Out There: Boarding school blues

What to do when your kids insist on studying far from home.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
On a hill some 90 seconds from my front door sits a fine religious Zionist yeshiva high school. It has good teachers, nice classrooms, and even a basketball court. It looks perfect, and my sons should naturally want to go there. No such luck. Why should they roll out of bed and into class, when they could travel far and wide to enjoy the same pleasure? My oldest son, after he finished 8th grade at that school, opted - during the intifada heyday - for a daily bus ride to and from a high school in Jerusalem. It's like he wanted to give us something more to worry about. And now my second son has also decided to thumb his nose at the local school. Rather than walk 90 seconds to class each morning, whistling as he goes, he wants to go to a school 90 minutes away... and live there, to boot. THE WIFE and I have long opposed boarding schools, even though they are known here by the less threatening term, pnimiyot. Boarding schools carry a negative connotation where I come from. They are for wayward girls; boys who got their girlfriends pregnant; troubled youth; crew-cut kids who want to join the marines; Orthodox Jews living in midsized US towns without suitable yeshivot or day schools. Boarding schools are not for normal folks like us. So when my oldest expressed interest in a boarding school, the wife and I were mortified. "You'll be leaving us soon enough," we said, with great prescience. "We want you to be raised by us, not by some youth adviser." So the lad didn't go to boarding school, but watched as his closest friends did. He has resented us for that decision ever since. When the day comes for him to sit on the therapist's couch and blame his folks for all his shortcomings, our refusal to let him go to a pnimiya will top the list. Then it was my daughter's turn. Although her high school was not as close as the boy's - it was nine minutes away, not 90 seconds - she too had her heart set on sleep-away school. After a few fights, we nixed that as well. BUT THESE battles wear one down. So by the time Skippy, child No. 3, started agitating for a boarding school, we decided to let him apply rather than do battle with him. Our strategy seemed brilliant: Let Skippy apply to a competitive school, and hope he doesn't get in. If he did, we'd deal with it then. Well, he got in. "Dad," I told my father on the phone the day the boy got his acceptance letter, "your grandson will be going to a boarding school." "Why," he replied, "is he an orphan?" "No, dad, it's different in Israel. Kids go away to school, even normal ones. Believe me. And besides, he'll be home about every Shabbat," I explained, trying to convince myself, as much as my dad. And I didn't even tell my father all the happy news: The school, one of those environmental yeshivot that actually fits my son like a glove, is not exactly in the world's safest location. Indeed, to get there he will have to ride on a special armor-plated Egged bus, not exactly grandma's yellow school bus with the flashing red warning lights. When the wife and I drove down to the school for the first time a few months ago, the administrator offered us a cup of coffee. "No thanks," I replied, my knuckles white from the drive, "but a Valium would be nice." "Ah, you'll get used to it," she said. "This must be your first child." "Not exactly," I responded, somewhat annoyed. "I already have one in the army I'm losing sleep over, I'm not looking for anything else to keep me up." "No worries," she said, sounding downright Australian. "You really will get used to it. We have weekly study sessions for the boys and their fathers on Thursday nights. You'll soon see that the ride is really nothing." Or not, because unless those study sessions can be done via video conference call, I'm not sure how many I'll be attending. I can learn just as easily with the boy when he comes home for Shabbat. Nor am I certain I'll be going to that many parent-teacher meetings at the school. Not because of the drive, but because after attending eight a year for about the last decade, I've had my fill. IN FACT, we've already had two such meetings at the boy's new school, and he hasn't even started yet. The first was on our initiative, the wife and I checking out the school. But the second was called by the school, and seemed aimed at having the parents get to know each other. So there we were, sitting in a circle, when the inevitable moment arrived and everyone was called upon to introduce themselves. I always hate that moment: summing up my existence in 15 seconds. As my turn came close, I dreamt about leaping from my chair, waving a folksy "Shalom, y'all," and saying, "I'm Skippy's father. My favorite color is green, and if I were a vegetable, I'd be a turnip." That would kill two birds: I'd live out a lifelong fantasy about how to respond in those circles, and I'd ensure my kid wouldn't be going to boarding school. But before I could act, the wife introduced us both. The turnip-moment was lost, Skippy will be going to the school, and all I'm left with is the knowledge that the couple to my immediate right has five kids and are from Nofei Ayalon. And they said nothing about vegetables.