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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Islamic School Days, cont'd

Read Part 1 here.

So Sr. Shaila had forced us onto our desks as punishment for chatting in class. There we stood, hands clasped atop our heads, waiting for her to come to her senses. We'd been standing there for quite some time when our principal walked in unexpectedly and paused, taken aback at the discovery of thirty sombre statues set upon thirty tiny desks.

"What's going on here?" he asked. His eyes swept the room, baffled at the strange tableau before him. "Get down, all of you! What're you doing up there?!"

But we stood there, shame-faced and silent, knowing we had no choice in the matter. It was either him or the scary lady, and the scary lady we could not ignore.

Our teacher broke the unsettling silence. "I told them to stand there, Br. Abdurrahman. I've had it with them! I've had enough!"

"No, Sr. Shaila, they must come down! It's unsafe. Get down, all of you! Get down!"

We fidgeted uncertainly, waiting for her word. Our principal looked at us, then at her. Finally he gestured to Sr. Shaila. "Can I speak with you outside?" he asked.

She nodded, and he led the way. But before shutting the door, she perused the classroom one last time. "Not a word from any of you. Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!"

We didn't respond. We knew what would happen if we did. Instead, our eyes remained fixed upon the door as we sought to listen in on the secret conversation – in vain.

Minutes later, the door inched open. Sr. Shaila strode straight to her desk, her mouth still set in a stubborn frown. It was Br. Abdurrahman who addressed us: "Get down, everyone. Off your desks! I don't want to see you there again, okay? And I want this to be a lesson to all of you. Have your textbooks out and be ready for class. Is that clear?"

We nodded wordlessly, then scrambled down from our desks, involuntary sighs of relief slipping out as we settled into our seats. Br. Abdurrahman left quietly, shutting the door behind him.

But before we'd managed to pull our textbooks out, before we'd even managed to get comfortable in our chairs, Sr. Shaila's familiar voice startled us: "You know, Br. Abdurrahman is too kind. You people will never learn this way. GET BACK UP ON YOUR DESKS!"

In shock, we stumbled from our seats yet again; disobeying simply wasn't an option. She glared at us from behind her spectacles. "AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!!!" she commanded.

My eyes lingered on the second hand of the clock. I was bored to death and willing the period to end. Before long, i was thoroughly agitated. This was simply ridiculous. We were twelve year olds, and she had us standing on our desks? Wasn't there anything we could do to end this madness?

And then, unexpectedly, I hit upon an idea. What would happen if I apologized - on behalf of the class? Would she let us off? It was worth a try. But I was terrified. What if she yelled at me? Or concocted some unique sort of punishment for me? On the other hand, perhaps I was the best chance we had. She had taken a liking to me for some reason. It was worth a try, I thought. But why risk it? Why not someone else?

The clock ticked away as I pondered my options. Several times I made to speak, only to realize I hadn't the courage to do so. Finally, I could stand it no longer. "Sr. Shaila?" I whispered. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Sr. Shaila?" I asked, more loudly this time.

Her head jerked up from the jumble of newspapers before her. She'd heard. It was too late to back down. My heart beat wildly as I adjusted my clasped hands. "Sr. Shaila, can we please sit down? We're really sorry."

"What are you sorry for, Saffya?" Yes, she called me Saffya and I hated it. She also called me variations of that name, including Soofya and Sowfya. But Saffya was the most popular, it seemed.

Why were we sorry, she'd asked. She was making me spell it out. "We're sorry for not being quiet and for not being ready for class." I felt like a snivelling four-year old begging to play outside.

She slowly turned a page and continued perusing the page before her. She said nothing. Nothing! Oh God, it hadn't worked! Oh, the shame!

Minutes passed. My arms were throbbing. And I silently berated myself for sucking up to her.

Then suddenly, without looking up from her paper, she murmured, "Soofya, sit down."

Did she say what I thought she said? It took a moment for her words to sink in. She looked up to see me still standing. "Soofya, I said sit down!"

