I decided to ditch my normal fifth grade English lesson last week and give a civics lesson instead. It was the first day back to school after Obama was sworn in as the president, and I wanted to try to explain to them the significance of the event, as several students had commented on it to me. I had to oversimplify quite a bit, and I know that I botched some of the dates that I gave them, but my overall history lesson was based around the history of racial inequality in America and how Obama’s presidency is a symbol of overcoming our ugly history. I think they got it for the most part, and I think they thought it was pretty cool. The conversation changed a little bit when they started asking me questions.
The first one was about whether or not Obama is a Muslim or not, which I’ve learned since then is a debate here, too. I tried to explain that he isn’t, and about the lineage of his name. Sometimes, when students ask me about this, they still have a hard time understanding how a guy named Hussein isn’t a Muslim. I do my best to explain, but sometimes the concept of religious plurality can be too much for kids to understand.
Anyway, the next questions that came up were real tough. I’ll also preface this by saying that I am really glad I had this conversation with my kids. Somehow the question, “what do americans think of muslims?” came up. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
What do you tell a room full of muslim kids about the american national sentiment towards muslims? The nuances of the topic were too difficult for me to explain, and I didn’t just want to blanket the topic with a generalization, but my hand was forced. “Everybody is different,” I told them, “but a lot of Americans don’t like Muslims.”
“Why not?” They asked.
“Because,” I paused to think of a sensible way to say this: “they think that they are terrorists.”
I winced as I explained this, but I was totally relieved when they all started laughing. It’s like they understood how absurd the whole situation is and gave me a collective “That’s silly.” It was nice to see their reactions because it also reminded me how far removed they are from the serious situations that exist in the world. They’re just kids.
I told them that it was really embarrassing for me to tell them that, but that Americans can be ignorant people sometimes. The inevitable “Why?” came up after I explained this, and I went into a short explanation of September 11th. Most of the kids new about it (these kids were about 3 when it happened), but I filled them in on some details.
We ran out of time, but I think they came away knowing a little bit more about America, how it can be a really ugly place, and how it can be a cool place, too. Still, after an interesting conversation on a very heavy topic, I was pleased (rather than disappointed) that the fact that aroused the most interest in the class was that the world trade center buildings were 110 stories tall. That really blew them away. I could see myself getting bothered by the fact that they were paying such attention to a side note, but it reminded me that these guys are just kids and that they can only take so much in one day.