We were able to get my son into the best public school in the district. Both my husband and I grew up in the public school system and felt it was the right time to transition our kids into it. The biggest concern I had was that of our kids being students in a post 9/11 era, but they were so young that we didn't think we needed to talk them about it...yet.
As a little kindergartner, my five-year-old was very sure of himself as a Muslim. At three feet tall, he knew who he was and was proud of it until the day he learned what the "T-word" was. He walked into the house quietly with his head down after the bus ride home. I could immediately tell something was wrong, since he was in the habit of relaying his day to me before even entering the house. When I asked him what's on his mind, he reluctantly told me what happened.
He said some older boys (a 4th grader and a 2nd grader) on the bus were making fun of him. They asked him why "his people" bomb and kill people and why we fly planes into buildings. They told him Muslims are terrorists and asked if he was a terrorist too while laughing at him. Let me remind you that my son was only five...FIVE! I I was hurt. I was fuming. I was livid. I was a mess inside but had to keep myself composed for my son's sake.
"Is that who we are, Mama?" my innocent, little child asked me. "Is that what Muslims do? Why would they do such bad things? But, I don't think we're bad people. Why did they call me that?"
I squatted down to his height and looked at him at eye-level. I could see right then that a part of his innocence had just left him. I didn't have the answers to his questions or the heart to address them. I wasn't ready to answer these questions. But here we were having to face this head-on with no time to brace ourselves.
"No, honey, that's not who we are. We're not bad people. Every group/religion/culture is made up of good people and bad people. Who these boys told you about is not us. It's not our faith. It's not our people. Those people use the name of Islam to do bad things, and then make us look bad. I'm sorry these boys made you feel bad. I will figure out how to handle this, insha Allah," I replied as my voice cracked, and I held back my tears.
Truth be told, I wanted to get back at these children. I wanted to yell at them and their parents. The Punjabi in me was completely fired up. The things they said to my poor son were unacceptable and could not have been taught at school. This must be what they are learning at home or being fed to them through media. However, since this incident happened on the bus between schoolmates, my initial response was to get the authorities involved. I immediately emailed the principal for an urgent meeting, even though I knew I wouldn't hear from him until the next morning potentially. I needed time to think. What would I say to him? How will I handle this? How will I want him to handle this?
I then contacted my mentor Anse Tamara Gray, who is the founder of Rabata: a non-profit organization that promotes positive cultural change through creative educational experiences. I told her what had happened and asked her what I should do. She understood my natural responses of feeling hurt and angry, but she gave such profound advise at that moment that I still implement to this day 5 years later.
Anse Tamara said to use this incident as a teaching moment. Instead of getting mad, she advised me to instead use that energy to get active...proactive. She suggested for me to offer teaching religious/diversity awareness training at the school for students, teachers and parents. She said offer a simple Islam 101 class for the kids and teach them our basics. She said be a classroom mom - go and lead story-time sessions and choose books on Islam that shine a positive image of our religion and of whom we are.
Of course my initial thought was me?! How can I do any of those things? I didn't even know where to begin, but Anse was right. Getting upset wasn't going to solve the problem. I needed to educate others through my positive actions, interactions and words rather than be fueled by my anger.
Obviously, the principal was very apologetic. He informed the other 2 students' parents and met with the boys to address the issue and take a few disciplinary measures. Both of their families felt really bad and sent formal apologies to us through the principal. One mother even insisted to meet with me, but I wasn't ready to do that. Everyone felt bad, but now what? So, I ended up following Anse's advise and became a classroom mom. The kids would love it when I came in for story-time, especially my son. I was the "cool, fun mom," who the kids enjoyed talking to, especially about my hijab.
Every year, I would befriend his new teacher with gifts and kind words. I would be regularly invited to help out in the classroom. I was front and center for field trips, classroom parties, read-alouds, and whatever else I could do. But, most importantly, I was visible and changing the narrative. So much so, that the principal even offered his office for my son to use for prayer time. His teacher and classmates knew when it was Dhuhr time and would happily take turns to accompany him down. He became the cool kid, who got to go to the principal's office daily :).
