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Learning life… out of school

November 25, 2009 – 5:36 pm6 Comments

The gang from the classic Generation X film, Reality Bites (1994) - a gap year on a kibbutz could have done them the world of good.

The gang from the classic Generation X film, Reality Bites (1994) - a gap year on a kibbutz could have done them the world of good.

One week after the graduation of the class of 2009; Joel Lazar reflects on his gap year in Israel in 2008, beginning university, and navigating the gaps between personal fulfilment and parental expectations.

It was one week before my departure. I was jet-setting off to Israel for one year to find that which no VCE subject could provide. I was off to find meaning, to explore my Jewish heritage and the history of my people.  Sitting with my Glaswegian grandfather discussing the amount of money he could only dream of spending when he was my age and which I was about to spend on my trip, he asked me a question that few dare to ask themselves on trips of this nature: “Why are you going?”

The question is always, “what are you going to do?” Never why.  My grandfather questioned jokingly, with a hint of ultra conservative, old fashioned disapproval. “Why don’t you get an education and a real job?” was what he was really asking. But to me it was somewhat lost in translation. It hit home much harder than he intended. It was difficult for me to verbalize a response and I experienced a sudden moment of alarm.

Who spends $15,000 on something and when they don’t even know what it is for? I conjured what I felt was the right answer, that I wanted to see Israel properly, see what it really was and not what my teachers at Jewish day-school told me that it was, to understand its societal dualisms and tensions, to experience life and Judaism’s uncharted waters. But mostly, what I hoped, but at that moment was the least certain about, was that I would discover about what was important in life. Discover what life is all about, why you live it, and who you live it for.

I ended up spending the latter half of my year away trying to convince my family that changing my course preference from Law/Commerce to Law/Arts in order to pursue my true interests (and abandon my disinterests) was not going to ruin my life and all my future career prospects. I was told that my real-life education could still be pursued outside university and despite the time limitations that often accompany working life, being an avid reader I would find opportunities for further learning. It was an ostensibly straightforward approach to tertiary education; suffer now to reap undoubted future rewards. I was not willing to accept that. The present is certain. The future is not. The trade-off seemed commercially unsound.

That lesson was not easily learnt though. For me it found its origins in the following personal anecdote. During my trip I went on a day-trek with two friends up to the northern-most part of Israel, to the Banyas, an Eden-on-earth rainforest to which people flock in order to breathe in the most breathtaking waterfall in Israel. After a long hike amid soaring temperatures we were goal-bound on swimming in the crystal waters that collected at the waterfall’s feet.

To gain access to the waterfall we had to walk through the rainforest. We arrived at 3:30pm and just as we were about to enter, a park ranger arrived and in a stern Hebrew accent informed us that no one was permitted to walk the track after four. The hike usually takes an hour to complete and we were scheduled to arrive at the waterfall after four. Mustering scrounges of words from the odd Hebrew newspaper clipping and a substandard Hebrew school education I pleaded, “We’re really strong hikers and we’ll do it double-time. Don’t be like that. Please let us through.” He phoned through on the two-way, informing his co-ranger that three hikers would arrive in about 45 minutes and to let them through. Who would have thought that a shampoo advertisement in a discontinued Israeli newspaper from the 90s could help you cajole a park ranger?

We began the hike and moved quickly. It was an incredible track with hanging vines and ancient trees from whose roots seeped the very evidence of time. Bridges stretched over rushing rivers. Leaves streaked all shades of green and brown floated above and rays of sunlight refracted off every surface giving the forest a heavenly glow. Given our 45 minute limit, we sped through it all, snapped a couple of photos but mostly jogged through it to reach the waterfall. Half way through we came across the first trickles of the shallow river that lead into the waterfall’s pool. You could wade right through it, splashing around to the echo of the vestiges of your childhood. The water’s clarity epitomized nature’s perfection. Children were playing in the river and just living.

My friends and I were exhausted and perspiring after racing through the track and not taking in a whole lot. My friend Simone suggested, “Let’s just jump in the river! You’re never too young.” Despite my equally tempting inclination, I reminded her that we didn’t have time; they were about to close the track to the waterfall. Displeased with the response but accepting its apparent sensibility, she agreed, and we all continued. Then we saw it through the clearing, the most aesthetically perfect piece of nature I’d seen in quite some time, if ever.

