It was after school. I was stacking homework papers to shove into my work bag and trudge home with a brain-drain only a teacher knows, when Elizabeth stuck her head in my classroom.
“Hey love! Can I bother you for a favor?”
Eyes wide, she clasped her hands under her chin, and asked in her Kiwi accent. Her enthusiasm, like her red lipstick, never fades.
“Sure. What is it?” Was I going to regret saying yes? I have a habit of not saying no.
“Next week we’re talking about a time when we all felt different from others. You mind coming along and talking?” This is exactly the type of question progressive educators ask.
In an instant my fatigue was gone.“You bet. I’ll be there.”
I have always felt different, straddling two cultures and identities that can be at odds with each other. I’m ethnically Pakistani and politically American. I was raised Ahmadi Muslim but I’m an agnostic hippie at best. I’m a progressive educator in an increasingly regressive world. It enrages me when transgender children are barred from bathrooms and cub scouts. It angers me when minority children are taunted based on their race or immigration status. That hate makes teaching and learning impossible.
My classroom is a playground where ideas, identities, biases, truths, and histories come out to play. My history, our current political mess, and my student’s backgrounds all mingle, sometimes in a maddening chaos and sometimes in a beautiful symphony, easing the soul.
The only way to make lasting change is to start telling stories. Once you know someone’s story, you’re less likely to bully them. I believe in sharing profound stories that will change little minds in my classroom. With an increasingly high-stakes, testing-oriented culture, I’m afraid we’re losing a valuable opportunity. Intentionally creating safe schools where each student is welcomed and nurtured regardless of race, religion, class, and gender has to be our mission if we want to change the face of education and our nation.
I knew immediatley which story I wanted to share with Elizabeth’s class. Surprised by my own heart beating wildly and words choking in front of middle-schoolers, many of whom I had taught, I recalled a time when I felt different…
“I feel so lucky to be here with you so I can finally tell someone this story. This school is the only place I feel safe sharing this.” There was a hush as big middle school bodies huddled and leaned in on their elbows. The story went something like this:
Last Christmas, the men in my ex-in law’s family were sitting and laughing in the living room. It was my former in-law’s house in Canada. Snow had piled up high against the doors and windows, freezing my feet and their hearts. I was spending another cringe-worthy Christmas break with that family. There was a guest in the house. An older gentleman with a kind face and a wispy white beard reminiscent of Santa. In true Pakistani fashion, the men were seated in the living room and the women were in the kitchen. The liberal in me squirmed at this set-up, but decorum caught my tongue. My ex-evil-incarnate-mother-in-law, ordered me to put cake and her nicest china on a tray for the men. She poured the tea and I took it inside, with a flimsy veil on my head that kept slipping and made me feel like an alien peeking through a curtain. A lively debate on religion was going on. Great, I thought. He’ll be here for hours.
“Now, I don’t know if the Ahmadis are eligible for the death penalty or life in prison but…” What did my in-law just say?! Heat rose to my ears as I sat on the carpet in front of kids as I recounted the story. Even though I talk for a living, the words sounded as foreign and unbelievable leaving my lips as the ideas behind them.
My family is Ahmadi Muslim, a small minority sect, considered non-muslims by the rest of the muslim world because of minor differences. I was married into a privileged Sunni family. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are rigged against Ahmadis said blasphemy is punishable by death.
Was this man really sitting in the living room, enjoying his tea, debating whether my family should be put to death or jailed for life for their belief? Was my father-in-law really sitting there nodding his head? I felt powerless and voiceless in that patriarchal set up that ensured that I, a daughter in law, had no voice. My family’s pictures played on a loop in my mind over and over as I shook thoughts of them hanging by the neck.
No one stood up for me or my loved ones that day. No one said, “Hey, we don’t tolerate that kind of talk.” It was like I was a dirty secret. My ex-husband did not stand up for me. Instead, he asked why I had left the house for a long walk while the guests were still there.
That day I felt different, like a minority, without an ally. It meant having to listen to someone’s bigotry and not have anyone defend me. I felt different and utterly alone. I still feel different because every time a suicide bomber goes off in the West, I feel all eyes on me.
I feel different at home and outside, but here in the school I work, where we don’t care what race or religion anyone belongs to – this is the only place I feel safe. My family came here for religious freedom and it’s only in America that they are free to call themselves Muslims. Ahmadis are a non-violent sect so when the news in the U.S. paints all muslims as the same, it becomes even harder to find my voice.
I emphasized to the children that day, “Not all muslims are violent and not all of them are the same!” Many hugs, “aawwws,” and sighs later, I was invited to speak to another class.
Religion, race, gender, class, ability, orientation—there is always something that makes us, especially kids, feel different. Substitute the word Ahmadi for Black, gay, transgender, and the experience will feel the same. It’s about time we start making our classrooms into Safe Spaces where more stories can be shared.
Photo credit: Getty Images