Eslam, the Forgotten Eighth Grader

Part 1 of 3

I decided to try something every American teacher does and no teacher in my Jordanian school ever had, or so it seemed at least from the reaction of my students. I decided to assign seats, but in a precisely calculated way. I listed out all the girls in my eighth grade class, in order from the strongest student, a saucy know-it-all named Wafa’ with a strut like the Bantam roosters I had grown up next door to, down to the weakest, a petite girl named Eslam.

If I had not assigned seats to that class, with all that followed as a result, I would not even remember Eslam. If she was remarkable at all, it was because her clothes were more faded and ill-fitting than most of the other girls, her face and hands more chapped and ravaged by the effects of poverty and malnutrition. Less than half of the girls in the eighth grade wore hijab, and even those who did were not always consistent, but Eslam was never without her head covered. It was usually the same amira-style hijab, a tube of pale green cotton-poly knit that pulled over the head, with a little half-moon of material across the forehead to make sure her hairline was hidden.

Women in the village wore these as “work clothes,” doing yardwork or hanging laundry. They often kept a hijab amira near the door, in case they had to run out for something, but most women had a slicker, more sophisticated look for going to work or school, a long scarf of polyester weave with flowers or paisleys, maybe some metallic glitter. Eslam’s monochromatic hijab amira, dotted with the fuzz of repeated washing, was a sign of poverty greater than that of her classmates. Her total consistency in wearing it, though, hinted at a devotion to her faith that was stronger than the commitment of her classmates.

* * *

I put Wafa’ and Eslam together at the same double desk, closest to the blackboard and the door. In the opposite corner were the second best and second weakest students, paired at another desk in the middle of the room were the third best and third weakest, and so on. “I expect you to be sitting in these seats every day when I walk into this classroom.”

They complained, and loudly. “Assigned seats? No other teacher does that! How come we have to get up and move for English class? That’s not fair!”

I put on my best immovable teacher face. “I’m not your other teachers. I don’t care what they do in their classes. In my English class, these are the seats you’ll sit in.” That face had no effect on my tenth graders, but it worked with the eighth grade. Grudgingly, they settled into their assigned seats, and though they pushed back again from time to time, the assigned seats remained.

I thought I was facing a long fight over something else, though. The assigned seats were just the outward symbol of a bigger culture change I had in mind: cooperative learning. My students were used to traditional education methods of rote learning. They memorized grammar and vocabulary, and either they gave the right answers, or they were passed over for a “smarter” student. School was a zero-sum game, and they had to get the right answers one way or another. Now I was going to ask them for something none of their other teachers had. Instead of cheating off each other, I wanted them to work together, to work out their classroom assignments by combining their skills and knowledge. First, though, I was going to have to convince them not to cheat.

* * *

Or so I thought. In fact, they surprised me. Wafa’ and Eslam are the perfect example. Wafa’ had worked hard to memorize and even understand the English she knew. She did her homework diligently, and the exercises she expected would be covered in class the next day, so she could be prepared to throw her hand in the air first when I asked a question. She almost always had the right answers, and Eslam knew it, so she must have thought she had really lucked out, getting that seat. Wafa’, though, was definitely not going to give those answers away for free.

Wafa’ was not only a bright, compassionate girl, but she was also an Arab. She had grown up in a culture that taught her what Umm Hashem had patiently explained to me: if someone asks for help, you are obligated to give it, immediately. When Eslam asked for help, Wafa’ was compelled to help her, without delay or prevarication. That did not mean, though, that she couldn’t make Eslam work for the answers, if only a fraction as hard as Wafa’ had worked for them.

Eslam and Wafa’ proved to be naturals at cooperative learning, inculcated in it from infancy. All across the room, it was the same thing. The weaker students asked for help, and the stronger students coached them through finding the answers. In the middle of the class, where students were more evenly matched, they compared answers, argued, helped each other.

* * *

Of course, it was not entirely without my guidance, or without growing pains. In the first few weeks, Wafa’ and five or six others were still the only students who raised their hands to answer a question. And they did not just raise their hands. They waved them in the air, shaking their whole bodies like an overenthusiastic puppy’s tail. They bounced in their seats, leaping as close to upright as they could still in their desks, and shouting, “Ya, miss! Ya, miss! Ya, miss!” Learning in my school was a noisy, full-body experience, at least for the “smart” girls like Wafa’.

