December 21, 2013
February 10, 2013 was my first day teaching at Amra Bint Abdul Rahman Secondary School for Girls. I had arrived in the Middle East two weeks earlier on the 25th of January and I was both excited and nervous to begin teaching. Because I kept a journal, I am easily able to evoke memories by simply re-reading my journal from that time period. However, prior to this past week, the only memories I could arouse, were too painful to endure. That has all changed.
This past week, I have reconnected with some of my former students from Amra Bint School. A flood of emotions threatened to get in the way of the fond memories I hold with my former students, in particular, the 13 girls who belonged to both me and 11S. In my 13 years as a teacher, no class or group of students has had such a profound effect on me as a human being. These young ladies, juniors in high school at the time, changed my life.
Before leaving the United States, I theorized that teenage girls were just about the same the world over. I was on the brink of proving and/or disproving my theory. My first day at school was blissfully mundane. In fact, if I hadn’t kept a journal, I might not have remembered what had happened during the course of that school day. One thing about that day remains crystal clear in my mind: teenage girls are teenage girls are teenage girls. My theory was holding true.
“Stapled to the bulletin boards [in the classrooms were] student essays on teen pop stars: Taylor Swift, One Direction, Alicia Keys and even Linkin Park and Nickelback,” is what I wrote of my first impressions upon entering a classroom. Seeing that American pop culture was alive and well in the Middle East, I began several conversations, in earnest. I was curious to know what was in the mind of a 16 year-old, halfway around the world and 7,000 miles away from the 16 year old girls back home. What I found out both surprised and comforted me.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the question that cinched, in my mind, that although these girls reminded me quite a bit of the teenage girls I taught in the U.S., they were decidedly different.
“I want to be a surgeon.”
“I want to be a movie producer.”
“I want to be an engineer.”
“I want to be a nuclear physicist.” “Miss, she’s a nerd.”
“I want to own my own beauty shop,”
And my own personal favorite, “Miss, I want to change the world and volunteer to work for peace.”
When I first published the above responses, what struck me was the fact that “[m]y first day teaching high school at an all girls’ sch thatool in the Middle East could have been my first day teaching high school at an all girls’ high school in the United States. Teenage girls chatter, they gossip, they seek to belong and they seek to be individuals. They love pop music, pop stars and popcorn. And they all have dreams; dreams they will strive to achieve, dreams they will hold close, dreams to leave this world a better place. And sadly, dreams they will never realize, “But Miss, my parents won’t approve me being a movie producer, so I’m gonna be a dentist.”
Sadly, I came to accept that these girls, my students, would be hard-pressed to actually achieve their dreams unless their parents agreed. That did bother me, somewhat. However, it paled in comparison to the recent exchange with my former student who had wanted to volunteer to work for peace, Dee.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I have recently been in contact with a few of these students. I have been especially excited that Dee, not her real name, is one of my new contacts. In a recent exchange, I mentioned to Dee that I was excited to be able to follow her in her education, as I couldn’t wait to see her work for her Mother country, as she had always expressed she wanted to do. I told her that she could do anything, I had faith in her. Her response brought tears to my eyes.
“vkunzmann what may I do? And work where? I’m not allowed to go to my country…” Well, of course, that had always been the case. Except, ten months ago, the Dee I knew, would have never let that stop her from wanting to make a difference in her country. I do not know what change had taken over my lovely Dee, but I would not sit silently by.
I responded, “[W]e met on 10 February 2013. I asked [your class], ‘What would you like to be in your future?’ and you said, ‘Miss, I want to change the world and volunteer to work for peace.” I told Dee that her answer so impressed me that I immediately wrote it down and saved it. I told Dee that I found myself reading and re-reading her words over and over for inspiration, because, frankly, her words inspired me. I ended by telling her that anyone who said those words and believed those words, could live those words. I ended with, “You didn’t think it was going to be easy, did you?”
I did not regret writing what I did to Dee. However, I was worried that my words would come off as too harsh. I did not have to wait long for Dee’s answer back to me.
Dee was touched that I remembered the day we met and the words she told me. She confessed to me that I had encouraged her very much and that, Insha’Allah one day she would do what she said she wanted to do in the future. She thanked me and told me I had made her day.
I am glad, no, relieved, that Dee’s upbeat, I can change the world attitude returned upon conversing with me. But, it saddens me that in just ten short months, someone as bright, as enthusiastic and as determined as Dee could lose her fighting spirit; how very sad.
I will continue to keep in touch with Dee and any of my other former Middle East students who want to keep in touch. I will encourage them to maintain their sense of self. I will encourage them to be an active participant in their own lives. I will encourage them to go out and make a difference in this world, to change the things they see as unfair and to keep the things that they see as valuable. I just hope that whatever it was that attempted to put out Dee’s shining light, will cease and desist. Nothing more demoralizing than someone or something getting in the way of these young ladies realizing their dreams. I am hopeful that these beautiful souls will be able to weather the storms, Insha’Allah. Peace, ~v.