School Days

School Days

So the Taliban are now shooting girls who want to go to school, are they? Not that this is really anything new. There have been shootings (and acid attacks) in the past, but this time the cold, deliberate, hired-thug-on-a-professional-hit approach was particularly chilling. Stop a school bus, shout out a name, and shoot a child in the head. What does it matter if you get a few others in the bargain? After all, they were girls, too. Going where they shouldn’t. Let it be a lesson to them.

The girl in question wasn’t just some random girl, or course. It was a girl who in 2009 at the age of 11 wrote a secret blog for the BBC. A girl who publicly declared herself in opposition to the Taliban and in particular to their opposition to giving girls any kind of education. Malala Yousafzai, age 14, shot in the head on her way to school in Mingora, the largest city in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a local teacher and community leader, encouraged his daughter in her defiance. He has also publicly come out against the Taliban.

Brave people, braver than most, braver than me.

We had a family come to our school last year from the Swat Valley. Three children. Two boys and a girl. I have no idea if their family was as prominent or as well-educated as the Yousafzai’s clearly are, but the grandfather who came to register them at our school spoke an elegant, cultured English and their father’s English was more than sufficient. Their mother, I was told, spoke no English at all, though I wouldn’t know. She remained invisible for the entire time her children attended our school.

On the day they came, the two brothers were dressed in western clothes, down to their brand-new sneakers that squeaked when they walked. Their sister, however, remained in traditional dress, in a bright colored tunic over a pair of pants. She also wore a long scarf over her hair.

Though we had a dress code, we didn’t enforce it in her case (despite the fact we often worried that she would snap her neck in two if her head scarf got caught under someone’s foot in gym class). We let her come to school in the clothes her parents wanted her to wear, or the clothes she wanted to wear, we never knew which. We never knew this because in all the time she spent with us, her English never progressed to the point where we could ask her this, or anything else for that matter.  What she liked. What she wanted to do. What she really thought about things.

Both her older and younger brothers had had extra English tuition back in Swat before they came. They could read English and her older brother, who was in fourth grade, could also speak it, haltingly, of course, and with errors, but he could make himself understood. Their sister, however, though she too had been bound for America and the American public schools, had received no extra preparation. It had not been thought necessary to give her any kind of leg up on the challenges of the English phonetic or grammar system. When she came to us, she had to start from scratch, with the most basic of vocabulary.

She was a charming girl, always smiling, often joking (she taught the Puerto Rican boys in her group to walk like princesses with books on their heads).  She would willingly do what I asked, or what I could make her understand that I wanted her to try . But some things never seemed to get purchase and I to this day still do not know why. I have taught many students English who knew nothing at all when we began. The early stages are always the same. They parrot what you say (and you want them to do this to practice the sounds), but they soon move beyond this stage into making meaning with simple sentences.

For some reason with the sister, we stalled at parroting. Her classroom teacher, who herself had learned English as a Second Language, was highly sympathetic and went out of her way to help her, but as the months passed, we both had to admit to feeling frustrated. The brothers were improving by leaps and bounds, but their sister seemed to feel no imperative to make progress. She listened, she smiled, she repeated, but then she drew back into herself and her private world.

Was there something wrong with her? I hardly think so. When she spoke to her brothers in Pashto, her responses were quick and her voice was full of animation. The problem was not cognitive. The problem was something else. Maybe, already in Pakistan, she had received an inferior sort of education? Or maybe, just maybe, she did not see the point of the education we were offering her?

Though she came to school with her brothers, she never came to anything else. I remember seeing her brothers happily playing basketball at one of our annual block parties. When I asked them where there sister was, they smiled quietly and told me that she was at home.

“It’s their culture,” my vice-principal shrugged when I voiced my dismay, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” And though that might have been true, I heard in her tone a moral shrug that bothered me. If it had been a Western girl, we would have been outraged, wouldn’t we? We would have felt the need to do something about it. But because she was not a Western girl, we could just sigh and turn away. It was what she was used to, wasn’t it? It probably didn’t even bother her.

Though I remember another student I once taught who was from Saudi Arabia. This student was an adult, and at the age of 22, already a mother of two. Though she wore the abaya in Saudi Arabia, in New York she was dressed in the most fashionable of clothing. She was married to a man 14 years her senior. The marriage had been arranged.

I remember the day she told us that her father had two wives, that he spent half of every week with his first wife’s family and the other half with his second. My student was the daughter of the first wife, which was better, but when we asked her gingerly if women in Saudi Arabia minded sharing husbands like that, she looked at us as if we were completely stupid.

“Of course we mind.”

So perhaps my student minded when her brothers got English lessons and she did not. Perhaps she minded having to stay home when they and everyone else at our school was out having fun together. Perhaps she didn’t see the point in worrying herself too much over her studies if she was never going to do anything with them.

The family moved away in the end, to a larger city in another state where the father would be able to run his own store. I’m sure all three of the children were once again sent to school, because in America it’s illegal not to send girls to school, but I’m also sure the sister had to stay home whenever anything else was going on. Though I wonder how long things can keep on like that. Because America and her ideals of equality are immensely powerful no matter how traditional any family may try to keep their private life. Can any girl who goes to school year after year in an American public school resist them? Will there not come a day when my former student sees a reason to excel? Will there not come a day when she refuses to wear traditional clothes and demands to go to a basketball game, a concert or a play? Though I know it will cause consternation in her family, I hope that day comes soon. I wish for her to be able to experience all the duties and responsibilities, all the pleasures and pitfalls of being able to do what she wants when she wants to do it.

I wish her luck. I wish her courage. I wish her freedom.