Saturday, June 15, 2013

Anne Frank in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

I teach teenage girls but I never taught this girl in the picture.  On the contrary, she taught me.  I read Anne Frank when I myself was a young girl.  I admired that anyone could keep writing despite losing so much around her.  She never lost what was inside her; she never lost hope.

Later, in 2008, when I was in Florida, I saw that our anthology had a scene from the Anne Frank play.  I broached the subject with my 8th graders.  We had already acted out, "A Christmas Carol".  Were they interested in this too?


No, they weren't.  They were Muslim.  This was a play with Jews.  That's what they told me.

I was soon leaving and I had a lot on my mind.  I really didn't tackle that issue like I could have.  I let it go.

Speed ahead five years and it's 2013 and I'm in Egypt teaching English classes once more.  Though Anne Frank wasn't in our anthology, she still found a way into our classroom.  Subhanallah.

One of my co-workers had the movie, "Freedom Writers," which she wanted to show to her kids.  She was going to do some journal writing with them.  I wasn't.  I delayed showing the movie until we had covered our material.

It took some time for the kids to get into the movie.  I had to stop it a couple of times and make sure they understood what the emotionally charged scenes meant.  The plot, which revolves around an inner-city teacher and her low achievers, was a little hard to follow.  Remember, my class is using English as a second language.  Yet, my class stuck with it and they kept watching as the teacher struggled to reach those kids.  Whenever we had a little extra time in our week, I'd bribe them with watching another scene.

The year was drawing to a close.  I had three more lessons with them and then we'd be into review sessions.  We still had the movie to finish.  I weighed teaching "Personal Response to Literature" with "Freedom Writers".  I needed to balance my need with their want.  I tightly scheduled it out.  On Tuesday, we would do our lesson so that on Wednesday we could do a little writing and then watch some of the movie.

Tuesday, I taught them how it isn't enough to simply read a book and distill facts.  We don't just learn about others when we read literature; we learn new ways of seeing ourselves and our world.  Giving a personal response means drawing parallels between the story and our reality.  There aren't rights or wrongs with how we compare and contrast as long as we can support our thoughts.

Wednesday, I reviewed quickly and then we watched as Erin Gruwell's American students started to read "Anne Frank" on our Smartboard screen.  My class of Egypt's elite watched a class of delinquents, gang members and homeless.  My students watched how modern day kids in California could become connected to that girl somewhere in Europe who died before their parents (or maybe even their grandparents) were born.  Those students on the screen heard her wish that life could be better and it resonated with them; they had a personal response.

The young students in that class were given an assignment to write to the woman who had helped hide Anne Frank's family, Miep Gies.  They were to write a personal response to her and many thanked her for saving the diary.  She had been unable to save the young girl but she could save the young girl's thoughts.

Remember, "Freedom Writers," is a true story.  Those American teenagers really did write to an elderly lady in Europe.  They not only thanked her; they also asked her to come visit them.  They did fundraising to enable her visit.  In the movie, Pat Carroll as Miep Gies makes an appearance.

"That's the woman who hid the family," I told my class.

"When was this movie made?"  a girl in my class asked.

"I'm not sure.  I'd have to look it up," I answered.  I've since learned it was made in 2007.

"Is she still alive?" a boy wanted to know.

"I'm not sure about that either.  We'd have to google her."

"Can I look her up now?" he asked as he pulled out his Blackberry.

"Sure," I smiled.  "Google the picture when she was younger too.  She was really pretty."

The class ended and I felt good about my efforts to share with my students.  This was me really teaching and I felt it.  Yet, once I was home, I started to feel that I could have done more.

Did the school library have a copy of Anne Frank's Diary?  I wished that I had my copy from when I visited The Anne Frank Museum, where she once hid in the Amsterdam annex.

Could I bring in some pictures?

Why hadn't I done more?

Actually, good teachers are never totally satisfied with their efforts.  There will be good lessons but you always wish they'd been great.  I still had one more chance since I had one more lesson.

My morning was going to be full of grading papers and I delayed going to the library until the last moment.  This wasn't a good move.  When I got to the library, I still had to find out if they even had the book.  Did they?  Yes, they did!

Could I check it out?  No, I couldn't.