For students like Eslam, it was different. Learning had always been a spectator sport for Eslam, something other kids got to do while she sat in the back left corner and watched. She never raised her hand, never ventured an answer. After six years of being called “stupid” by her classmates and teachers, she did not believe that she could come up with a correct answer anyway.

Then I started doing something else that none of their other teachers did. I started calling on students who had not raised their hands. At first, that really bewildered them, both the girls who raised their hands and the girls who did not. Eslam was one of the first girls I called on, and she was completely unprepared. It may have been the first time she could remember that a teacher had asked her for an answer, and she did not have one. So I repeated the grammar rule, and asked the question again. She took a guess, and Wafa’ shouted, “That’s wrong!”

Rather than embarrass Eslam further, I turned to another of the girls waving her hand in the air. “Why is that wrong?”

It was a couple more days till I called on Eslam again, but in the meantime I made eye contact, I smiled, I called her by name. I called on some other girls who never got called on. When I called on Eslam the second time, she probably still was not expecting it, but she answered a little more quickly.

Meanwhile, Wafa’ was not happy. She was used to being the center of attention, having the teacher’s ear. I sympathized. In my rural elementary school, I had always been Wafa’, the student with the right answer every time. I knew her frustration because I was doing to her exactly what my elementary school teachers had always done to me, making me sit next to Travis and Jeffrey and the other kids who needed help and asking me to give it to them. The difference was that this had never happened to Wafa’ before; it was not the way things were done in her world.

“Why do you call on her?” she wanted to know, twitching in her seat with the need to give me the answer she knew I was looking for. “I know the answer. She doesn’t. She’s too stupid.”

“I know you know the answer, Wafa’. You always have the right answer all on your own,” I conceded. “But Eslam needs my help to get the answer right, and I need your help by being patient while I help Eslam.” I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but those were the magic words. When I asked Wafa’ and her friends for help, for myself and on behalf of Eslam and the other students who were struggling, I was invoking a sacred desert covenant older than Jordan, older than Islam, as old as Bedouin culture itself.

* * *

In the Peace Corps, I was new to teaching, to English as a Second Language, to Arabic, to Bedouin culture and the Jordanian Ministry of Education and its curriculum. I frequently didn’t know what I was doing, and I messed up often. This eighth grade class, looking back on those two years, was a rare success, and a lucky one. All the stars aligned, and for a brief amount of time, I made a difference.

I know I made a difference because one day Eslam’s mother came to school. She caught me in the first floor hallway between classes, on my way between the teachers’ room and the headmistress’ office. She introduced herself, and I was apprehensive. The weaker the student, the more awkward encounters with the mothers could be. But Umm Eslam had not come with unrealistic expectations of her daughter’s academic skills. She knew exactly what her daughter was capable of, and that was her purpose for visiting the school.

“Miss Maryah, Eslam talks about you all the time. She always hated to go to school. She could never see a purpose in it, never believed that she could learn anything or gain any advantage from school. But now she wakes up in the morning thinking about school and can’t wait to go there. She can’t wait to see you. She wants to do her homework, and she asks her uncles for help. For the first time in her life, she believes that she can learn something, can learn English. She wants to go to school. That’s because of you, Miss Maryah.”

In my dark days in the Peace Corps — and there were plenty — I doubted that I was doing any good in that school, that village, in Jordan. When I doubted, I remembered Eslam, and what her mother came from the farthest end of the village to tell me. It wasn’t about the English she learned. Poverty, malnutrition and six years of defeatism in the classroom had taken a toll that a year with me could do little to remedy. She passed my class, but she was not going to pass her school-leaving exams and go to university.

What I hoped for Eslam and students like her was less concrete. Eslam never believed she could learn anything until she came to my class. That was what I wanted her to take with her into the world, into her life and the lives of her children. In my classroom, she was not a lost cause. In my classroom, there were no lost causes. One day, I hoped that Eslam would pass that message on to her own children. Maybe she would believe in them the way that I believed in her for the short time available to me, and maybe they would defy the odds as she could not.

click here for Part 2

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