit and my nine year old son slept on the floor of his cousin’s room. His cousin is ten. The first night he kept coming out of the room because he was scared by all of the trophies. Those golden statues were looming above him, gleaming in the moonlight and frightening him. It was true, there were a lot of tall, shiny action figures on my nephew’s shelf and I could see how that would be scary. But more importantly, why did he have so many trophies? He’s only ten. “It’s because they get a trophy after every season and he plays soccer and baseball,” my brother explained. “They add up.”
“Don’t you have to win the season?” I asked. “Nope. Everyone’s a winner. You didn’t hear about that? All of our kids are such big winners that they actually suck at everything. Unless they’re Asian. And then they’re good at piano.”
Now, make no mistake, we got trophies as kids too. My first trophy was for Best Swimmer when I was seven, which my mom bought for me for my birthday. I was so jealous of my older brothers who had many trophies and medals and ribbons because they both swam competitively and played soccer and baseball on winning teams and were several years older than I. I didn’t yet play any sports but I knew how to swim so she went with Best Swimmer 1980. Sure, it was ambiguous. Best Swimmer in the whole world? Or just among seven year olds in the whole world? It made no difference to me; I was happy. But my brothers teased me mercilessly because indeed I had not earned that trophy. So I was sad again until I was nine and selected to play on a post-season all-star AYSO soccer team. We were regional champions and it was awesome. We all got great big, heavy trophies made of wood and gold and maybe even diamonds, not like the shiny coated plastic crap they pass out these days. There was one other trophy I won when my soccer team came in first place in the league a few years later and that was the end of my collection. I continued to play soccer through high school and enjoyed it very much. The end. No one told me that I should focus my energies on something more suited to my natural abilities nor did I have a room full of trophies. I just loved soccer, played my best and then retired my cleats when it was time.
My husband, by comparison, grew up in Israel and at sixteen competed on the Men’s National Gymnastics Team. He would have been Barcelona bound if Israel ever qualified for the Olympics in anything besides judo and windsurfing. (Why focus on Olympics when there are Nobel prizes to win?) So instead, he traded in his sexy white stirrups for an even sexier army uniform. You might ask, what does he have to show for the thousands of hours that went into his gymnastics training? He has several medals in a shoe box sitting in his closet and the that fact that at age forty-one he can still do a back flip which is a real crowd pleaser at weddings. But, ironically, the only trophies he ever won were from a summer camp he attended in Massachusetts while visiting his American cousins. Camper of the Week 1986, sessions one and two are, to this day, prominently displayed bookends in our home.
It’s not just sports either. It was the same for piano. I played for ten years. I did recitals twice a year and various theory exams and performances in front of judges. And the judges were honest. I was not headed to Julliard. But I did fine. I enjoyed piano and studying all those years taught me to read and understand music. I’m grateful for those skills. And that my parents and teacher continued to encourage me even though, by all accounts, my abilities were only average.
Last year an American friend of mine, also living in Israel, told me how her oldest daughter started taking piano lessons here soon after they arrived. She was around eleven years old and had been taking lessons for a few years in the U.S. before they moved. The music school in Jerusalem was preparing for the end of year recital and her daughter was not invited to participate. At first my friend was distraught, as I would have been, because we come from a culture where everyone gets a turn and no one is picked last and what do you mean she won’t be in the recital and you’ll be hearing from my lawyer! But she came to see the other side. That the kids who were selected were outstanding and had practiced very hard. Their reward was the performance. My friend’s daughter would have another chance the following year. As it turns out it was mainly the older kids who played and my friend’s daughter understood she would have to practice many hours to reach their level. This did not make her quit piano nor did her self worth take a hit. My friend, who grew up in the US, assumed her daughter would be devastated. She wasn’t. She had lived in Israel long enough to know the drill. Mediocrity is not rewarded.
So I have one foot in both camps and wonder is there nothing in between? I don’t think my kids deserve an Oscar just for going to the movies (although my daughter might deserve something in the dramatic category) I do think they need to be encouraged to try new things, things they might very well suck at when they’re in the first grade. Maybe a kid who’s struggling in math will, let’s say, get better at it? As his or her brain mass increases? Doesn’t that kid deserve a chance to shine eventually? But even as I write these words I am aware that trophy culture will find its way to Israel eventually. I have seen the early signs. Last year my kids did a 5K walk in our community and at the end everyone got medals for participation. They were flimsy, gold-colored plastic. They looked like Hanukkah gelt on a ribbon. The kids knew it and chucked them the minute we got home. You can’t fool these kids. They’ve seen the Camper of the Week 1986 trophies. They know what’s what.