Moving backwards through time/Never learn, nevermind/That side’s yours, this side’s mine/Brother you ain’t my kind
– Black Gold/Soul Asylum
I can’t believe the news today/Wish I could close my eyes and make it go away
- Sunday Bloody Sunday/U2
With college hoops season now squarely upon us, I find myself remembering the last time I shot a basketball. The scarf looped around my hair kept dislodging, but I managed to make a midrange jumper that drew admiring applause from the teenagers sharing the court with me.
It was my last day working at a school in South Florida. The school was small, private, and Islamic.
It would be a lie to say that the experience was not strange. Much was, beginning with the daily 5:45 a.m. alarm. I also had no real idea what I was doing as a fill-in librarian and emergency history teacher to a class of eighth graders and a group of five senior girls, but I needed a job and I was willing to try. The fact that I had to cover my hair and promise not to bring pork or alcohol onto school grounds just seemed like additions to a long list of unfamiliar job requirements. (Well, I mean, I wasn’t in the habit of bringing wine to work, but I digress.)
I made lesson plans like I’d seen my mother do every night of my childhood. I scoured the Internet for relevant videos, literature and poetry. (Thank you, Langston Hughes.) I made my own quizzes, which I tested on my history-major husband and obliging stepdaughter. I dressed up like Franklin Roosevelt and conducted class in a preposterous accent.
I learned to pronounce “As-Salaam-Alaikum”(peace be unto you) in greeting and “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam” (and unto you peace) in response. I listened to the melodic morning dua (prayer) without understanding a word. I said “Inshallah” in my Southern accent, with a bright smile that was always returned.
In the afternoon, the call to prayer would echo through the air, and I would stand outside, watching the students and teachers file into the gold-domed mosque. This was the only break in my day, when students were rarely in the library and I could bolt down a sandwich (no ham).
I did not go to prayer, though I did occasionally go into the mosque, removing my shoes to announce the winners of the library reading program and present them with books I’d picked out. It had a hushed atmosphere and a slight smell of socks.
I felt reverent, sensing something holy in the crowded, hot space. I felt self-conscious, willing the strange Arabic syllables to roll off my tongue with something approaching authenticity.
Mostly, I felt welcome.
From the moment I stepped warily into the office for my interview, most everyone I encountered took pains to make me feel comfortable. The principal, who spoke a British-flavored, flawless English that could have made her the heroine in a James Bond film, offered me the job that day – and promised to bring me a scarf for my hair on my first day if I didn’t have one (like I was going to pass up a trip to the accessories section at Target). When I showed up toting said scarf in my hand with no idea – despite some last-minute online tutorials - what to do with it, a teacher put her bag down to arrange it for me, and told me I looked beautiful.
There were problems, to be sure. It bothered me that, at the prescribed age, the female students went from wearing plaid skirts to navy niqabs that covered everything but their faces, which were ringed by hijabs. It bothered me that the straight-A student, on a path to be valedictorian, talked about getting engaged as easily as attending college. It bothered me that I sensed a seeping patronization from some of the men, even while finding others funny and easy to talk to.
I challenged these perceptions – prejudices? – as they arose. Did I, raised in a Southern Baptist church where the idea of the female minister who married my husband and I would have been laughable, have such a judgmental leg to stand on? How would I have responded – in fact, how did I respond – to a woman wearing a hijab in the newsroom?
Mainly, I tried to do my job. In the end, that – and an unexpected, better-paying offer – is why I left: I didn’t think I was equipped, internally or externally, to do it well enough.
I was only there three months, but I think about that job, that school, a lot. I think about the friends I made - smart, beautiful women who loved words as much as I do. I remember watching girls hula hoop in hijabs on Field Day. I remember the way the sun glinted off the roof of the mosque, and I remember when a fourth-grader, who had sworn she did not like to read, told me how much she loved Nancy Drew – just like I’d promised she would.
Mostly, I remember the kids.
I remember the transfer student who arrived speaking almost no English and with a small, shy smile. She was in my eighth grade class and, despite comprehending maybe one of every 30 words I said, studied until she got the A’s that turned that smile megawatt. She came into the library between classes, lingering after I knew she was supposed to have left, picking up picture books and pointing to animals whose names she would repeat after me. Other teachers told me she was the oldest of four or five and spent most of her time taking care of her siblings. She said my name, “Sister Melinda,” with a soft lilt and a lowered head.
I remember the sharper-edged, abrasive girl who was also in that class. She pushed boundaries, talking incessantly, hiking up her skirt to expose denim-clad legs. She was smart and bored and angry at the labels slapped onto her spirit.
I remember my five senior girls, who had missed some basic history courses after frequently changing schools. I remember my initial horror at their midterm results, at the affected disinterest underneath layers of forbidden mascara, at the fact that none of them had a textbook halfway through the year of the class I was taking over.
I remember how, after practicing essay writing, they began to haltingly express themselves, writing about selected passages in “My Antonia” and their own personal experiences. As the century turned in the textbooks they still rarely took home, we read about tenement buildings and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. We read Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and watched the live-streaming video I found of New York Harbor as seen from the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
I had them write about their own immigrant experiences, as most of them had ties to Jordan, or Pakistan, or other lands foreign to me but home to them. They wrote about missing family, about feeling alienated, about the things that trouble all 17-year-olds (and most people): Who am I? What is my place in the world?
I think of those girls as I read about 11-year-old ones blowing themselves up in Nigeria. Is this how we are going to get our girls back? In pieces?
I have no answers for the weltschmerz (an all-encompassing German word meaning world pain) that is everywhere. My heart bleeds for Paris while crying out for Lebanon. My sense of justice demands action, but my reading of history and my not-so-long-term memory argue for tempered thought and a considered response. We must do something. We must not create more pain.
This I do know: My former co-workers, my present-day friends, my students – they have nothing to do with any of that. You want to see ‘good’ Muslims? I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more good people.
I also know this: If you can look at pictures of refugee children sleeping in fields, if you can read about those children being afraid of putting their heads on pillows because that’s where the nightmares are, if you can meet their haunted eyes and turn away unmoved, that’s fine. You have that right. But what you cannot do is call yourself a follower of Jesus while doing it. You cannot speak of God, whatever his or her name or image or manifestation. You cannot talk of justice or moral duty or what is just plain right – which you do not need God to do. But you do need basic human compassion.
It’s sadly clear that many learned nothing from events a mere decade ago – events whose reverberations are now coming home to roost. We stand ready to shutter our borders and our hearts and once again willingly trade our civil liberties for the fallow promise of greater protection.
Let’s be smarter than that this time. Let’s be kinder. Whatever God looks like to us, let’s do a better job of showing his face.