Huh? Just me? But I'd already tried my luck; I wasn't brave enough to speak again. Red-faced, I climbed down from my desk and sank into my chair, the rest of the class still towering over me. I felt even worse now, knowing I'd been the only one spared. I suppose I'd learned a lesson: It's not smart to negotiate with a crazy woman.

Time passed slowly in the strangely still room. Then, ten minutes were all that remained. I could see and hear classmates shuffling around, adjusting their hands, rotating their necks – all to alleviate the discomfort they were in. I was suffering almost as much as those who remained standing - not physically, of course, but from the embarrassment of being singled out. So it was a relief to finally hear her voice.

"You know," she said, her voice deceptively casual, "you people have no shame. The least you could do is apologize. But you people are too proud for even that. And what grade are you in? Grade 7? GRADE 7?! What kind of example are you? WHAT KIND OF EXAMPLE?! La halla wa laa quwwataa!" She shook her head at the class, mouth twisted in disgust, the anger just barely veiled.

And then a voice broke through the tense silence that followed. "Sr. Shaila, I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what? SORRY FOR WHAT?!"

"For talking before you came in."

"SIT DOWN!" she thundered.

Then another voice. "Sr. Shaila, I'm sorry." And another. And another. Within a few minutes, everyone had apologized and was seated, a sense of normalcy returning to the classroom.

"Open your textbooks to page 89," she commanded.

I'd never seen textbooks whipped out so quickly.

"Read quietly until the end of the period. Answer the questions at the end of the chapter. I'll check your work tomorrow." And with that, she collected the remnants of her newspaper and waltzed out the door.

That day – the day Sr. Shaila disciplined thirty twelve year olds – that was the day I finally realized my history teacher had gone berserk. She wasn't the only one. It was much later that I came to appreciate the distinct madness that pervaded that school.


  • At 6/26/2005 10:29:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great story, couple of questions:

    Did the teacher get fired?

    And did the other students give you a hard time for being the only one allowed to sit down?


  • At 6/26/2005 10:37:00 a.m., Blogger Hasan the Not-So-Great said…

    you are one good story teller.

  • At 6/26/2005 10:50:00 a.m., Blogger basit said…

    other than the craziness, was she a good history teacher?

  • At 6/26/2005 11:54:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    asSalaam 'aleykum wa RahmatuLlah;

    I had similar experiences at an international American Christian school, private Protestant schools - and I have to add that while there are notable teachers out there always (even in public schools), educators are remiss in placing the most noble and wise in charge of educating the most defenseless and weak...

    That, and I consider myself one of those who need correction, just as my students are also in need of sincere nasiha - there is little argument that Islam must have an active voice in the world, and that 'khalwa' (of the extreme '40 days of solitude' or rahbaniyya Sufi type) isn't suitable to this time - my teacher, Tosun Bayrak of Spring Valley and the Khalwati-Jerrahiyya Sufi Order of America, has advised the same.
    ( )

    Muslims must be active, speak the Truth - 'though not in every place', as Isa (alayhi Salaam) advises against "throwing your pearls before swine" - & education is one of the most direly needed of these spaces.

    FethuLlah Gulen, the excellent Turkish thinker, has written well on this:

  • At 6/26/2005 02:16:00 p.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    as salaam alaikum

    We had a fourth grade teacher growing up who would use a ruler on the unruley. She decided to take that ruler on to my neighbor friend because he was late coming in from recess. That would be the last day she used it, because my friends 4ft mother went in there and beat her up.

    I'm that type of mother, I will storm a school that harms my children and does something as stupid as what your teacher did. Bullying 12 yr olds for an adult who is suppose to teach children, inspire their young little minds, to only act in such a pathetic way I would have to impose similiar humiliation on her.

    Please tell me one parent at least went in there and went loco on crazy woman.

  • At 6/26/2005 02:42:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Corporal punishment is a proven teaching method. Sr. Shaila got all the kids to listen to her. NO?

    I had a sixth grade teacher who would poke the children when they would get out of hand. He was mean as hell but one thing is for sure, we definitely learned alot from him.


