Four years later and I still remember her voice breaking down on the other end of the phone.
That day was hectic and humid and everything was sticky and loud and chaotic – the end of the school year was upon us and at this point, I was counting down minutes. The curriculum was finished, report cards signed, and some of the kids were starting to catch on to the fact that we were glorified babysitters at this point Googling random lessons and coloring sheets and “special projects”, demanding seriousness even when there was nothing left to teach.
While my students were in French class, I decided to go to the library. I could hear Madame yell from a distance, “Soyez silencieux,” as she tried to take control of the thirty students in the classroom who were bubbling like hormonal ladybugs – tall and grungy and bored and hyper. Before she could have the chance to call me back to the classroom to help, I quickly closed the library door behind me, the doorknob a lovely cold. I know – terrible. First-year Ms. Siddiqui would have run back, sacrificing her break, putting the kids back in order. But fourth -year Ms. Siddiqui was tired – and the school library was a hug I desperately needed.
I liked the library – it was the only room in the whole school where I could enjoy silence, a rare treasure when you’re a middle school teacher. Even my classroom wasn’t a safe haven, with older students coming to “chill” with me so they could get out of going out to recess, or the office staff coming to find me to substitute for different classes. All teachers know the unspoken rule: don’t stay in your classroom during break. Hide.
I sat on the large velvet couch and dialed the parent’s number – hoping to get an answer this time. A student of mine had been acting up again and I had been trying to get a hold of the mother for over a week to have her join in for a brainstorming meeting, to follow-through on the behavior plan we had set up a few times already this year.
I heard the ring and prepared my speech. I was prepared for the two possible outcomes: the “okay, we will talk with him” or the “my son could never…”. Either way, I was used to both – the responsible parents, and the problematic parents. Nothing phased me.
“Hello?” I heard her strained voice and the sound of blurred voices in the background.
“Yes, As salamu alaikum…Mrs. Ahmed¹?” I was caught off-guard. She actually answered. “This is Ms. Siddiqui – Adam’s teacher calling. How are you doing?”
“Yes – uh – sorry, I’m at work right now, let me try going to a quieter place, one sec.”
“No worries at all.” I flicked my pen from side to side.
“Sorry about that, um, busy day at work. Is everything okay with Adam?”
“Well, Mrs. Ahmed…” I started telling her about her son’s latest aggressions, how his behavior had a ripple effect on the class dynamic, stressing the importance of setting up a behavior plan for next year so this pattern didn’t become a habit, after all this is an Islamic school Mrs. Ahmed and we don’t just stress academic excellence but also character development…
And then suddenly, I stopped my rambling. She wasn’t pushing back. She wasn’t arguing. She wasn’t saying a single thing in defense.
She was quiet for a minute longer before I heard her small, exasperated voice. “What did I do wrong? What have I done?”
I stopped shaking my pen. “What do you mean, Mrs. Ahmed?”
“His father, he doesn’t understand that he shouldn’t fight in front of the kids. I try to explain to him not in front of them…” I heard her plea, her embarrassment as she wept.
He shouldn’t fight? I didn’t know what to say. “I’m…I’m so incredibly sorry, Mrs. Ahmed.”
I silently cried with her when she told me her son helped her clean the broken dishes his father threw on the floor last night, and how he tended to her wound after his father left the house. How he helped pack his siblings’ lunches. I wanted to envelop her in a warm embrace as she promised to make things better for her children, for their well-being, in between sobs. I wanted to let her know that I heard her – that I knew how much she was hurting and how much she wished things were different.
As teachers, we assume that the student is unruly because there aren’t rules or boundaries at home like there are in the classroom. But, all this time, her son simply didn’t know how to make sense of the storm inside of him. His shoulders were too small to carry the storm of his father, the sorrow of his mother, the responsibility of his younger siblings.
Toward the end of the call, we agreed to set up a family meeting with the administration and school counselor to see if there was a way we could help Adam have a safer summer and come back thriving the next school year. If there was anything we could do to help him and the family heal.
I walked back to the classroom, reflecting on the brokenness of the mother’s voice, and I was full of shame. When did we stop becoming a village? When did we stop hearing each other’s broken songs rather than monotonous drones and simplistic “to-dos” and “you should haves” and “this is unacceptables”?
When I visited Turkey a few years ago, there was a car parked on the wrong side of the road. Police arrived, and I was expecting them to ticket and tow – protocol. But instead, they asked people around whose car this was, if there was some trouble that led him to park his car on this side of the road. I was shocked. And then I realized…isn’t this the Islamic spirit? Isn’t this who we were and have lost along the way? There are stories behind the aggression and heartaches and anger that we tend to overlook – perhaps the child who is always angry cannot face looking himself in the mirror. Perhaps the angry man honking his horn has to rush home to his sick wife. Perhaps the withdrawn neighbor just wants to cope with her anxieties away from others.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Seventy times, perhaps.
If you hear something from your brother that you reject, make an excuse for him up to seventy excuses. If you cannot do it, then say: Perhaps he has an excuse I do not know. ²
Years following this incident, I still repeated this to myself every time I picked up the phone to dial another parent about a student. How can we heal our child rather than How can we fix your child. Humanity is hiding in the crevices of the nuances.
Later that day, when my students came back from recess, I held Adam’s hands and looked him in the eyes – and I told him how proud I was to be his teacher. How when he uses his voice to help, he can do wonders. That I was going to miss him. His eyes welled with tears, he didn’t know what to say. “Thanks,” he whispered, his voice rash.
¹ Specific names and events of individuals involved have been altered to maintain confidentiality
² Ja’far ibn Muhammad, may Allah have mercy on him. Source: Shu’ab al-Imān 7853