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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Islamic School Days


I spent most of my childhood in an Islamic school – I won't mention which one. In fact, I'd appreciate if there were no guesses. I'm not out to pick on my old school. I was there until the age of fourteen or so. I loved it – well, at least parts of it. But there were lots of funny bits, and that's what I'm going to share with you right now.

The story I'm about to tell you is completely true. It happened when I was in grade 7. We were a class of about 30 students, with the boys and girls arranged on separate sides of the classroom. On that special day, we had just returned from lunch break, and we were sitting around waiting for our teacher to come in. Our teachers always seemed to take their good 'ole time, and like any other kids, we got bored. So we started chattering back and forth, not noticing what a racket we were making.

Then, BAM! We froze. In charged our history teacher, a deadly frown set within the folds of her drooping cheeks, glasses resting low upon the bridge of her dainty nose, eyes shooting angry darts at every face. She was old and very intimidating. I'll call her...Sr. Shaila. Yes, we didn't call our teachers Ms. or Mr. or any other name like that. It was either Sister or Brother. And this teacher was one sister!

"WHY AREN'T YOUR BOOKS OUT YET?!!!"

We stared at her, still stunned by her sudden appearance. We'd forgotten, we really had! But there was no arguing with this woman. Should I take out my textbook and risk having her notice I hadn't taken it out earlier? I could sense I wasn't the only one paralysed with indecision.

She continued her slow perusal of the class, glaring eyes settling upon each trembling child in turn.

"WHERE ARE YOUR BOOKS? ARE YOU DEAF?!"

A girl in the front row quietly reached into her desk and pulled out her book, her eyes still fixed upon Sr. Shaila. (No, there were no lockers in this school.) The rest of us cautiously followed suit. We were scared stiff, we really were. We stared straight ahead, casting fearful glances at her from below lowered lids, not a peep coming out of our mouths.

And then it came. The tirade we'd been anticipating.

"HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU THE SAME THING? YOU PEOPLE ARE WORTHLESS! I COME A FEW MINUTES LATE AND I CAN HEAR YOU ALL THE WAY DOWN THE HALL! HOW DARE YOU? HOW DARE YOU?!!"

She stopped to take a deep breath. Uh oh. This was a biggie.

"YOU KNOW, YOU PEOPLE DON'T KNOW BASIC THINGS! YOU LACK THE BASIC MANNERS! WHY HAVEN'T YOU TOLD YOUR PARENTS THEY ARE WASTING THEIR TIME? WHY HAVEN'T YOU? THEY WORK NIGHT AND DAY, SPENDING EVERYTHING OUT OF THEIR POCKETS TO SEND YOU – YOU! - TO THIS SCHOOL? FOR WHAT? FOR WHAT?! YOU PEOPLE SHOULD BE BURGER FLIPPERS (and she rolled each 'r'). IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO BE? TELL ME! TELL ME! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO BE?! LA HALA WA LA KOOWATTA ILLA BILLAH (this was exactly how she said it)."

But we knew by now she didn't really want us to admit we'd rather be anything but burger flippers. In fact, we knew that if we did tell her, we might get into even more trouble. (It had happened once before, you see, with a student too eager to please.) So we kept quiet, staring at the ridges in our desks, our fingernails, anything to avoid her accusatory glare. We were praying she'd soon stop and we could just get on with learning. But then we realized that wasn't going to happen any time soon:

"I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHY I TRY WITH YOU PEOPLE! WHY DO I BOTHER? YOU THINK I AM DOING THIS FOR THE MONEY? YOU PEOPLE ARE WORTHLESS! WORTHLESS!"

"STAND UP! STAND UP! ALL OF YOU!!!"

I scraped back my chair as fast as I could, hastening to do as she ordered. The clang of thirty chairs was ear jarring, but she was so angry she didn't notice. What would she make us do? Hands on our heads this time?

"GET UP ON YOUR DESKS!" she screeched.

What?! We stared at her in confusion, not believing our ears. We'd had strange punishments before, but this was unbelievable.

"HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU?! GET UP ON YOUR DESKS! RIGHT NOW. RIGHT NOW!!!"

The lady had gone bonkers. She was losing her marbles. She was...crazy. But we couldn't risk her wrath. We rose solemnly on our chairs and climbed onto our desks.