This effort didn't just stop at his school, though. I then became a volunteer for Junior Achievement. I wanted to be able to show Muslims in a positive light and was able to visit various public schools for Career Day and International Week. I would share my journey of being a female Muslim writer and talk about what I've learned during my travels to Muslim countries - all the beautiful people, places and cultures I've seen thus far. I would tell the students the importance of owning our voices and sharing our stories. Students and teachers have come to me afterwards, some in tears, saying how much my words inspired them. Many of them had never met or interacted with a Muslim before.
I also joined a local interfaith book club. I've been able to meet some incredible Christian and Jewish women, who have been so supportive and welcoming. We've been able to clear up misconceptions and stereotypes, helping us interact with each other through mutual respect, love and understanding. Some even shared my book The Blessed Bananas with the children in their families and congregations. They read the story out loud replacing the name 'Allah' with 'God' and then asked the kids which faith the book is about. The kids responded with their own respective faiths, only to be told that it's actually a book about the Islamic faith. They used my book as a teaching tool and a mirror to help the kids see themselves in the story and develop a positive attitude about Islam and Muslims. This can only happen when you have true compassion and appreciation for one another.
One more thing that has helped me counteract stereotypes is joining my daughter's PTA board. My eldest is in middle school, and I volunteer as the board secretary. As you can probably imagine, I'm the only Muslim on the board. By being on the board, I get to have a voice, be in the know of school happenings, and give my insight on issues when needed. If I want change, I need to be a true advocate of the change. Yes, representation matters, but you have to be present to be represented.
For example, in Ramadan, I informed the principal what the holy month was about and how it will affect my daughter's school day. I had a friend who had done the same for her middle schooler, and I followed her great example. The principal was so appreciative that he shared the information with the rest of his faculty and staff saying that 'this can be a learning experience for all of us.'
We need to also be aware of the books and lessons being taught in our kids' classrooms, especially about 9/11. My friend Sanam Shabbir's daughter came home upset the day her third grade teacher taught a history lesson on 9/11. The teacher had mentioned the names of the people who caused the terrorist attacks, one of which was unfortunately named 'Muhammad.' Her poor little girl was so surprised and felt immediately uncomfortable. It is the sacred name of our beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and not to be associated with ill-minded individuals.
Sanam wrote a formal letter to the teacher and principal addressing the issue that stating names of these terrorists makes a clear connection to Arab and Muslim students, putting them in an unnecessary and unfair spotlight and makes them susceptible to potential bullying. She protested for the book that the teacher used to be removed from the school library and classrooms. She then provided links and information to better resources about 9/11 to be used in the classroom, which I have shared at the end of this post. (If you have more resources, books, suggestions, please do share).
I truly believe that there is a lack of authentic and unbiased literature available for our schools to use when it comes to teaching students about Islam. When I was researching for the elementary book about Islam I wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica, I couldn't believe the type of books and materials that are out there about Islam and Muslims. There is so much misinformation and misrepresentation that is being absorbed by these easily-impressionable minds.
Take a look. If you type in how to pronounce the terms 'Islam' and 'Muslim' in Google, they're completely incorrect. If you type in 'terrorist,' you will be shown countless images of supposed Muslims. This is what's available. This is what's being taught. This is what's being learned.
We obviously can't keep our kids protected at all times. This is unfortunately the reality of the times that we are in, but instead of screaming silently from the sidelines, let's get in the game. I have given you methods that have been working for us, and I pray you find them useful and beneficial. The most important thing I want you to remember is the power of your du'a as a mother. The best way to be proactive is to get up at night and pray to Al-Hafiz, The Guardian, to protect us and our children at all times.
One of my good friends reminded me of how the mother of Musa (Moses), may God be pleased with him, released him as a baby into the river to protect him from the Pharaoh. She must have prayed so hard at that moment for God to save Musa, and what happened? Musa ends up at the house of the Pharaoh, where he was raised! Nevertheless, Allah did protect him fully and then made him a righteous prophet and leader of His believers.
SO, pray. Pray hard. The du’a of the mother can shake the throne of God and the du’a at Tahajjud is like an arrow that doesn’t miss its mark. Make du’a like Prophet Musa’s mother did. If her son can be protected in the house of his biggest enemy, our children can surely be protected in public school as well and be raised to become righteous leaders of our Ummah, God-willing.