"I can't?" I was in total disbelief.  "But I'm a teacher.  I need it for class.  I need it for my next class."

"No, sorry Ms. Yosra, but we need it for inventory," the Assistant Librarian apologized.

I'm American so I don't easily give up.  "I just need it for one lesson and then I can return it."

"No, I really can't," but then she hesitated, "unless I call for permission."

She called.  I got the book.  I ran to class.  Alhumdulillah.

Not everyone had arrived yet.  My way of teaching starts the learning process with whomever is there.  I don't wait.  I began showing the book and its photos around.

"This is her father.  He was the only member of the family to survive."  I then turned the page and showed a picture of Anne.

"Oh," said the girl in hijab.  She visibly recoiled as she took a step back.  "She's Jewish.  I'm not reading the book."

I then realized that I had never said Anne Frank was Jewish.  This very bright student of mine has had such little exposure to The Holocaust that she wasn't aware of what we all take for granted.  Anne Frank was a Jewish victim of The Holocaust in WWII.  The sad part, of course is that, upon learning that fact, the rest of the learning process, for her at least, was all done.  Her mind and heart were shut off.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard such reasoning but it still hit me hard.  Moments like this remind me of that song from the musical, "South Pacific"

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

          You've got to be taught
          To hate and to fear,
          You've got to be taught
          From year to year,
          It's got to be drummed
          In your dear little ear
          You've got to be carefully taught.

          You've got to be taught to be afraid
          Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
          And of people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
          You've got to be carefully taught.

          You've got to be taught before it's too late,
          Before you're six or seven or eight,
          To hate all the people your relatives hate,
          You've got to be carefully taught!

However, I was bouncing back with logic.  "If you take a look at your picture, you'll see that she's just a girl. She was just like you.  She was going to school, having crushes on boys, thinking of the future, and wondering what she was going to be when she grew up.  There's a connection between the two of you on that level; the two of you have something in common, right?  You are both just two girls."

Another girl in the class walked up and asked to see the book.  I handed it to her and explained a little bit about the bookcase that was really a door.  She was more receptive.

"I'm going to read the book this summer," she promised without me asking her so I gave her a hug.  God bless open minds and forgive the ones that are closed.

The rest of the class started filing in.  I knew I'd have an extremely short lesson time since I had promised we'd be seeing the rest of the movie.  I felt like I wanted to read something from her writings so I perused the pages looking for June 13.  I couldn't find it at the back of the book so I looked in the beginning and found it.  

I stared at the date and turned to double-check my board.  I had written June 13, 2013.  She had begun writing in her diary on June 14, 1942.  I felt a chill go up my spin.  I felt God's presence.  I held up the book.

"This is the Anne Frank book that the "Freedom Writer" students were reading.  Our library has a copy which you can check out this summer.  I know some of you might not want to read it because it's about a Jewish girl..."

"Ms. Yosra," one of my favorite girls piped up, "nobody thinks like that."

"Okay," I resisted outing the girl in class who actually did think exactly like that. "That's good to hear.  I don't think we have any Jewish students in our class but still we need to find ways to respect those who are different from us, even if it's in a book."

"You said we were going to watch the movie!"

"We are.  The faster I say all this, the sooner you'll see it.  Hold on a minute.  Show some respect."

Some in the class tried quieting the others.

"I wanted you to hear a little from her diary, so I opened it up and discovered that she began writing it on June 14; that's tomorrow.  71 years ago tomorrow is when she began.  I wanted you to hear what she wrote."

I handed it over to the girl who was planning to read it over the summer.  She read the June 14th entry.  It was one paragraph about receiving the diary for her birthday.  The class was quiet and respectful.  Anne Frank's voice was alive in our class.  That's the beauty of literature.  We never really die and become forgotten as long as we are read and remembered.  Subhanallah.

I thought about the girl who had read aloud.  "I remember your research paper topic.  Do you all remember what she wrote about for her research report?  She wrote about Nic Vuljicic, a motivational speaker who was born without arms or legs.  She's nothing like him, but she gained from his viewpoint.  His ability to conquer his problems helped her think positively.

 If all we do is read books from people exactly like ourselves, then we'll have a hard time finding any books."

"Can we watch the movie now?"  

