Remember Me?

Amman, Jordan

Sometimes you can’t predict the people who will remember and recognize you.

I needed a note from the college’s doctor to go home early, and I knew the clinic was on Level B1, but I didn’t know where, so I asked a security guard. She said, “Are you Maryah?”
“Yes,” I said. Since my Peace Corps days, I’ve become accustomed to being the White Elephant, the person everyone recognizes in a crowd of locals.
“Don’t you remember me?”
I get this a lot, too, and while I’m good at recognizing familiar faces, I’m very bad at figuring out why they’re familiar. “You look familiar….”
“I’m Kawthar!” she says. “From Mshairfeh.”
I take another look, and now I can see it. “Kawthar? How are you? What’s new?” Four years ago, she was one of my students in the 10th grade at the girls’ school in Mshairfeh where I taught as a Peace Corps Volunteer. “Do you come here every day from Mshairfeh?”
“Ali works here, and I come with him.” Clearly I’m supposed to know who Ali is, too, so I smile and nod as if I understand, and change the subject a little. “There are two girls from Bleela [the village down the hill from Mshairfeh] who work at the college and come every morning, too!” She doesn’t know them off hand, but maybe she’ll figure it out and they can share the carpool burden that much more.
Ultimately, Kawthar can’t help me find the clinic, and I really need it, so we part ways, but now I’ll be sure to say hello when I can.

It’s not a surprise that Ghadeer, Alia, Aaliya and Aiat remember me, or Amal whom I visited to congratulate on her Tawjihi results, or even the girl from my 8th grade class I encountered on the bus the other day. It’s not surprising that Hadeel, Ziad, Khaled, FaraH and other little kids from my neighborhood remember me. But if you were to ask me which of my students was most likely to pick me out of a crowd in Amman and introduce herself, it wouldn’t be Kawthar!

My 8th graders, May 2005

You see, the Jordanian 10th grade classroom is a very polarized place. By this time in their school careers, students like Alaa and Senabel knew that they would likely pass the Tawjihi and go on to university, and they were a joy to teach, really motivated and diligent. The other half of the class, including poor Kawthar, knew they would fail the Tawjihi, and that their only option in life was going to be to get married and have babies. They weren’t going to get the pick of the litter in husbands, either! These girls came to school only because they could spend those hours with their friends instead of scrubbing floors, changing diapers and cooking for their mothers at home. Consequently, they were much more interested in socializing than learning, making them a classroom management nightmare.

It was my first year of teaching, and as a product of the American self-esteem culture, I guess I figured they just hadn’t been given much of a chance to see themselves as learners. I had seen how other teachers treated this class, only letting Alaa, Senabel and a few other “smart” girls answer questions, not caring whether the rest of the class was keeping up or not. I used to try to include Kawthar and other troublemakers in classroom exercises. In retrospect, perhaps they thought I was trying to embarrass them, setting them up for ridicule, or trying to make a point about how “stupid” they were. In any case, it never went well, and it didn’t help classroom discipline.

I do remember quite clearly how the headmistress lined Kawthar and other 10th graders up in front of the whole school at morning assembly one morning, and had each of them publicly paddled for failing to behave in my classroom. I was appalled, needless to say, and when I walked into their English class a little later, I found those girls, Kawthar chief among them, in furious, mortified tears. They berated me for taking a private matter of classroom discipline in front of the whole school. I’m not sure they believed me when I said that I had not uttered a word to the headmistress about their behavior in weeks (frankly, I’d given up thinking any such thing would make the least bit of difference), but that clearly one of their classmates had decided that the issue of their failure to respect their teacher had to be taken further up the chain of command. (I’m pretty sure it was the headmistress’s daughter who tattled.) Ultimately, as I could have easily predicted, this public humiliation did nothing to improve the classroom environment.

Given my history with Kawthar, I would fully expect her to, at best, not admit she knew me, or at worst, to deliberately avoid me. I’m pretty sure I would in her shoes. But maybe, when it came right down to it, I really did make a positive impression on her and some of the other girls I felt were beyond my reach. I hope that’s true. It seemed pretty hopeless, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, to make much of any effect on our students’ English language within the constraints of the Ministry of Education’s curricular requirements. We tried to focus on living as examples of strong, independent, ethical men and women giving back to communities in need. We tried to fan every spark of learning we spotted. I used to tell myself that if I couldn’t get every student to pass their English exams, I could at least do my best to convince even the students who struggled the most that they could at least learn something. I hoped that maybe they would pass this on to their own children, and stop the cycle of “Don’t ask those students. They’re stupid. They can’t be taught.”

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