Noor Charara, Elementary Education
College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Assistant Editor for MOVE
Developing a sense of acceptance, community, and strong self-identity are critical for elementary-age children. For most of my life, I lived with my family in Dearborn, MI. As a Muslim, Lebanese-American family, we were comfortable in Dearborn; it is one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States. I was surrounded by others who shared my family’s religion, values, and cultural practices. I never struggled to fit in or had to explain my religious beliefs and culture to anyone. When I was 11, however, my parents, determined to provide my siblings and myself with a better public education, decided to move our family from Dearborn to another Detroit suburb.
We moved in December of 2004. My first day of fifth grade happened to land just a few days before winter break, better known as Christmas Break at my new elementary school. The first day back from break that year, we had sat around in a circle before our reading lesson when the teacher asked everyone how their Christmas was. Almost everyone in the class had something to say – from what they wore to all the gifts they received. As students went around and shared their great stories, I had nothing to say. Why would I? We don’t celebrate Christmas in Islam. But when it was my turn to share something, I felt obligated to contribute. Next thing I knew, I was rambling about how I got a beautiful jewelry box and new clothes for Christmas. I had no idea where any of these lies came from, but I had convinced myself and others around me that I had the most incredible Christmas tree in my house and had woken up to beautiful gifts from my parents. I remember coming home that day and just crying. Why had I not received any gifts? What was wrong with my family? What was wrong with me? At 11 years of age, I was made to believe that I was the odd one for not celebrating Christmas.
There were many things my fifth grade teacher had done that made me feel like an outcast; including telling the students in my class, before my first day, that I wore a hijab and not to ask me any questions about it. I just so happened to be the first and only hijabi in the school. Many students did not even know what I was wearing. While her intent may have been to make my transition to a new school and classroom easier, her actions actually marginalized me and framed me as “other” to my classmates. When the conversation was silenced before it even had a voice, assumptions about me began to circulate: “she wears a towel on her head,” “she showers with her hijab on,” “no one in this world could see her hair,” and “she wears that 24/7.” Students were afraid to ask me about it, and I felt like I was weird for having it on. Why was it okay to talk about Christmas at school, but not okay to ask me questions about my hijab? Why were my religion and culture so bad that we could not even speak of them in the classroom?
As a future educator, my classroom pedagogy is influenced by my experiences as a fifth grader. Children say what is on their minds and don’t think anything of it; and often, they tend to be hushed before being allowed to speak. Their thoughts are not prejudiced and racist. The moment they are hushed, told to look away, and not to ask questions is when they start to form negative assumptions, which then leads to accepting stereotypes about people who have a different life experience than the one they know. It is important to teach students that it is essential to ask. If you don’t know something, then take the time to look it up, research, and ask those you’re curious about. I mean where better to get information then from the source itself? The more you do that, the more you broaden your understanding of the world and the people that live in its respective communities.
When I think of why I want to be a teacher, I think of that very first year in Livonia. I think of how I was compelled to lie to my peers and teachers to feel like I was a part of something that was so special to them as a classroom community. Looking back, I don’t blame the other students in the class for building the foundation of my marginalization. Of course they were just eager to share stories about all of the beautiful gifts they’d received. I blame the teacher for placing me in a position where I felt less than my peers, where my experiences were not only invalidated but not even invited into the classroom community and discourse. My teacher created a safe place for everyone in the class, except for me. She did not take the time to get to know me or encourage me to bring my whole self and lived experiences into the classroom community. She erased them.
I am thankful to my parents for moving our family and for my experiences in that elementary school. A couple of school years of feeling alone and dismissed set me up to be a more aware and empathetic educator than I could have been otherwise. My primary goal as a classroom teacher is to create an inclusive, accepting classroom that values the experiences and perspectives of all students. One of my top priorities is to promote diversity and equity in my classroom and to give students a safe place to express who they are while also learning about others.