Teaching at an Islamic School in Trump’s America
I swung into our school’s driveway and headed for the teacher’s parking lot. I am a high school science teacher. As I steered towards the backlot, I noticed a semi-trailer parked on the drive across from my classroom.
“Hmm, weird,” I thought. “Never saw anyone park their rig there before.”
I pulled into my space and thought further.
“That’s not right. You don’t park your rig in a church or school lot. Nobody does that.”
I walked into school and stood by my window.
“That trailer would hold about 20,000 lbs of ammonia and fuel oil. That’d be one massive car bomb.”
This is life in post-Trump America when you teach at an Islamic parochial school.
I logged on with my laptop and emailed the head of school, his assistant and our administrator: “What’s the deal with that Dollar General trailer parked on the driveway? I’m concerned. That doesn’t belong there.”
The nearly instantaneous response: “Thanks for alerting us. We have notified the police and are working with them on this.”
Several minutes later, I stepped to my window and noted an intense-looking officer standing next to his cruiser. He was speaking into his mic. Our eyes met. I raised a hand in thanks and he nodded in acknowledgment. Five minutes later, a tractor unit appeared and the trailer was removed. No harm, no foul.
My name is David Stanley. I am a Jew and I am not paranoid. I am a realist. Hate crimes have skyrocketed. Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan now wave their fists in triumph. The thoughtful majority stands ashamed and frightened as a wave of hate has swept our country.
In post-Trump America—especially for those who identify as black, disabled, Hispanic, Jewish, LGBTQ or Muslim—if you are not aware of your surroundings, you may well become a victim of the next hate crime. I stand with my students, parents and our Muslim staffers over our shared fear of hate.
The morning after the election, one of my biology students asked, “Mr. Stanley, do you think it’s pretty easy to get an MD license transferred from Michigan to Vancouver?”
“Probably, it’s Canada. No, I guess I have no idea. What’s up?” I answered.
“Oh, it’s my dad. He’s thinking that it’s probably a lot safer for us to live in Canada now that Trump’s gonna be president, and I think Vancouver looks pretty cool.”
My classes start with an attendance question, something quick and fun—name your favorite Pop-Tart; what’s your favorite cookie? Last week, I asked the kids to tell a quick joke. One kid said, “I made a Joe Biden meme last night that I think is pretty funny. Can I share that?”
“Sure, of course, love the Joe Biden memes.”
“I was actually trying to come up with a Trump joke,” she said, “but then I realized, since the election, Trump jokes are not funny anymore.”
Early on in my tenure, I realized how much my Muslim students were like Jewish students 100 years ago. When Jews came to America around the turn of the 20th century, they found jobs and next built Jewish day schools. The young immigrants learned of their own culture and religion, plus the secular subjects needed for college success.
The families of my students are no different. Our students have a scheduled afternoon prayer. They learn to read, write and speak in Arabic. They study Quran. They learn of Islamic culture. I teach the sciences—biology, chemistry and physical. Others teach English language arts, math, history and economics and government. We are up for reaccreditation in late April.
Our students are every bit modern American school kids. The girls dress in modern Arabic dress; a hijab with a longer-than-hip length jacket, often with very stylish jeans. Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars are often color-coordinated with a lovely abaya. Our boys wear long sleeves and long pants. They usually rock logo-covered hoodies, and the current shoes of choice seem to be Adidas Sambas and Puma EvoSpeed indoor soccer shoes.
Most of my students are the children of professionals: engineers, physicians and professors who left the homeland for a better life here. Many of the parents were comfortable in the old country, but smart enough to see the coming horrors of Aleppo, tired of the destruction in Lebanon, and they came to America. Just as with the great exodus of 1882-1914 when 2 million Jews came to the U.S. in search of a better life, over 2 million Muslims have arrived in the U.S. since 1999.
Just as our great-great grandparents hammered home the value of education and faith to our ancestors 100 years ago, so do these same parents with their children. These parents demand 100 percent from their children and the school in matters of worship and scholarship.
My new students and I have formed a deeply satisfying connection. I have been entrusted with the honor, despite years of difficulties between our peoples, to teach observant Muslim youth biology, chemistry and physical science. As a teacher, it is not merely content that is taught. I shape thinking: about science, about method, about faith and hope and integrity, about what it means to be a good human in the world. I am determined to make the most of this opportunity to build a bridge, one kid at a time. To be part of another culture’s diaspora fills me with reverence.
Kids are still kids. They struggle. They excel. They test boundaries. All high school kids are awesome and a pain and energetic and lethargic, regardless of heritage. They’ve taught me a little Arabic. One says “Mubarak!” instead of “Mazel tov!” My name in Arabic is Daoud; my nickname Habib. At Friday Shabbat services, I might say “Shalom, my brother” to a friend. To my students, I greet them with Assalam, an invocation where I have asked God to grant protection and security to my Muslim students.
There is more in common between our cultures than one might think. Just before winter break, I stumbled into a room filled with a wonderful aroma. One of the Islamic studies teachers had provided a going away luncheon for her class. Stuffed grape leaves with lamb and rice, baked kibbe, baklava. I said I was just looking for a book I misplaced.
“Here, take a plate. You’ll be hungry later.”