I always believed that sharing stories was a good way to help other stories be told. So, the biggest gift I received this week is this story, told by Shahed Abu-Hamad, an educator for change and an inspiring leader.
A fatal disease called racism, by Shahed Abu-Hamad, an educator for change
“Change begins when silence is broken”, is what I read on the blog of a storyteller who believes in this wholeheartedly.
As I was reading this phrase, I found myself searching for the words to convey my own story, as a special education pre-school teacher, as a leader for social change who believes in education based on love and respect for and faith in every little boy and every little girl. It was my first year as a pre-school teacher in this magical kindergarten, with nine princes and princesses, and with staff members totally invested in the children’s happiness and wellbeing.
The newly appointed school principal, in charge of some 90 children, contracted a fatal disease, whose symptoms are: eyes who can see only in one color, ears that can hear only a handful of similar notes and a heart that forgets to beat powerfully and freely.
The disease caused the school principal to find my attire offensive; my color, and that of five of the Arab children in the pre-school program, was incongruent with the colors she was used to; and the sound of another language spoken was so unpleasant to her, to the degree that she banned speaking in Arabic with the kids and amongst the staff members. She said it was counterproductive to the melting pot process, and that this was a Jewish framework. She said the Arab kids should be of the same color as the other kids; or else find another place to go; no one forced them to come here in the first place.
My heart went silent. I tried, throughout the year, to reach out to her, until I realized that her disease was indeed fatal. I thought love would cure her; I wanted to believe that our shared humanity will help her overcome her disease. I refused to see things as they were, and her conditions deteriorated even more. When she saw the love and warmth that the children of different colors had for each other, it only made her worse. She just couldn’t take it, especially when the parents celebrated the gift of love and diversity and felt like we were all one big family.
At the yearend meeting, she asked me what my plans and hopes were for next year. I told her that I think the kids in the kindergarten would love to hear different languages; and that if only she could recover from her disease she could really see them and love them as they are and for they are. I asked her if she thinks she could do that, or perhaps… I didn’t even finish the sentence; her symptoms became ever worse: her face was all red, she was totally blind , and fire came out of her mouth: “How dare you ?! There will be no Arabic spoken in this school!”
I came away from that meeting frightened, hopeless and helpless like I’ve never been before. I just couldn’t take it anymore. My hope was that the school supervisor would acknowledge the principal’s disease and would agree to offer some remedy. “The principal has a full right to set her own priorities” – said the supervisor – having heard the whole story.
“And is there no cure in the Ministry of Education’s book of laws? Something about educating for human dignity, justice and equality”? I asked.
“Let’s not go there”, said the supervisor.
“Do you know the name of the disease that is ailing her”? I asked
“It’s called RACISM”, I said.
“I don’t like this word”, said the supervisor.
“But it exists, nevertheless”.
“I don’t like this word. If you want, I could invite both of you to have a conversation”.
I said no; finished the conversation and burst out crying. I couldn’t help myself; I was drowning in a sea of frustration. How was I supposed to have real dialogue with two women, struck by such a disease? How could I trust them? I was afraid that if I will have to go on fighting – as I did this whole year – I will end up getting sick myself.
Two days later the school principal asked me to step into her office and be quite quick about it, as she had loads of other things to do. She looked much better. She looked at me calmly and said: “a former staff member is coming back to work with us, so you’re going to have to leave”.
I kept silent and smiled a vague smile. A huge stone was taken off my chest, but at the same time, I let go of a huge cry; a cry made of heartbreak and the shattered dreams of a young and inexperienced educator; dreams of equality and justice that could at least prevail in the world of children; dreams of love that knows no boundaries; dreams of every person’s right to be who he or she is.
Now I am trying to pick up the pieces of my broken heart; to find the strength to fight this fatal disease, because the only way to fight it is to resists it with all my senses; to say “no” to it with a voice so loud and clear; and to always remember that “change begins when silence is broken”.
Thank you, Hamutal, for this powerful phrase.