What It’s Like: Working With a Muslim Family

I want to start off this post by saying that I am very grateful for my life and the series of choices and happenstances that have put me in this exact spot, in this very moment. I am very, very fortunate and I am practicing being more grateful and observant of my good fortune.

One of the things that I am most thankful for is the many opportunities I have had to meet different people. And by different, I mean people who are of a different race, religion, background, nationality, gender, and experience than I am. You know, all of the typical things that humans use to segregate themselves and to judge the ones not in their special little circle.

Sometimes the opportunity to meet different people come because of me reaching out or because of some other self-directed involvement or effort. Most of the times, however, I find that opportunity comes simply by being open to it coming.

A few months ago, I started tutoring two children from an Eastern block country, near Russia. I will provide as few details as I can about this family, in an effort to protect their identities and keep the focus on the story and my experience, and the religion of Islam, which I am in no way qualified to even begin to discuss.

The first time I went to their house for a tutoring session, there was no answer on the phone for 15 minutes. Tardiness angers me, and over time, I have had to learn to manage my anger when people are late. But, this time, anger kind of got the best of me. I’d driven almost 50 minutes in hellish Houston traffic, just to be on time. And there I was, still on time, even after navigating around a big wreck, and the people were not answering the phone.

I looked at the clock on my dashboard and said to myself, “I’m only waiting 15 minutes; then, I’m leaving.”

I also had a bunch of other bad thoughts about these people BEFORE I even met them. Perhaps they were sharpening their saws, so they could cut me up into little bits? Is there such a thing as the “Tutor Strangler” in any popular movies? They must be absolutely terrible people; how dare they be so late?

I worked myself up into an almost seething frenzy when my phone rang at exactly 14 minutes past the hour. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

The frenzied sounding father apologized profusely and asked me to please excuse them and come up to tutor the children. Not wanting to break the rule I’d set for myself, I reluctantly went up to meet them.

I immediately thanked myself for the decision to try, the decision to trust the universe, which is absolutely not something that I usually do.

Upon entering, the entire family came to warmly greet me, one by one. The father told me that he appreciated me tutoring his children and that he trusted my abilities as a teacher. Having taught public school in rough areas for several years, hearing the words “appreciation” and “trust” the first time I interacted with a parent was a rarity, to say the least.

After the session was over, the mother meekly came up to me, and handed me a warm, paper towel wrapped bundle. I said thank you as graciously as I could, not knowing at all what was customary or rude to them, realizing I knew nothing about the culture of their home country, and also realizing that my “American guilt” is still pretty strong.

I left the apartment and walked to the elevator and opened the napkin. She had given me two freshly baked rolls of bread, the steam gently greeting my grinning face as I pinched off a piece and ate it.

At that moment, I realized that something really beautiful had happened. A shared experience between people who are seemingly nothing alike, joined together by the universe’s pull and their own collective abilities to extend a bit of trust to another human being.

For the family, they had trusted a strange American to enter their home, the first time they met them. Given the media and hatred and negative messaging about Muslims in America, if I were them, I do not think I would have had the courage to invite a strange American into my home. But, they did.

For me, I had continued with the tutoring appointment, even though I was angry that they were late and a little afraid of going into a strange home. I also greedily ate home made bread from a stranger, something that I am pretty sure children are taught not to do, and there I was, as an adult, eating a stranger’s food, in an elevator, no less.

By the time I reached the first floor, I loved those people. I loved the children. I loved their kindness. I loved the open and loving energy that you can feel in their house. I texted my mother and told her I was all right and that everything went well and I even told her, “I love them already.”

I continue to work with the children and the family continues to treat me better than any parents have in all my years of teaching. They have invited me to stay after the session to have dinner with them. They have given me other food gifts. They’ve taken the time to share things about their culture and food with me. They’ve even let me hold their infant child, which for a woman who is terrified of small children, was a big feat for me to even agree to do such a thing.

Somehow, the fact that I know almost nothing about Islam, or their home country, or their language, yet I am still able to share very human experiences with the family makes me feel incredibly fortunate.

