Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My Muslim Students

On Mother's Day, we went to my favorite bakery to get my favorite dessert: a rhubarb hand-pie. As we were walking down the street back to our car, we noticed a couple coming our way pushing a toddler in a stroller. They looked Ethiopian, so Ted stopped to talk to them. We had a short conversation. They were new to the city and from a Middle Eastern country, not African. They were a lovely family, very bright and gracious.

Fast forward about three months. It's my last day of the term in the class I'd been teaching. Most students who haven't exceeded their quota of absences don't bother coming this last day, so it's a scarce crowd. I ended up sitting around chatting with the students who showed up, some not even my students but stragglers from other classes whose teachers were busy figuring final grades. The topic was about their first impressions of Americans since most of them have been here less than six months. It was a fascinating conversation, let me tell you. This was maybe my favorite day of the whole term, in either of my classes.

In the break between classes, one of my favorite students stood in the doorway talking to me about what a poor student he'd been this term because of being so distracted by his young child and 9-month pregnant wife. As he talked about his family, I felt like he started talking in slow motion as my brain started connecting dots.

I said slowly, "Um, this may sound crazy, but... were you walking down Broadway one day a few months ago and a couple stopped to talk to you and your family?" His eyes, already naturally very bright, lit up even more. He blinked hard a couple of times. Then he raised his eyebrows, did the stunned drunken step back and forth a few times (anyone know what I'm talking about?), and excitedly said, "You! It's you! Your husband? He is very tall, right?" Why yes, he is.

What are the chances? This favorite student of mine ended up being the guy we met on the street on Mother's Day. We both must have said 'wow' thirty times.

He then told me and the rest of the straggler students about his life in the Middle East, how he and his wife got together, the ins-and-outs of arranged marriages, family life, and good food. The rest of the students that day told me things like how friendly yet lonely American seem to be. They talked about how they are afraid to talk to children because parents are so paranoid. They told me many interesting things.

Over half of these students are Muslim, almost all of them wonderful people who I so enjoyed teaching and getting to know. Two of the women behind veils showed me their faces at different times when it was just me and them. These women are so intelligent, opinionated, beautiful, and strong. It was my privilege to teach them, and the whole experience of course got me thinking about the many misconceptions about Islam in the United States. I wish more people could have had experiences like the one I had this summer of teaching Muslim students. I wish more Americans could see Muslims as individuals who share a lot of the same values as the rest of us. They would become a lot less scary, that's for sure.

I didn't mean for this to turn into anything political. It was simply an eye-opening experience that I am so grateful to have had this summer. One of my good friends from high school was a Pakistani immigrant, and the majority of the Muslim students I taught this summer were a lot like her: solid, friendly, hard-working, and funny. I wish that all the folks around here who are scared of Islam could have at least one Muslim friend, the way I am lucky enough to have.


Anonymous said...

you've planted a desire in me to do social work with international people... we'll see where it goes — I have MANY desires — but, hmmm... I like this story.

Us4 Cats said...

this was a lovely & heart warming post. thank you for sharing it.

Emma said...

One of my most interesting experiences as a teacher came from a Muslim student. He was a very angry and frustrated young man. He was somewhat learning disabled which was certainly part of the issues for hijm. He got in many fights. He was difficult to teach. WHat was so interesting was that fact that he completed the whole Ramadan fast. He lost weight, he was tired and it was clearly difficult for him to go to school during that time but he did it. The fact that he, as a teenager, could follow through on that really impressed me. He was the only Muslim in his grade so he went through it alone. That told me there was some serious potential in this young man.

Anonymous said...

such true words, I think that making a friend from another race or culture always crumbles our stereotypes so quickly.

Claudia said...

yep - our neighbours are Pakistani Muslims. So I'm echoing every word you've just said.

fs said...

I wish the same too, Lori.
I always find my fellow non-Muslim Americans to be so friendly and open to everyone, including immigrants like me. Its always a shock to see otherwise on TV (especially with all this anti-Ground Zero mosque/community center protests etc we see on TV). Where are all these Americans so full of hatred? I certainly dont see them in my day to day activities! (never did in school/college/work. They must have done well hiding their true feelings from me if that was the case!!)

Corinne said...

Lori, I loved this post. You again are able to bring us in to your class room and see your students as you do - whole people with fascinating stories that are under appreciated or ignored by society at large. you are an inspiration as much as your students are.

becca albertson said...

oh lori.
i love this post so much.
i have recently learned some amazing things from iraqi muslims in our town... we really are so much more similar than different, when it all comes down to it. thanks for sharing your stories.

andando said...

Thanks for this Lori. Because of our relationships in Africa, we count many Muslims among some of our dearest friends.
Opening one's eyes to the riches of other cultures is such a gift. It pains me that so many Americans don't take advantage of the treasures to be found in this American melting pot.

los cazadores said...

Exactly. Love this.


Casa Bicicleta said...

I wish everyone could read this. I wish everyone could have the experience you had.

I originally read this post a while ago, when you first posted it and it has stuck with me so I came back to read it again. I ride the R train every day (almost) out to Queens. On that train I am in the minority but I never feel fear or alone or like there are terrorists among us. That's just silly. I just don't understand where all this crazy talk is coming from.

Well, actually, I totally understand WHERE it's coming from, I just wish it would stop. And I wish people weren't so willing to listen to it blindly like sheep.

Thank you for this post.

Nora said...


I love your blog--yes, for the stories about Abe and your family, but equally as much for the stories of your students. You inspire me in many ways and your thoughtful words are deeply appreciated.