On my first day of teaching at Bar Ilan University, during a tour of the palm-tree-lined campus near Tel Aviv, the program administrator informed me apologetically that I’d been assigned a basement classroom in a building some distance from the English department. I wasn’t concerned — over the years I’ve taught in basement classrooms, in crowded classrooms, in overheated classrooms, in New England classrooms so cold the students and I never took off our winter coats.
We walked to the building where I’d be teaching and, classroom number in hand, began our search. The room number led us down a narrow hall, then beneath Hebrew signs bearing the word miklat, or shelter, through a double set of reinforced doors of the sort you’d see in an American bank vault. These opened into a forbidding, unlit corridor, which we followed to another reinforced door. And then, through that door, was a large, bright room with escape ladders: the building’s bomb shelter.
My concern was made obvious by the startled expression on my face. If I wanted to request a switch, the program administrator assured me quickly as my students began to file in, she’d do her best to make it happen.
I’m not a prima donna about classrooms — still, unpacking my handouts for the first class, I found it hard to escape the sensation that I’d be teaching inside a giant metaphor. I didn’t mind the bomb shelter itself, which was spacious and bright — but teaching inside it not only reminded me of the threat and emotional pressures of war, but also seemed like fate’s idea of a joke. (My own first novel used the sealed room, required in every Israeli home for shelter in case of attack, in its title and as its central metaphor.) I knew, of course, that bomb shelters are everyday places in Israel, as common as tornado shelters in some regions of the United States. Within a few weeks, in fact, I’d be watching my son play on a colorfully painted climbing structure on a desert kibbutz — a structure that was, in fact, the roof of the kibbutz’s bomb shelter.
What was everyday to Israelis, though, was still striking to me. I was concerned the setting might affect the group’s morale. In that first session I joked with my students about the possibility that they would be tempted to use the escape ladders during particularly difficult critiques. But when I mentioned the unusual nature of our classroom, no one else seemed to find it notable. One student shrugged: she hoped, she said wryly, that the room wouldn’t have to serve its other purpose, as it had the previous year when sirens had sounded and university students gathered in the campus’s shelters — but should that happen, at least we were in one of the safest rooms on campus. And besides — as several of my students pointed out later that hour when they declined my offer to request a new room — unlike many classrooms, bomb shelters have air-conditioning.