by Mrs. Sabraw
The adventure all started the moment I reflected on an event that happened twenty years ago when I taught Junior Honors English students at one of this country’s top public high schools.
Watching the events unfold in Paris this week caused me to to write an account of the experience. As the words appeared on my screen, I wondered, Is this how it really went? Were the events then as I remember now? Memory has a way of morphing faces and words that may not have been a part of the story.
In order to assess the validity of my memory, I realized I needed a different view of the situation. An aerial view.
I invested in an airtight suit, a canister of helium, a pump and goggles, filled my suit with helium, un-tethered the ropes holding me to earth and off I levitated, blowing in the wind, floating in the atmosphere, and focusing on a troubling meeting I endured in my academic haven, my classroom.
Surrounded by blue sky, clouds, and a soothing wind, I called up the circumstances of November, 1995.
And they went like this…
* * * * * *
I taught for 17 years at a top public high school. In the 90’s, new immigrants from Taiwan, India, Korea, and Pakistan made their ways to Silicon Valley, bringing three generations with them—grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, and children, whom these new immigrants hoped would gain admittance to U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, Harvard and Yale.
I was a young teacher in my 40’s’s with a plum assignment: honors freshmen, honors juniors, and journalism I and II. Students lobbied to get into my class.
Many, many bright new immigrant students—with a perfect command of the English language—sat in front of me, ready and willing to execute any assignment I gave.
My political persuasion was more conservative than most of my colleagues’ in the English Department.
My father had instilled in me values that I held and still hold sacred today—honesty, fidelity, and justice. In my instruction of grammar, literature, and writing, rarely did I allow my personal beliefs to bleed into the subject matter. In those days, such adherence to the educational mission of predicate nominatives, Henry David Thoreau, and Lorraine Hansberry was an anomaly. Most of my peers used their podiums to further their own political messages.
I tried hard to stay apolitical as a teacher.
One day, one of my young Muslim students from Pakistan approached me and asked if I would consider becoming the Muslim Students’ Association faculty advisor.
There were no Muslims on the faculty, so I said, “Yes.” Why not?
The months went by with weekly meetings in my room, N-9.
The students, mainly Pakistani, Iranian, and Middle Eastern at the time, invited imams to speak and a Black Muslim imam from Oakland even came to talk to the club. The boys sat on one side of the room and the girls on the other.
My role was nil. I sat at my desk in the back of the room, ate my sandwich, and corrected papers but always kept an ear to the discussion.
And then it happened one November day in 1995:
An Israeli right-winger assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yassar Arafat and Shimon Peres, for trying to shepherd peace into the Middle East.
At the Muslim Club the next week, one student after another, rose to the podium to cheer Rabin’s assassination. Vitriol spewed from their mouths. I wondered what the conversation had been at home with their educated parents.
I stood up from the back of my room and asked them if they knew what Rabin was trying to do in Israel—that he was a good man, trying to find a solution to the problems in the region.
They didn’t want to hear any of the facts—and continued on. These students were honors students. They were not stupid, just ignorant and unsophisticated and clueless about their Jewish advisor who was providing space and energy so that the Muslim students had a place to gather and exchange ideas.
I quit my advisorship on the spot and told them to find a new person who would spend an hour a week listening to the machinations of a “peaceful” religion.
That day, only six years before Islamists flew our planes into the World Trade Center, I wondered if an unholy Holy War were coming.
* * * * * * *
Today, after the melee in Paris, France and the downing of a Russian airliner by an Isis bomb, and a Jewish teacher stabbed while walking home on the streets of Marseille, I hovered above the fracas in order to think objectively about the Muslim Students’ Association meetings of 1995.
Blowing myself up for a cause yielded clarity.