A few minutes after we'd settled in, she had one final order: "PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS AND NOT A SOUND!" We put our hands on our heads. And we stood there. Waiting. And waiting some more.

She didn't seem to notice. She was sitting at her desk now, carefully flipping through the Toronto Star newspaper laid out before her. She looked comfortably happy, as if she could easily sit there for another hour.

Standing on a desk was one thing; standing on a desk with our hands atop our heads was a new experience. And it wasn't pleasant, I tell you.

My arms were starting to hurt. I glanced at the clock. Half an hour left. When would she let us off?


Then there was a knock at the door. In came our beloved principal. "Assalaamu Alaykum," he said in usual cheerful voice. Thank God! We sighed a collective sigh of relief. He was here! He'd save us! He was the kindest man on earth. And sure enough, his bright smile turned to horror as he found thirty twelve year olds standing stiffly atop their desks...

To be continued (I think).

12 Comments:

  • At 6/23/2005 05:45:00 PM, Anonymous fathima said…

    no no, how can you stop now ... please, the suspense is kiling me ...

     
  • At 6/23/2005 06:03:00 PM, Anonymous arafat said…

    WOW. You know, I don't even wanna talk about this - the whole punishment concept and all. But great story...please keep telling us more.

    p.s. Did anyone realize that the teacher was mad at the students because SHE was late? This makes a great case for psychological study, although I'm sure it's a fairly common phenomenon

     
  • At 6/24/2005 01:57:00 AM, Blogger Asmaa said…

    Assalaamu alaikum Safiyyah,

    Thank you for that fabulous rendition of those school days. Yes, "Sr. Shaila." Ahem. (seriously, you captured it EXACTLY how I remember it.)

    I remember being utterly frightened by the sight of her. But, she loves me now - my theory is that once you leave the school, the teachers finally like you, because you're not their problem anymore.

    I remember she was in one of those moods once, and she said she wanted "pin-drop silence." It was all fine and dandy until I dropped my pen on the floor, at which point she kicked me out of the class. And, I was a NERD, not one of the bad kids. So I was devastated.

    Speaking of the old school days, I was just looking at some old photos from my sister's album... he he he >:) Be prepared for some reminiscing at the training.

    Asmaa

    ps: she says "la hawla wa la kuwata" and doesn't complete it with "illa billah". I'll be waiting for the continuation.

     
  • At 6/24/2005 02:20:00 AM, Anonymous Umm 'Ammar said…

    Heyyyy...was I absent that day? I'm interested to know how you remember that so vividly that you're quoting her! I guess psychological damage is pretty memorable :)

    Your erstwhile partner in crime,
    SH

    p.s. very cool blog :)

     
  • At 6/24/2005 02:16:00 PM, Blogger yasmine said…

    I don't know whether to laugh or be horrified. Actually, I read the story all wide-eyed, and then started laughing at the end. Please do continue SOON! =) Islamic school stories always strike a bit close to home for me because, although I didn't attend one for very long, my sister and I have been teaching the 6-8 year olds at our Islamic school over the past 2 years. It's draining, it's rewarding, it's frustrating, it's hilarious, and the whole entire time I'm worried we're going to do or say something that will negatively affect their perception of their Islamic school experience down the road. InshaAllah khayr.

     
  • At 6/24/2005 03:13:00 PM, Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    p.s. Did anyone realize that the teacher was mad at the students because SHE was late? This makes a great case for psychological study, although I'm sure it's a fairly common phenomenon

    Well, no I didn't ... but we all had teachers whose lessons we dreaded - there was one rather nasty woman at my boarding school who used to poke people with biro pens. When she left, she did so over the summer of 1991 and nobody was told she was leaving - we were just told we couldn't do history for GCSE for reasons they couldn't tell us, and found she was gone when we came back that September.

    My Mum went to a Catholic school, and told me of one nasty teacher, who used to spit when she talked, and then used to hit the girls with a ruler over the mess she'd made on their work.

     
  • At 6/25/2005 01:43:00 AM, Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Fathima: Part 2 coming up soon, I promise you.

    Arafat: Yeah, the punishments were usually cruel and unusual...and completely arbitrary. And teachers didn’t know how to apologize for anything, much less their lateness. In fact, some regularly came in late but still expected the students to be waiting in silence. Ridiculous.