  • At 6/26/2005 04:34:00 p.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    Corporal punishment is a proven teaching method. Sr. Shaila got all the kids to listen to her. NO?>>

    No she didn't, she did get them to fear here. But I dont see any evidence where they got her to listen and I mean really listen.

    I don't learn from brutes most people don't. Sure they can parrot things back out of fear of punishment, but is that learning?

    I don't know what you think corpral punishment teaches other than fear and resentment.

  • At 6/26/2005 05:42:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are right that it teaches fear and resentment but when used correctly will only aide in the teaching process. It is the last resort but still an option for a disobedient kid and/or bunch!

    You try handling a classroom of know it all 12 years old. Most of them live to give the teacher a hard time. When words fail and disobedient still remains. The option of physical obedience should be left open.

    That grade six teacher of mine taught me alot of lessons that many years later still remain.

    What is your experience Saffiyah?


  • At 6/26/2005 07:31:00 p.m., Blogger Asmaa said…

    I'm scared.

  • At 6/27/2005 11:37:00 a.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    "It is the last resort but still an option for a disobedient kid and/or bunch!"

    Even if I were to agree with this i wouldn't agree that it is a teachers place to physically discipline someones child. It is not their place to do so.

    "You try handling a classroom of know it all 12 years old."

    I wouldn't, this is why I'm not a teacher. This is a profession that people CHOOSE. No one is forced to become a classroom teacher. If a person is unable to productively handle the position than quit and find another profession.

    The teachers that I remember the most growing up who had any positive affect on me were not abusive. They were patient, kind and in tune to the class so that it opened us up to learning. Not all people should be teachers, especially not the woman in this story.

    "When words fail and disobedient still remains. The option of physical obedience should be left open."

    When a persons words fail than they should learn, they being the adults and not vice versa, other ways to address the problem. You can't assume that all children will respond in the same manner to the same things. Children are individuals they have individual problems, concerns, behaviors, reactions ect. It is up to the adult to change their approach if one doesn't work.

    Ya know what strikes me as really odd is that these are all Muslims we are discussing. This is a Muslim teacher with Muslim students. We wouldn't advocate that Muslims start physically abusing each other in order to solve problems. But yet its sugggested towards Muslim children.. A Muslim is not to harm another Muslim right?? so why is it ok for a Muslim adult to harm a Muslim child? That is far from a good Islamic foundation.

  • At 6/27/2005 12:27:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Salaam 'Alaikum

    Agree w/ Nzingha's last post -- this is Muslims against Muslims we're discussing here.

    Second, no one lays a hand on my kids but me. Nobody has the right to touch them in any fashion unless I'm standing right there and allow them to.

    Third, as far as Islamic schools go, I dislike the way many of them have unwittingly or unthinkingly imported the "Ya Ihmar!" (O you Donkey!) way of dealing with students / children to our culture. Perhaps calling children donkeys and hitting them works in that particular cultural context (though I don't think it necessarily does), but it's not a part of our school culture. It's degrading -- calling children donkeys and this other stuff. I hate to go to the Islamic school and hearing the teachers screaming at the children all day like harpies. -- Umm Zaid

  • At 6/27/2005 01:34:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    asSalaam 'aleykum;

    pardons, I feel a need to respond (these are dangerous urges, I warn you);

    while teachers do need to respect children and parents should take responsibility for raising and guiding (tarbiyah wa irshad) their children, and it's certainly true that "a muslim is safe from another muslims' hand and tongue", in "honour, person, and property" (as hadith state) - this also applies to the teachers.

    it's true that teachers choose their profession, but not the children they teach, which school they are placed in, or the system/culture in which they educate. saudi arabia (or arabia in general, wa Allahu alim) has a lot of parents (like wealthy and indulgent parents around the world, or tribalistic and bigoted folk [sorry, I call it as I see it - & I'm not the only one to notice that Saudi has a lot of resemblances to the 'American South' circa 1965] around the world, you take your pick)

    I've witnessed teachers abused, shouted at (by children as young as 5 or 6) - and heard trustworthy reports of teachers being abused and fired on whim, because of students' complaints. When one tells a student not to bring porn on his cellphone into class, or not to call his friends, or to stop disrupting the class - should one do so 'with due respect to his wealth and property' or with respect to the need of 20 other students to learn?

