I spent the last four days in a Muslim school in New York City. I was a bit worried about dressing properly and not offending anyone. I called the project manager to inquire about proper attire. I was relieved to discover that I didn’t have to wear a hajib, or observe the fast for Ramadan, or change my work wardrobe—just wear pants, closed-toe shoes, and longish sleeves. My assignment for the week was to do technology and social studies; unfortunately, that was about the only information I was given.
Not really having an agenda, but just a schedule of who to visit, I jumped right in to my day. The students wore uniforms of green and white. The boys wore white shirts and green pants and black dress shoes—no sneakers allowed. Clad in snowy hijabs, the older girls wore long sleeve and long length green dresses with black shoes. The younger girls also wore white hijabs, but they wore green jumpers and green leggings underneath. I did see a few Kindergarteners with leggings with stars, Minnie Mouse, and polka dots. The little boys had black athletic shoes that they snuck in also.
I noticed immediately that my presence was curious to students, young and old alike. I had much lighter skin than many of them and I was not wearing traditional Muslim garb. They knew I was a stranger, but did not know why I was there. The respect and deference they gave me was remarkable.
As I visited the secondary classrooms, I was reminded that we are all more alike than different. Middle school boys at the end of the school year hoop and holler and horse around. Middle school girls are excited for the end of school, but not quite as boisterous as the boys. The high school students are struggling with the battle of preparing for important exams versus daydreaming about the summer vacation ahead. The kids are there to learn and to be with their friends. They respect their teachers, they get into trouble, they create amazing projects, they are kids.
One thing that I noticed that was different were the signs and posters throughout the school in Arabic. All students from Pre-K to 12th grade take Arabic, art, music, Islam, English, Social Studies, Science, Math, and Health. Amazed to see all the subjects that the students take during a school day, I was equally amazed to see that they did this in 42 minute periods. I think one reason they are able to do this is the teachers move from class to class instead of the kids so very little time is lost from one period to the next.
The classrooms were just like many other classrooms I have been in across the country. There were many similarities to “regular” classrooms like grammar posters on the wall, bookcases with texts, SMARTboards, and chalkboards. However, there were some differences I noticed. They had miniscule floor space with barely enough room for the teacher to walk around. Often the classes had 20 or more students in them so it was quite crowded, but neither the students nor the teachers let that stop the learning. Some classes had to be entered through other classrooms so interruptions were common, but did not seem to distract the students.
The teachers had no offices or teachers’ room. Preparing lessons, reading the Quran, or chatting with colleagues were what the teachers did in their space in the halls. They were all kind and often asked if I needed anything. I shyly asked one teacher if I could drink my Diet Coke because during Ramadan most teachers and students do not even drink liquid from sunrise to sunset. They assured me it was perfectly alright to do what I usually did. I actually felt less pressure to behave a certain way when I was at this Muslim school than when I encounter fundamentalist Christians in my daily life in Alabama.
I noticed many sayings from the Quran posted throughout the building; I realized with some wonder that many of the sayings (that were in English) were similar in meaning to verses from the Old and New Testaments. The students took great pride in being able to speak and write Arabic. They valued their culture, religion, and traditions in a time in America when Muslims are being stereotyped as terrorists and killers. They had a true sense of who they were and why their way of life was a good one to follow. I wonder if some kids I know who are Christian would be able to articulate their faith and commitment as the students at Al Ihasan Academy were able to do.
Throughout the week, I noticed more and more that I had been wrong about my assumptions about this school. Except for the juniors, all of the students in the building were born after 9-11 rocked our world and especially New York City. I wondered if they carried a burden of that part of history because the men who killed so many professed to be the same religion as they were. But, they do not feel out of sorts in Queens, New York. They are Americans. They have parents, teachers, and a community that cares for them and their well-being. They are Americans. They were born in America to families who had been settled in NYC before 9-11. They are Americans. They study American symbols, heroes, leaders, and history in social studies. They are Americans. They listen to popular music, watch TV and YouTube, and read many things besides the Quran. They are Americans. I was humbled when I realized that I now knew without a doubt, we are all more alike than different.