There is a name for educators, and it has nothing to do with books or classrooms. It’s sunshine.
As soon as my students arrive, I greet them: “Good morning. Are you ready for a great day?” There’s the bubbly student body president, who immediately mirrors my grin. Our boy genius can only nod above his teetering, larger-than-a-small-country science project. My favorite, the girl who’s not fully awake, shoots me a look that says, “Seriously. You’re this cheery at this hour?” I know she’ll thank me later. The smiles, the potent shots of optimism, and their hugs are my favorite ways to start the students’ days and my own.
But this morning was different. We did not pull in to see the school bus or cheerful children. The day turned gloomy. Hate robbed our hope, scrawled all over the building. “Mama, what does that say?” my first grader said, showing off his reading skills as he sounded out “w-h-i-t-e p-o-w-e-r.”
“Nothing, sweetie. Someone is just trying to be mean.”
I pushed the clouds aside and forced the sun to shine. I saw Mona, who always manages to bring a smile to my face. “Get out my way, little kid,” she grumbled as she made her way through the elementary building. “What are you wearing?” she disapprovingly asked one of the teachers. No matter what she said, though, I could never be upset with her. I knew that behind the rough exterior was a gentleness she showed only when she thought no one was looking. She would soon be reading to the same kid she had just brusquely told to move. Months later, as I sat in the lobby, I thought back to that day—to the hate, to Mona, and to the sunshine that prevailed. Seconds later, my world shook.
BOOM! With my two young children next to me, the sound from outside sent a shudder down my spine. The Nazi images and hate words spray-painted on our building and trees were all too fresh in my mind. Now there is another crisis. I know we are not a random target. I do not know what to do in these vital moments. Secure the kids or run outside to make sure no one is injured? The swastikas on the trees had begun to fade, but the pain they caused still burns deep. I frantically make my way to the basketball courts. As I rush by the playground, I remember seeing the students swinging up toward the clouds just a few hours earlier and hearing their laughter, the kid heard only on playgrounds where students play innocently.
The pure-acid explosion did not cause any serious physical injuries when it came crashing down toward the girls who were wrapping up basketball practice; but the emotional damage was far more detrimental. Mona was there, and now she was not so tough. She trembled as we watched the basketball roll off the court.
As a Muslim administrator, I must go beyond slapping on a Band-Aid to discovering the injury beneath. I know, more times than not, it is related to the scarf my student wears around her face or the decision by another to greet each dawn with a prayer. Just a few moments earlier Mona had scored a three-pointer and was screaming in victor. She now sits beneath a tree, crying. I rush over and remind her of the strength she has within. “We are who we are, Mona, and nothing shakes us.” I comfort her, all the while fighting back my own tears. “You are so strong, and I know you are going to do great things one day. Do not let this faze you.”
Against all odds, Mona proudly wears her scarf, treats her parents with the respect most children do not learn until they have had kids of their own, and strives to make a difference in the world and for all of its creatures.
My role is to teach my students that we must do our best no matter what challenges we face, be they grueling math tests and AP essays, or swastikas and acid blasts. We may grow weary of showing the world that we are not terrorists—not the ones throwing makeshift bombs at a basketball court full of girls—and we must persevere until we have undone each and every stereotype. That is our personal struggle, our personal jihad. We are all human beings who want what is best for our kids and our communities. That happens only when we become our best
I tell the world what I tell my students: Bring it on. My sunshine never disappears. As an educator, as a principal, and as a mother, my personal jihad is the same: I will do whatever I can to light your path.