    When students try to throw a teacher out the window (and they've been told or 'culturally informed' that Pakistanis/ Bengalis/ Sudanese/ Egyptians/ Indians/ whomever are 'lower forms of life, capable only of servicing the noble Saudis' - well? as one fellow teacher said 'answering that child with his own medicine would be worth a ticket home'...

    I'm not claiming special nobility, but racism and bigotry make me sick - and when I'm told to accept it 'because as a Canadian, it works in your benefit' - that makes me more angry. Bigotry is bigotry, why condemn America and Israel for it if we indulge it in our 'muslim brother'?

    We'll get far away from the topic of children and *discipline* if we discuss the arab world, but to put it briefly - parents should not avoid responsibility for their children and blame the problems they fail to deal with at home on the parents - and though I suffered through traumas at grade school & junior high as well - and loathe bullies as much as the next - it's ridiculous to try to argue that one should accept a 10-year-old dictators' personal tantrums as one's "own problem".

    as I wrote before on Izzy Mo's blog, we'd (the muslim community) better clean up our own backyard before complaining about our neighbours - is it tolerable for Mehmet to torture/ murder/ rape while it's not acceptable from John or Moishe?

    sorry, some things are black and white - abuse is abuse, from parents, teachers, or children: and better answers to problems in school had better be forthcoming, or we'll have the next generation we deserve - one that subserviently services it's foreign masters while dictatorially ruling their homes like mini-[Hosni]Mubaraks...

    and may Allah forgive us for our faults, mine are many. wa Allahu alim.

  • At 6/27/2005 02:19:00 p.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    wa alaikum salaam

    W/out feeling like I've highjacked Saffiyas comment section:) I want to briefly comment to Dawud.

    I can so relate to what your saying, I have kids in Saudi schools. I have Saudi teachers in my family, I know what goes on. And I still feel the same way, corporal punishment was banned in saudi for a reason.

    Now their failure to address many of the other perverted thinking that goes on here doesn't give a teacher the right to phyisically harm a child. They still choose their professions KNOWING that they will not always be able to choose the children in their classrooms. There is greater change that needs to be done in the Saudi school system, beyond changing books. But allowing a teacher to physically hit a student will only create more problems. of course the thinking that phyisical force will solve any problems that one can't get control of is a relfection of this culture as well.

    Maybe we'll have to take this to one of our own blogs before we get kicked out :)

    UZ I hate the donkey comments, one of the more common ones here is ya kalb (dog). UGGHHHH

  • At 6/27/2005 04:53:00 p.m., Anonymous Nosheen said…


    I don't agree with physically discipling children, either, but one comment to Nzingha.

    You repeatedly state that teachers CHOOSE their profession. Fair enough, but parents also CHOOSE to have kids, and if they're going to -- especially if they're Muslim (since your standards for Islamic schools/teachers are rightfully greater, so too, should our standards for Muslim parents be higher). I've been to Islamic schools and have friends that teach in Islamic schools, and quite frankly teachers aren't the only one's at wrong here (although the one in Saf's story *is* wrong and teachers should lead by example and be punctual and just, not a nafsonic mission). Parents in Islamic school bully and degrade teachers like no parents in public schools would ever be permitted to do so. They publically humiliate them by storming into their classes, call them at home to yell at them and make demands whilst reminding themt that they "pay the teacher's salary"-- and I'm sure this (and the poor pay, and common breech of contracts) fuel teachers' dismay and frustration. Secondly, many students in Islamic school behave in a more spoiled and out of control, total lack of ihsan manner that leads one to question *what* the dude with the big beard they call their father or their muhajibah mother is teaching them about the adab due to 1) all Muslims 2) teachers -- who have traditionally had an esteemed role is Islam.