But as we approached we realized that although there were huge numbers of people standing around, no one was swimming. There was a wooden fence around the perimeter. It was an observation deck. No swimming allowed. Our hearts dropped. It was so close. We could feel the moisture in the air, pricking our noses, inviting us in. We looked at each other in disbelief. Hot. Sweaty. No swimming allowed. So we decided to turn around quickly and walk back only five minutes onto the track to swim in the stream.

We had travelled no more than a cricket pitch only to be met by a pot-bellied park ranger. “No re-entrance at this hour in the afternoon. Access to the entrance is via the track on the mountain side.” We missed it. Everything. We missed fully appreciating the heavenly journey because we were racing to the end. We missed a swim in the stream because we were racing to the end. There was no end. Every step was simply one to pass the time; a stepping stone to something we were certain was bigger and better than the present. Even the eventual site of the incredible waterfall was tainted by bitterness and disappointment.

One could walk away from that, as we did, trying to remain positive that we saw the beautiful track and take it in our stride that, “these things happen”. But what’s the use of living if you don’t learn? I took that saga as one of the strongest life lessons learnt to date; that, within reason of course, live for now, not for later.

With career building, money saving and global economic crises I recognise that you have to think ahead and plan; and I expect that I’ll do those things. My grandfather can find solace in that. I’m studying Law at Monash which hasn’t been the most riveting subject thus far, and in doing that I’ve acknowledged that life isn’t entirely about the present. If it were, the bar graph on my bank statement would never reach pencil-length and I’d be drunk a whole lot more. But I refuse to accept that I need to make three years of university life extremely painful (probably negatively influencing my life outside of uni as well) simply because something bigger and better might be on the horizon.

I started Law/Commerce and discontinued the Commerce units five weeks into semester. I’ve recently applied for a Diploma of Writing and I’m doing what I know is good for me.

Did I find what I was searching for when I took a gap-year? In so many ways I am thrilled to say yes. I unearthed so much about life’s universal and personal importance. I discovered through experience that you don’t use the present as fuel for life’s future journeys. Those events may not come and fuel burns only once.

This article was first published in Lot’s Wife.

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  • frosh says:

    I’ve always thought it problematic that kids in highschool are meant to decide what they want to do for their rest of their lives.
    As a 17 yr old finishing highschool, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

    It might be cliche, but I think a quote from The Sunscreen Song is apt:
    “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
    life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
    wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
    olds I know still don’t.”

  • Frosh,

    Truly words to live by. I don’t know why so many kids are in such a hurry to grow up – it’s way overrated. My son has just finished VCE and is taking at least two years off for full-time Jewish studies as a “gap” between school and University.

    Gen Ys don’t make “career choices” in the same way as previous generations did, and the education system is slowly adapting to this.

  • ariel says:

    Here, here, frosh and David.

    I finished uni and started working a few years ago, but I only recently realised it was the wrong career for me. Now I am planning to go back to uni part time to do something else…

  • TheSadducee says:

    I’ve always wondered why the schools, particularly private schools, don’t get former students to come back and discuss their university courses with 5th-6th Form students (esp. 3rd/4th yr uni students who are usually a bit more mature and know the university a bit better)? 

    I think this would be of particular benefit for students in assisting their prospective university studies choices.

  • frosh says:

    Sadducee – that sounds like a genuinely great idea!

    David, I think that’s good that your son is taking a couple of years off before going to uni.

    When I look back, I was not mature enough as a person to get the most out of uni when I started it.  And I think many people fell into this category.  I also think that those students who were a few years older tended to get a lot more out of it.

    Apart from the student-maturity factor, I also think there is a problem with the education system and univeristies too.  The universities are too much like degree factories, and do not focus on cultivating the minds of students.

  • nadine says:

    hi joel,
    to be in the moment and to be seeing israel, this joy we all yearn for and to have it marred by arguing with your parents over a course of study. this reeks of overbearing jewish parents. indeed musky, old school and inappropriate. almost shamefull. at the end of the day, I have no idea if the people to right or left me in this office took ‘microeconomics 101′ over ‘the history of the afl’ or ‘business banking’ over ‘israeli film and cartoons’ and we are all in the same boat!! complete shtoos!

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