"Not yet," I fought for a little more time.  "In a minute, I'm going to tell you something about Justin Bieber."

"We've been watching "Freedom Writers.  We're not exactly like them.  None of us are Latino or black.  None of us have been gang members.  But still, we're finding a way to relate to them just how they found a way to relate to Anne Frank.  We can appreciate their challenges and how they overcame them."

"Did she know she was going into hiding?"  

They answered, "No."

Did she know that she was going to be captured?

Did she know she was going to die?

"Did she die?"

"Yes, she did.  She died when she was only a teenager."

"Where is the real diary?"

 "It's in Amsterdam.  That's where she had been living and where she had been hiding.  There's a museum there now.  

I've been to it.  Justin Bieber has been to it too."  I looked over at The Number One Belieber in our class and she beamed.

"He wrote in the guest book that he thought Anne Frank would have been a Belieber.  Some people found that disrespectful," his fan started to protest, "but I don't," and she quieted again.  "I think he meant that she was an ordinary girl.  Her diary starts off in such an ordinary way.  She was a girl just like you and the amazing thing is that she kept hoping.  

When I toured the museum, I walked through in the doorway hidden by the bookcase.  

I got to be where she and her family had to hide.  One of the things that struck me was the pictures she'd placed on the wall.  I did that too when I was her age.  I'd find pictures to cut out of celebrities, dresses I liked, and beautiful places.  Maybe some of you do it too.  

It's like she was wishing for..."

I trailed off and had a student finish my thoughts, "Something better."

"Yes," I acknowledged, "no matter what else was going on, she didn't lose hope.  We're going to watch the movie and thank you for listening.  I just have one last question.  How many of you would like to read the book over the summer?"

Hands went up.  

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury,  I want you to know why I am a teacher.  I am a teacher for moments like that.  I have spent some tough times with those students.  I've cried over their rudeness twice.  I've prayed over them when they were studying WWII and took to drawing swastikas.  Yet, there we were, at the end of our lessons, and at least some were raising their hands.  I won't reach all, but I will reach some.  That's why I'm a teacher.  Alhumdulillah.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway... And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” 
― Anne Frank


Khaki said...

Assalamu 'alaykum Yosra!

Love and light to you.

Anne Frank's diary is one of my most favorite books and I simply loved the movie Freedom Writers. There is a message of hope and love and finding our common ground and forgetting our differences.

I love your post and I agree that we should be open to learning from people of different cultures and races. All the good that we can imbibe.

JazakiAllah for the lovely post! :))

Yosra said...

Wa Alaykom Asalam Dear Khaki,

So nice to hear from you! I'm very happy that you are also an appreciative reader of Anne Frank's Diary. You and I are both Muslim but those hijabs on our heads aren't there to block out ideas. Truly, if our faith is strong, we don't need to fear interfaith dialogue. In Anne's case, she can't have an actual dialogue; it has to be a monologue. Yet, if someone only looked up her quotes (click the link at the end of the posting) you'd see how wonderfully open she was to the good people of the world. I believe she'd be pleased with our efforts in the world, Khaki. I hope, inshahallah, that God is. I can't imagine The Creator ever being angry with someone who is choosing respect and tolerance over anger and cruelty. Let's keep good things going!

Love and Light Right Back at Ya!

Nancy Bea Miller said...

This is a beautiful're a gifted and compassionate teacher. Thank you for sharing!

egyptchick7 said...

UHMMM How great you are as a teacher!!! Getting thru to these students in the most creative ways. I'm happy that a library in Egypt would have that book- I am sad that someone would shun it bc she is Jewish- I am happy that others will read it irregardless of her faith...

Just know you are making a positive change in the world...just one step at a time- opening these minds little by little- its a very good thing!!

Now I have to read the book!!! But this little thing called nursing school is kicking my butt!!!

Londoneya said...

I studied Anne Frank when I was in year six. I think it was part of the syllabus in the UK back then.

I remember not seeing this girl for her religion, but for her humanity...we are all alike, waiting for second chances, hoping for them.

The diary humanised a Jewish girl during a time when all Jews were demonised. I just wish people would learn from history and not demonise others because of their faith, or because of a minority of extremists.

You sound like such an inspiring teacher, mashaAllah.