On Friday morning’s school announcement, I told my students about something I heard recently, on my drive to school. The NPR Morning Edition story playing on my car radio was about the Syrian civil war. The person being interviewed was talking about his experience in the Syrian town of Douma, which is under siege, and how people there were managing. I told my students I had learned that the children in Douma go to school from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. because at 8, the air strikes begin. I told my kids how lucky they were to have the opportunity to be in a school in the US and have so much available to them. I said that if kids in Douma, in the middle of a civil war, felt school was important enough to attend for even two hours each day, my students here, should also make school a priority.
Having grown up in India where getting an education is seen as a key to having a better life, I am often puzzled when I see students take for granted the opportunities they have for education. I remember my parents saying that it was their job to take care of our family, and it was my brother’s and my job to work hard in school.
Almost every week, I tell students, one-on-one or in groups, that there are children around the world who don’t have access to schools, books and other resources available in American schools. This NPR story about kids going to school in civil-war torn Douma was an important one to share with them. My elementary school is home to Burmese refugee kids, refugees from Iraq and other countries. Their adjustment to being in the US as refugees, is so different from my experience as an immigrant here. I arrived here and walked into grad. school, speaking, reading and writing English quite proficiently. Our refugee students and their parents don’t speak English and we may not have someone at school who speaks their language. Schools here are very different from what they have experienced even if they had the chance of attending school before coming here. Being away from their parents for seven hours of the day is a separation that sometimes creates anxiety. It is heartening to see them gradually adjust to a new life and new experiences. I love seeing the other students welcome and support them when they first enroll with us.
On Friday, at the end of the day, an ENL (English as a New Language) teacher sent me an email about the reflections of a young student from Iraq.
“Mrs. Balagopal made me feel bad today when she was talking about Syria. She said some kids wanted to go to school and couldn’t. I didn’t want to go to school until I heard what she said today.
I have been to Syria when I was two and it made me feel bad that they wanted to go to school like I can and I didn’t want to go to school at all. I have decided that I should be glad I can go to school. It’s not that bad here.”
I guess the stories we share can have an impact beyond our initial intentions. Connecting our kids to what is happening in the world makes them more knowledgeable and aware, it helps to grow empathy, and perhaps, it can also motivate them to make something more of their lives. My kids have heard about Ruby Bridges and the students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter during the Nashville sit-in, along with other stories of changemakers. In my urban school, many children come from families where their parents may not have finished high school, much less attended college. But that should not stop them from dreaming big, and seeing education as a ticket to a different life.
The big story that the media and politicians miss is that in urban schools, educators work hard to motivate kids and reach them, sometimes one at a time, for much more than reading, math and science. As I tell my teachers, the results of our work may not be seen today or tomorrow, but several years from now. If we are fortunate, our students will come back and tell us what they have become. Inspiring them today is a big task, with no set formula. But it’s a challenge that brings us back into our schools day after day, regardless of how tough the circumstances might be, because every kid is worth it!
Sharing a snippet from one news story told me how much of an influence we can have, when we least expect it.