    Choosing a profession doesn't mean accepting all abuse and mistreatment that comes one's way. Parents also CHOOSE to put their students in certain schools and just like they should not be expected to accept abuse, neither should teachers.

    So, yes physical discipline is wrong...but it's not the only thing that's wrong with Islamic schools, and treating the ailments at the root of the problem (read: parents and administration) will insha'Allah cure much of the problems.

    Just thought this discussion needed some balance to it.


  • At 6/28/2005 12:39:00 a.m., Blogger Monologist said…

    wow for a minute there i thought I was in guyana. only when we qre 12 they don't do that anymore.
    Great story. You have a nack for stoory telling. Love the blog.
    thanks for visiting me. It's great to see a fellow guyanese on blogger too.
    but i have a question about your story, did you learn the lesson by the principal's way or the crazy teacher?

  • At 6/28/2005 02:37:00 a.m., Anonymous secret admirer said…

    wow! ur from south america? i know people who from from guyana and they're sooo nice but u didn't look like ur from there. r u a rare breed or what:)
    u should send ur story to an islamic magazine. monoligist is right, it's great!

  • At 6/28/2005 05:17:00 a.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    wa alaikum salaam

    Nosheen you won't get me disagreeing with anything you said. Not all fertile people are good parents. And I'm swimming in a culture where the lack of proper parenting is a HUGE problem in schools. Oh I got plenty of stories. :) But a teacher can not make a person a better parent. Many times the teachers, unfortunately, have a greater impact on children than their own parents. So one must be very careful in how they choose to handle a situation.

    Some parents want to make me rethink the haramness of sterilization.

  • At 6/29/2005 12:45:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Salaam 'Alaikum

    My comments spinning off of Nosheen and Nzingha are so long I think it is only polite for me to take this to my own blog as a post. Maybe tonight or tomorrow insha'Allah. -- Umm Zaid

  • At 6/29/2005 12:56:00 a.m., Blogger JD said…

    Interesting story. I don't have a problem with corporal punishment in schools, but I do believe that it should be administered in a controlled, supervised manner. Here in S'pore, schools have "discipline mistresses" who are responsible for the disciplining of all students (thus, the punishment is taken out of the teacher's hands, as in this case).

    A few years ago, I taught English to foreign students who were in their late teens-early 20s. They needed discipline, especially for coming to class late. My solution/punishment was to give them a 10-minute leeway, then require them to do - in front of the class - one push-up (or, occasionally, sit-up) for every minute they were late (with variations on the theme for other infractions). The class learned very quickly that I meant business when I said come to class on time, and I had very few problems after that.

  • At 6/29/2005 01:30:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    UZ: I really don't mind your long comments. That's what makes this interesting.
    If I had more time, I would have joined in. I have a lot to say on this subject. I'll post my thoughts in the next few days.

  • At 7/08/2005 05:15:00 p.m., Anonymous Ruqayyah A. said…

    Assalamu Alaikum Saffiya

    LOL! I went to that very same school you went to, although I was in kindergarten or Grade 1 at the time.. you must have been in Grade 9...and we had the same teacher "Sr. Shaila" when we moved on to Grade 6, 7, and 8 for "E-Social E-Studies. I was totally imagining her in your story (you told it very well!!) and was laughing so hard, tears were coming down!

    Although she screamed at us alot and told us countless times that we were "Chairwarmers" and "Stupid goats who she would like to throw out the window" and that our parents were just "wasting their money on us" ...when it came time for us to graduate in 2000, she UNBELIEVEBLY --CRIED (I kid you not) SHE CRIED AT OUR GRADUATION! and she said and I quote "I will miss you people.."

    She always will remain a vivid memory from our school days. I have many stories, as you do undoubtedly, but there's no space!

    Sorry for the long comment, but I couldn't resist.

    p.s. She is still there, teaching my younger sister. and "La hola wa la quwatta" will ever remain a legendary expression of her rage.

  • At 9/24/2005 01:24:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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