    Asmaa: Hahahaha. The pin drop silence thing...you know, I don’t remember her saying that at all. Speaking of which...do you know how guilty I felt when I first posted this entry? I think it has to do with the fact that I still have a great deal of respect for her even though I disagree strongly with her methods. But I’m haunted by the possibility that she might still have power over me. :-(

    Umm ‘Ammar: Why the kunyah? Is there something I don’t know? ;-) As for the quotes, it’s a re-creation and definitely not the real thing. But you’ll find out why I have such a strong recollection of the event in my next instalment. As for where you were, I think you hadn’t yet emerged from your cocoon at that time.

    Yasmine: My experiences at Islamic School taught me just how psychologically disturbing injustice can be. I taught at an Islamic Summer School for many years, and I was always very cognizant that I had to be absolutely fair and transparent while interacting with my students. Frankly, I think the professionalism of the West needs to be emulated by Muslims.

    Yusuf: Poking people with biro pens (people actually use that word?!) isn’t that bad, relatively speaking. And at least your teachers got fired; ours never did. I can’t believe you’re defending these schools. You almost sound like my 'mum'!

     
  • At 6/25/2005 01:52:00 AM, Blogger Brian said…

    Safiyyah, excellent post. What a vivid story!

     
  • At 6/25/2005 01:58:00 AM, Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    She wasn't fired. She appears to have left of her own accord. I wondered for a while if she had cancer or something, and did not want this to be known to the boys in case it became the subject of somewhat undignified discussion. Another friend of mine thought she simply saw the writing on the wall - her older pupils were leaving and nobody further down the school had much time for her.

    My school was a really quite violent place and people were attacked in public on numerous occasions, and the perpetrators got away with it because of the stupidity, laziness or downright malice of the staff. I was told by senior staff that if I couldn't "deliver the goods physically" I should basically keep quiet, and also was told to use violence rather than complain to staff about harrassment.

    Oh and as regards professionalism, I have personally worked at an Islamic school very briefly, and I noticed that there were more than one husband and wife pair at the school. Did the same happen at yours, Safiyyah?

    I'm not defending this sort of thing - it's just that nothing surprises me about these places, whether Islamic schools or any other kind of school. Schools which are run for the benefit of the staff rather than the pupils will always deal with petty personal cheek to a teacher (or other worker) far more sternly than injury or harrassment to a pupil.

     
  • At 6/25/2005 03:04:00 AM, Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Yusuf: Your comments about that teacher leaving made me question whether the biro pens were a euphemism for something I was too naïve to pick up! But yes, I stand corrected. My Islamic school days pale in comparison to your school experiences. How’d you survive? And may I ask where your parents were when all this was going on?

    Of course, your story is also indicative of the resilience that is characteristic of children. It’s reassuring to know that people can turn out so well despite the craziness they went through. Thank you for sharing. Maybe these stories will spur you on to let go of your own childhood demons. ;-)

    As for your question regarding husband-wife teams, that wasn't really an issue at my school. I have a lot to say about professionalism, but I can’t deal with it right now – perhaps in a later post. Thanks for reminding me though. This is definitely something I want to address.

     
  • At 6/26/2005 05:20:00 AM, Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    The biro pen reference wasn't a euphemism - she never used them on me, and normally used her fingers to poke people, but I heard from someone else that they'd received the biro treatment. She was known as "Stitch" for this habit. But it wasn't for this that she was most disliked - she was disliked by everyone because she was incredibly moralistic and self-righteous, but also not a very nice character.

    As for what my parents were doing, well, to be honest, I have always wondered why I ended up in that particular school given that my mother clearly despised the headmaster and that it was, among other things, the least generous about weekends home and that sort of thing. They did what they could to help, like visiting me far more often than anyone else's parents did and contacting the headmaster when there were serious problems, but as for why they didn't simply pull me out of the school (which is what I actually wanted), they (or rather my mother) insisted that there was nowhere else for me to go. My mother was in the middle of a degree at the time (she is now a teacher) and I'm sure she didn't want to do anything which would mean putting that on hold.

     
  • At 6/26/2005 05:53:00 AM, Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    By the way, I've posted quite a bit about my school history on my blog - have a look at my Education category.

     

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