My experience with the family is truly a testament to what great things can happen when, even if you are scared or emotional, you can summon up the courage to trust others and the universe.

You just might not be disappointed.

Until tomorrow, my friends…

 

What It’s Like: Teaching Kids

Some contents of my purse serve as the muse for tonight’s post. Inside my purse are some meat-pie looking pastries, carefully wrapped in a napkin, a gift from an Azerbaijani grandmother.

I tutor two great kids a couple nights a week. I tutor them in English: reading, writing, and speaking. Their grandmother is in town, visiting from their home country, Azerbaijan, a place I’d barely heard of before meeting these children a few months ago.

About 12 years ago or so, I started a career as a school teacher. I taught elementary aged kids. After I did that for a few years, I transitioned to a job in corporate America, and taught at the collegiate level (freshmen and juniors) on the side for a few years.

Now, I am tutoring two kids and two adults. I’ll write about the adults in another post, perhaps.

When I changed from teaching kids to college adults, many of whom were older than me, everybody and their momma asked me the same question: How is it different? My go-to, cheeky answer was always, “You don’t have to take adults to the bathroom.” Karma laughed at me and once sent me an adult student who did ask, on several occasions, if she could go to the bathroom.

Teaching is kind of “old hat” to me now; even when I meet new students, I have now done it long enough that I can at least PRETEND to know what I am doing. It takes a lot of practice to even get the confidence to be able to pretend to be a confident teacher, unless you’re kind of a pompous, know it all asshole, which in that case, please do¬† us all a favor and stay out of the classroom. What I’m trying to say is, teaching should have a sense of respect and humility, both for your students and for your profession.

Teaching kids is challenging in its own way. Children are PAYING ATTENTION. Don’t believe the horseshit you hear on the news about how six in one children have ADHD. They might, be even then, they’re still closely paying attention to everything you do. EVERYTHING. Understand the difference between paying attention and judging you. The kids are attentive; the adults are probably judgmental.

Children aren’t thinking about bills or if they took the chicken out to unthaw. Depending on their age, they may not have a good sense of embarrassment or self awareness. They’re doing their thing and watching you do yours.

With kids, it’s a lot of work to exemplify an excellent role model, pretty much at all times. When I taught elementary school, I did not cuss, not even on the weekends. I just recently started to feel comfortable saying the word “stupid”, even though I’ve taught for years. Working in the oilfield helped me develop a hearty potty mouth, which I thoroughly enjoy, but you’d never know that when I am around young and impressionable ears.

Kids are also way smarter than most adults give them credit for. Children pick up on and absorb energy better than adults, too. If you let your child know your burdens, they will help you carry them, regardless if you have asked them to or not. I once worked with a kindergartner who came to school looking very concerned. He eventually began to cry. When I pried an answer from him, he told me that he was worried because his mom and dad “were down to their last $5,000.” He had overheard them fighting about money and even though he couldn’t even count to 500 or 5,000, his little mind could clearly interpret that something big and scary was wrong, so he worried about it. He internalized it.

I have dozens of stories like that; stories of children truly being sponges, and not always soaking up the good stuff.

Teaching a child also has a weight to it, at least it does for me. Since children have much less life experience, I find it to be so important to do two things: 1) be present with them while you are around them because 2) that affects their perception of the world.

A child that experiences an angry parent can grow up to be worrisome and fearful. A child that experiences a neglectful (physically or emotionally) parent will fight the demons of inadequacy for the rest of his life.

It is really an honor to be able to be a teacher. The job REALLY SUCKS, but it’s still an honorable one. Between utterly ridiculous parents, pushy school districts, and insane principals, I have no idea how I survived with even a shred of sanity in tact. Oh, and don’t forget the year that I had strep throat three times and my vocal chords became infected, which irrevocably changed the sound of my voice. Almost no one that I know now actually know what I used to sound like. Ah, that was fun. Good times.

Kudos to you if you’re a teacher. The job can be so damn thankless, but from one former teacher to another, I THANK YOU.

Until tomorrow, my friends…