I'm no expert on the elementary school system, just a product of the classroom.
Michele leaned over in her chair, hunched her shoulders and gave me a quizzical raised-eyebrow look.
"What are you doing in this class?" she asked. "You know more Hebrew than anyone else here."
This was a humble statement to be uttered by my popular sixth grade classmate. She was never made fun of for being in the "lowest" class. At 11, she looked exactly like Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby." In my own awkward pre-teen years, I could not rely on my looks to save my reputation. I was placed in the lowest class in first grade and it seemed as if the school had pigeon-holed me, banishing me to this class for eternity (this is not an exaggerated feeling when you are in sixth grade). My self-confidence was shaken and since the majority of "the clique" of popular kids was in the highest class, I felt excluded from my peers.
Despite feeling socially challenged, I became increasingly confident in my academic abilities and increasing knowledge base, yet, somehow I could not escape my fate of being in the lowest class. This made me angry and I wanted out. I wanted to be popular and, if not popular, respected for my achievements. I had almost won a grade spelling bee and a poetry contest. Did that not earn me points for promotion to the next level? My creative writing was openly praised by the Language Arts teacher, yet I was stuck in the lowest English class as well!
I bravely brought my predicament to the attention of the school principal, the same school principal who only seemed to play basketball with "the clique."
"Mrs. K. decided the classes," was his answer.
Mrs. K.? Mrs. K.? I racked my brain for an explanation to this. Mrs. K. was the math teacher. How could Mrs. K. have known where to place me in Language Arts, History, Hebrew and Judaic subjects? I was disconcerted by this piece of information. Math happened to be my weakest subject. Did Mrs. K. have proof linking poor mathematical abilities to difficulties tackling other subjects? I tried to discuss the issue further with the school principal, but I came up short. (In later years, Mrs. K. went on to become Assistant Principal of the school, so there must have been a reason for her deciding the tracks, though I still strongly assert that she was not present to see my performance in other subjects.)
The explanation the principal had given me was not very logical, yet, my arguments were caught in my throat. After all, I was 11 and he (probably in his 30s at the time) was ancient. In my childish mind, he should be revered as a knowledgeable elder. He obviously knew more than me about educational tracks and where I should and should not be placed.
Looking back, I could have said more, or at least, had my parents intervene and try to plead my case.
Fast forward to the present, I have four young children of my own and my hope is that a well-thought-out system will be in place, one that not only considers where my children are right now, but where they might go and what they are capable of becoming. I am hoping for a system that pushes them in the appropriate way and in the proper direction; a system that considers their improvements and achievements as well as what the school's recognition of these achievements will mean to their self-worth and self-confidence.
This is my hope because I never truly left grade school behind as I continually strive for improvement. There are many times when I wonder, "Am I on the right track?" My inner child often engineers my thoughts today, causing me to periodically reassess my developments and achievements, possibly to compensate for an administration that was unable to promise it would do the same.
Follow Shira Hirschman Weiss on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShiraWeiss