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From Underachieving to Excelling

What with having to drive at night and the forecast for rain, I was tempted to skip the ESRA event, which took place in the middle of October in a private home in Haifa. The program was a talk by Chen Shtatman: From an Underachieving High School Student to an Excelling College Student. However, knowing there was going to be a modest turnout and that every person counted, I decided to go. I am glad I did. From the moment I arrived and was introduced to the speaker, I was struck by her warm smile and youthful good looks and was curious to hear her story.

There were two parts to Chen's presentation which logically fit together: her personal story and her community work for ESRA. In a word, it was to be a tale of trial and tribulation culminating in a turnabout.

The child of mixed American- Israeli parentage, Chen had an excellent command of English with which to recount her story. She was born and grew up on a small yishuv, where, very early, it emerged that she had difficulties at school with listening, learning and performing well. The school and community were small and tightly knit, so that word got around and she was quickly marked as a problem pupil. To make things worse, her older sister, who had preceded her and was taught by the same teachers, had excelled in her schooling. Adding insult to injury, Chen's teachers reminded her of how well her sister had done and reproached her for not trying hard enough. Chen found herself more and more alienated from what went on at school and even toyed with dropping out.

Interestingly, at the same time that Chen found it impossible to keep up with her class, she did surprisingly well at other things. From a young age, she was an avid reader, showing no problems at all on that score. Moreover, when assigned a project at school, she assumed complete control, demonstrating initiative, imagination, skill and knowledge.

Why then did she do so poorly at school? According to her teachers, she simply didn't make the effort. She was the problem. Further, there was no way she would achieve her Bagrut. Consequently, the only solution for this problematic fifteen-year-old, according to her teachers, was sending her to boarding school. When Chen's mother heard this, she announced that this was the final straw. She would withdraw her daughter from the school and find a better setting for her.

For Chen there was no doubt at all where to turn. She was happy to leave her old school and already knew where she wanted to continue her studies. This was because a cousin of hers, who also had suffered from school issues, had transferred there and Chen knew all about it. Unfortunately, in Chen's father's eyes, that school was a place for losers and failures. No daughter of his would be placed there. However, once Chen and her mother had visited the school and talked to the teachers and administration, it was clear Chen had her heart set on enrolling there. Assenting readily, her mother then declared: "Leave your father to me". That was on Thursday. On Sunday, Chen showed up for her first day of school at Tichon Adar Petach Tikva

What had won Chen over was that the pedagogic message was that the brunt of obligation was upon the teachers. It was their job to make learning inviting and interesting. It was then up to the students, whose curiosity had been awakened, to follow in their wake. And follow Chen did, with interest and application. Her teachers did not typecast her or reprove her, or compare her to her older sister. Instead, they encouraged and reinforced her. "All a child needs is one adult to believe in him," explains Chen, citing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Now Chen enjoyed school. She demonstrated lively curiosity, willing industry and a nascent motivation to succeed. Thanks to her mental thriving, she succeeded in her grades, winning the admiration of her fellow students.

Ironically, at this late point in her school career, at age 16, she was finally diagnosed in terms of her learning disabilities. She was found to have ADHD.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD is a mental health condition that can cause unusual levels of hyperactivity and impulsive behaviours. People with ADHD may also have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods of time.

Now she was able to recognize and acknowledge her learning difficulties. This meant adopting ways of coping and overcoming them. For example, she required more time than the usual to prepare an assignment, so she would begin preparation significantly earlier than her peers. If she couldn't learn something by memorizing, she invented different, helpful strategies that enabled her to learn.

No less significant was a part of her condition involving "episodes", a state of hyper activity in which she experienced extreme stress, where her mind "blew a fuse", as it were. She taught herself to anticipate these ADHD moments, prepare for them and engage herself in ways that would calm her down and occupy her safely until she "landed" on firm ground. Ultimately in discussing this with a professional, she learned that all her self-help methods were the same ones prescribed by "the book".

Finally, to her parents' great delight and her own astonishment and deep satisfaction, Chen overturned her former teachers' prediction that she would never earn her Bagrut. At age 18, Chen graduated from high school, the proud recipient of the much longed for certificate.

Fast forward to Chen's mid-twenties. She was now ready to take on a new goal, a college education. Having used the intervening years since graduation from high school to contribute to the community, travel abroad, experience life and its challenges, she opted for a degree in criminology. The notion of helping others overcome limitations, as she herself was helped and as she learned to help herself, is what motivates her to believe in the possibility of rehabilitation.

This is where Chen's path and that of ESRA intersect. To quote the latest issue of ESRA Magazine: Students Build a Community (SBC) is a project that provides financially stressed students with housing in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where, in return, they each mentor a group of locally academically struggling school children and become social activists in the community.

Chen's rental costs are provided for by the ESRA Haifa branch; in return, together with a core of people committed to local students in need of attention, care and mentoring, Chen devotes time and energy in Acco to children in limbo, much as she was herself years ago. She urges these children to better themselves by having fun, friends and an adult who cares about their progress and well-being.

Chen has come a long way on her journey from frustration and failure to discovery and growth. When she speaks, one is struck by her quiet confidence, her sound insight and her positive, upbeat approach to problems and people.

At the end of the talk, there were questions and answers and lively discussion. I was pleased I had attended the meeting. Luckily the rain held off as I drove home, my head going over Chen's words, my heart touched by her experiences. ESRA has done well to join hands with Chen in making this world a better place.

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