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School Isn’t (Always) Like Jail

My son’s first day of class went surprisingly well: no knife fights in the schoolyard, no time in solitary confinement

Etgar Keret
September 06, 2012
First day of school in Tel Aviv.(Shai Barzilay/Flickr)
First day of school in Tel Aviv.(Shai Barzilay/Flickr)
First day of school in Tel Aviv.(Shai Barzilay/Flickr)
First day of school in Tel Aviv.(Shai Barzilay/Flickr)

Last Monday, Lev Keret walked through the gates of elementary school for the first time. Despite his huge backpack, weighing as much as an especially plump calf, he remained unbowed, his face beaming with the smile reserved for only those unaware of what awaits them. Trailing behind him was a stooped, worried dad who was finding it difficult to keep up with Lev’s rapid stride. Hanging on one wall of the main corridor was a handwritten poster, probably from a Holocaust program, apparently left over from the previous year, consisting of five, red-colored words: “Like lambs to the slaughter.” Lev’s stoop-shouldered father realized that the poster had to do with some other point in time, but it was still enough to make him want to scoop the kid and his heavy backpack up into his arms and escape through the open school gates. Quickly, before the guard had time to lock them.

The entire week before that, Lev’s mom kept asking his dad to stop watching reruns of Oz, claiming that it was having a bad effect on him. And now, as Lev’s dad follows his son down those dark hallways and sees the second-graders, lollipops protruding like toothpicks from the corners of their mouths, eyes arrogantly inspecting the new first-graders as if they were a shipment of fresh meat, he thinks that, though Lev’s mom was probably right, there’s no denying that something about schools is reminiscent of prisons. The long corridors. The square, asphalt-paved yard into which the small prisoners are released a few times a day. The unpleasant crowding, the uniforms. And as Lev finds himself a seat in the classroom next to a fat, red-faced boy who looks like a Bavarian farmer who turned in Jews during the Holocaust, his dad is praying that this first day will end peacefully: no solitary and no shanks in the schoolyard.

The teacher comes into the classroom, and, to break the ice, Lev’s dad asks her what exactly the procedure is in the event of a missile attack or an earthquake. The teacher shrugs tiredly and says that she knows that she, specifically, is supposed to stand under the doorframe, but as far as the children are concerned, she suggests that he Google it.

Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, speaks at the ceremony opening the new school year. He tells the first-graders that before he was a mayor, a brigadier general in the army, and a fearless fighter pilot, he was once in the first grade, and that he still remembers the first day. And Lev’s father, able to see the sweaty back of his son’s neck even though he’s sitting quite a distance from him, in a row close to the podium, suddenly pictures little Lev transformed from a sweet child into a fighter pilot dropping bombs over enemy lines, then into a general, then into a mayor. What do we need all this for? he asks himself. How many years did God give us on this ozone-punctured planet? Wouldn’t it be better to spend them playing with cats in the yard?

The truth is that Lev’s dad really wanted Lev to go to a special school. The kind that costs a lot of money, and is blessed with small classes, animal-petting zoos and green expanses. Like so many other parents, he took his son to a series of evaluations, during which Lev was asked to pet a flour worm. He loved it, and said excitedly that the worm felt soft and nice, and that he thought it was happy that he’d petted it. But when he didn’t make it through the screening process, Lev’s dad suspected that Lev’s worm-petting must have been too technical and not creative enough. What made the rejection easier to take was the fact that none of Lev’s 20 kindergarten mates passed the tests that would have given them entrance to that pedagogical Garden of Eden. A persistent, neighborhood rumor maintained that there were not enough gifted children in Israel, so the school had to buy suitable students in Europe and import them, which goes a long way in explaining the high percentage of blond kids Lev’s dad saw during the evaluation.

But this is not the time to dwell on the flour-worm-petting failure. The mayor has already finished frightening Lev’s dad, the second-graders have ended their off-key rendition of “Always Follow the Sun,” and the pupils have been paired off and are beginning to walk back to their classrooms. From a distance, Lev waves to his dad. He looks happy. Lev’s dad waits another 15 minutes in the schoolyard, just in case the kid comes dashing out in tears, but, alas, he doesn’t. So, Lev’s father begins shuffling home.

On the way, he remembers his own first day in school. Lev’s dad would only stay in the classroom if his mother stayed with him. The teacher explained that parents can’t stay in the classroom, and Lev’s dad and his mom agreed that she would stay in the schoolyard instead, where he could see her through the window. For the entire day, he saw his mom sitting next to the water fountain, chain smoking and doing crossword puzzles. At some point, the teacher asked him why it was so important for him to see his mom while he was in the classroom, and he replied in a tear-choked voice that he needed to see his mom all the time to remind himself that there’s another life outside this hell called school, and that after the bell, he can go back to it. On the second day, he stayed in the classroom alone, and when he looked out the window at the water fountain, there was nothing there to remind him that there was a world outside of that shitty school he was in. And he really did forget it for many, many years. But his son isn’t him. And if Lev is lucky and the Bavarian farmer sitting next to him doesn’t hand him over to the Germans, who knows, he might even manage to enjoy it all.

Translated by Sondra Silverston

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.