Our boy is off for the ISEE (the standardized test used by private schools the way the SAT is used by colleges and universities).
We chose to have him attend a small alternative public school in part because he gets stressed out by tests and frankly the word “test” means something completely different when you have diabetes. On the threshold of high school and in the midst of the application process he’s embarking on a rite of passage this morning. He’s done lots of preparation and is completely ready for the “ordeal,” but that does not really change the fact that it is a test, but not of what he knows intellectually like those administering the ISEE or the ones who will receive his results, might think. No, this is a test that in part marks his growing up.
He would not have to take this test, nor do test prep every week since August if not for HIS desire to be able to choose his next step. For the last 13 years, we’ve been making those choices for him. We’ve decided where he’s going to school and what’s important and right for our boy. Now, he’s stepped up and wants to participate in those choices. He’s not a little boy any longer, one for whom we make the best decisions we can for him. He wants to do it for himself.
I can’t help but think of the rite of passage ritual and ceremony that occurs in this time of life for teen boys who identify themselves as Jewish. My boy does not. His father is Jewish and I’m an equal opportunity ritualist who welcomes each Jewish holiday with the zest that is hard to match when you’ve been raised with such traditions and they may have lost some of their excitement. So our boy is half Jewish, but does not think of himself as Jewish, nor any religious identification really although I have heard him refer to himself as more Buddhist than anything (could it be that taking him on a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Buddha’s life along with a Tibetan Rinpoche made an impression?).
But I diverge. My point here is to comment on the journey of the Bar Mitzvah. According to the website Judaism 101’s page on Bar Mitzvah (http://www.jewfaq.org/barmitz.htm), a boy automatically becomes a “bar mitzvah” at age 13 when he is now seen as old enough to be responsible for his own actions. The ceremony is a relatively new creation to mark this automatic relationship with God and the community. For that ceremony, it is common for the teen to study long hours for many months if not years so that on the day of his (or her in the case of a bat mitzvah) ritual, he is able to prove his knowledge of Judaism through a recitation of, at minimum, a blessing in Hebrew to as much as performing most of the religious service. All this is to demonstrate to the community the young person has taken on the religious obligations of an adult.
Our boy did not go through the rigorous study I’ve seen others do as they prepare for their ceremonial Bar Mitzvah. He did however, prove (to us at least) his assumption of responsibility. He made a heartfelt commitment to studying for the ISEE, even when it wasn’t convenient or worse, interfered with better options. It wasn’t easy and was, for the most part, self directed. Once he set his sights on the power he wanted to have over his options for schools, all we had to do was get out of his way and provide the logistical support to make tutoring happen. He struggled. He often hated it. And, he never stopped.
While the ISEE doesn’t exactly mirror religious rites as there is very little that could pass for sacred, it mirrors rites of transition quite closely. In our mostly profane culture many things, including test taking, have become a form of sacred…something separate from the normal everyday life, that holds in it a certain magic and mystery. (But I certainly know many who would argue that point with me.)
Regardless, the journey our boy has taken with this process has mirrored the stages of Van Gennep’s rites of passage as defined in his book aptly named, The Rites of Passage. The first of these stages include the “rites of separation” which in this case involved the hours spent removed from other activities to prepare for the test (Van Gennep, 11). He was separated from his friends, his brother, his parents, fun in general, all for the purpose of preparation.
Today, he embarks on one of the major steps in the center rites of the journey, “liminal rites (rites of transition)” (Van Gennep, 11). These rites will last for a time and in some ways are themselves preparatory. Yes, today he takes the test for which he has been preparing for months, but the test in itself is in preparation for the eventual transition to high school, which in turn is in preparation for adulthood. But this sort of thinking is part of what clouds the steps in themselves and muckies up the water so as not to see clearly the rites in themselves along the way. This test, today, is the liminal rite he’s been building up to, working for and separating himself from others to ready himself for the ordeal that is this test. What he is doing right now while he fills in bubbles on the scantron is the test, is the time when he shows the community what he has learned and that in doing the preparation and the test, he has proven he is ready to take on more responsibility for his own journey. I have witnessed this fully and I have been both moved and impressed, while simultaneously knocked off kilter by the awareness that my little boy is transformed.
As he left today, I hugged him good-bye and wished him good luck. His head was next to mine, ear to ear. I felt his body within my embrace and he was different. It was one of those moments when you get surprised by something you already know.
The final stage in Van Gennep’s theory is incorporation. That part is yet to be seen. Who will return from this ritual trial of the intellect? How will our family, his friends and society embrace him? As changed? Altered? Different? With so little cultural understanding of passages and the value of preparation for and facing directly, challenges of the body, mind and soul, what can I expect? I know for me, these are often the rites for which my acknowledgement is weakest. Perhaps it is enough to let him know that I see him. I witnessed his journey with joy, awe and honesty. I have watched his struggle and seen his courage.
What more could I want for my child/man, than to witness him choose his own rite of passage, his own place of growth into strength and to see him step into the place that shows he has taken the obligations of an adult, at least in terms of the religion of education (in a culture that reveres science above all Gods, I think it is perfect to refer to it that way).
My job now is simply to get out of his way. That and to always let him know that I see him, truly see him, as he is today, not for the boy he once was, but for the young man he is.
That is no easy task. But, that is also where my journey as mother is, in some ways, a parallel journey, a parallel rite of passage. Mine is of ever greater trust and progressively letting out longer and longer thread, ever expanding my children’s flight range so that one day, they are each totally free to fly off in the direction of their dreams guided not by me, but by their own deeply internalized True North.