Culture Club

Tomorrow is the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Adha.  I knew that Judeo-Christianity and Islam had many close ties, but reading about this holiday stunned me in showing just how close Islam and Judaism’s roots really are (ie:  two versions of the exact same story).  I knew there was a holiday tomorrow because of the large number of students asking me what they would be missing in their absence.  After school, two of these students (brothers, from Bosnia) stopped by my room to see what they could do to help me out and to let me know they’d be absent tomorrow.  These boys frequently stop in after school and straighten my desks or cut out Box Tops (did I mention I run the Box Top program for the PTO?) or clean desks off.  Today, there were a couple other kids in my room too already doing some of these things so I engaged them in conversation by mentioning that I didn’t know they were Muslim.

The younger boy got really quiet (the older one is usually quiet, so no change there) and bowed his head.  He then told me that he doesn’t like to tell people he’s Muslim because “ever since 9/11, [he’s] ashamed to admit [he’s] Muslim.”   I was taken aback by this.  I mean, I know there are hateful people out there.  I don’t know what cloud I was living on, but I just didn’t see that as a problem with our students.  Teachers, sure (and then, only a small handful).  But for all the things I’ve seen kids bully over in our school, religion has not been one I’ve noticed.

I really wanted to draw him out of his shell and learn more about the holiday, so I started asking questions.  Both boys resisted staunchly at first.  “You’ll make fun.”  “It’s stupid.”  “I can’t tell you, Mrs. Cookie, that’s not your culture.”  Both had serious concerns that nobody could possibly have a positive view of Islam who was not themself Muslim.  Both voiced frustrations about being bullied and teased since 9/11.  Then, fear and frustration turned to anger and the younger boy, always the talkative one, said “you know, it’s really not fair at all.  Those guys who did 9/11, they were not good people.  Muslims believe in keeping pure.  That means praying and not drinking or smoking or swearing and it especially means no violence.  You can’t hurt people!  And those guys hurt a lot of people.  That was wrong.”  I agreed and told them that throughout the course of history, there have always been people who do bad things and claim that their religions told them to do it or their god told them to do it.  I told them about the Ku Klux Klan (in mostly vague terms) and how they claimed the Bible supported their actions and beliefs.  And then, I told them that just like the people behind 9/11 who claimed that their religion demanded these actions of them, that they were a very small percentage of people claiming that faith.  Unfortunately, they were just the publicity receiving percentage.

After I finished this tirade, both boys seemed to warm up to me and I also noticed another girl (a young girl who listens more than she speaks and hears everything) sidling up to the desk.  She’s Christian and she was very curious, it seemed, to hear what I had to say and then to hear what the boys had to say.  So, at this point, I decided to ask the boys again to tell me about their holiday.  Now, they did.  They told me about how tomorrow they will go to the mosque and the imam will give a speech, after which they will go around and introduce themselves to new people with a gesture of respect and reverence.  They showed me how they pray (hands up, to receive God’s blessings, facing Mecca) and told me that after I sat like that for ten minutes, I would rub my hands on my face and make a wish (“like at your birthday, Mrs. Cookie!”).  Then, after the mosque, they will go around with their families and bring food to families, friends, and the elderly and sick (“especially our aunt with cancer.”).  I asked them what they will bring and was told baklava and this sort of meat roll (ack!  I can’t remember the word!).  Umm, I think I have a severe case of pneumonia coming on…

At this point, the other kids were asking questions and getting involved and both boys were lighting up under the positive attention.  It made me think.  Our school claims to be welcoming to all cultures.  We have one wall right as you walk in covered in graphic art of “Welcome” in all sorts of languages spoken in our school.  But, how many other kids feel like they’re on the periphery?  Misunderstood?

I want to start a Culture Club.  Mr. Cookie thinks I should call it the Travel Club and avoid all mentions of religion or food (oh my god, there has to be food!) to the admin, and then just let it happen… organically… in the course of regular discussion.  I was thinking I could maybe have an interview sheet for kids to ask their parents or other family if they don’t know the answers to certain questions about languages, traditions, food, special holidays, how/when/why their families came to the US, etc.  I think I would start us off the first week by talking about my family’s French heritage (safe, I don’t know any French kids in the school- just Moroccan, Haitian, etc so I wouldn’t be stealing anyone’s thunder).  I could model for them what a discussion would look like and maybe bring in some sort of special French food to share.  Then, kids could sign up for following weeks, take one of the interviews, add or subtract from it as they see fit, and each week their presentation would serve as a jumping off point.  Off the top of my head, we have students from the following places:

El Salvador

Brazil

Argentina

Haiti

Somolia

Morocco

Italy

Nigeria

Kenya

Bosnia

Albania

Cambodia

China

I’m sure I’m missing somebody.  I know I am.  But my point is, I think this could be a really great source of encouragement and support for our students.  And also good food.  Now, to sell it to the admin.

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