Oussama Ouadani, USA-Algeria
Sabr (صَبْر), the Arabic word for the virtue of patience and endurance, is never more applicable than in the context of Jusoor’s Beirut school. The small urban center hosts over one hundred playful, curious, naughty, and energetic children, who dart like small fish in and out of classrooms, flood to the doors when break is called, and cascade down the stairs when the day ends. They all beckon for the teacher’s attention, leave their seats when they please, and tug and poke their peers at coordinated intervals. You cannot yell, because they will yell back, you cannot hit, because this is not the Stone Age, and you cannot leave the classroom, because they will take advantage of the space in ways you never even thought possible. What you need is patience. You need patience to absorb the constant challenges the children pose, and then enough left over to endure the humidity and power outages characteristic of the center. Some kids know how to write their names in Arabic and in English, others are only able to do so in one language, and a select few write their names in English from right to left, and their names in Arabic from left to right. Often students will tell me they are of a certain age one day, but when asked again the next day, their age changes. They know the English alphabet as a single entity, as a slurred song rather than individual, free letters. There are those that sit calmly with their hands folded, those who always want high-fives, those who anxiously roam the class, those who climb on desks, those who don’t meet your gaze, and those who will meet your gaze and then swallow you up in their profound eyes, eyes which have seen all too much.
I haven’t even hit twenty years old and the majority of my kids are keenly aware of this fact. They exploit my soft underbelly, knowing the most I will do is raise my voice in Durja, a tongue more foreign to them then English. But the kids are ready to be loved, and yet more importantly, love. They want to love their lives. They want to enjoy their days. The kid who gets up and marches impatiently up and down the aisles is not doing so with malice or the intent to harm. He itches, wants to move, to taste the freedom of the sun and the sky. The girl who only ever looks at me sideways and never listens to instructions is scared, uncomfortable, perhaps abused, not disobedient or rebellious. My children are at a delicate stage in their life, in which even the slightest breeze of the wind could influence their personalities or significantly impact their future development. I wear a bracelet on my right hand. Omar saw it, wanted it. I told him I could not give it to him. The next day he proudly came to me and stuck his hand in my face, displaying to me a bracelet identical to mine. The children look up to us, and we should treat this important role in their lives, as brief as it may be, with thoughtfulness. There have been several times where I have been brought to the brink of outburst. The yelling, the hitting, the jumping, the throwing, the lack of attention; it all quickly amounts and will irritate even the most sane of people. But I remind myself constantly to give the children the benefit of the doubt, even though there are children who are slyly conscious of their actions and subsequent effect.
Thus far, my experience teaching has tugged at many of my emotions and rudely awakened those I never knew I had. I have simultaneously felt raw frustration, unadulterated joy, and self-triviality. Several days I left the center feeling terrible about myself, allowing my perceived inadequacy as a teacher, or even as a mere role model, to inwardly gnaw at me. I believed my activities to be useless, and felt my presence was more hindersome than anything else. But this was in the early stages of the program, when I had approached teaching with a confidence so high one would have thought I had been teaching for forty years prior. Very quickly that all changed. I have since been deeply humbled. Teaching is not easy. Children are not easy. Being a friend to the students as well as a figure of authority is not easy. Finding the patience within ourselves to remain composed is not easy. However, patience is not a mistake. It is not a gift, nor is it genetics. It is derived from empathy. To empathize is to be patient; if one is only able to begin imagining the disturbing inequities these children have paid in their few years of life, it will make lucid the patience required from us as volunteers. Sabr. It’s necessary.