A month ago, our school transformed at lunchtime. Our noisy, boisterous cafeteria became almost quiet. Half of the tables were empty.
It was the beginning of Ramadan and a large number of our students were fasting. Some fasting students still chose to go to the cafeteria. Many more stayed in classrooms supervised by teachers, away from the smell of food, playing chess, using computers, doing homework, or just sitting and chatting with one another.
About 40% of our students are Muslim. Our school is a school for newcomer English Language Learners from all over the world, and Ramadan highlights the diversity of our population. As I write this blog, I have the day off: today New York City schools are closed for Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.
Recently, I asked a student from Puerto Rico how much she knew about Ramadan.
“Oh, I know all about it,” she replied. “My friends are all fasting, I’m used to it.”
I was sure that the student was aware of her friends fasting, but I wondered how much she really knew about Ramadan. I find myself learning new things about Ramadan each year, usually from our Muslim staff members. For example, until this year I didn’t know that people can skip fasting if they are ill or have another legitimate reason, and make up the day by fasting another day after Ramadan ends.
Our school is approximately 55% Hispanic, with a large number of those students hailing from the Dominican Republic. The next largest group is Yemeni, then Bangladeshi, then Albanian, African from various countries, Pakistani, Vietnamese and Chinese. Students’ cultures, languages, and religions are immediately obvious as one walks through the school.
A few weeks ago, I visited a 9th grade class in which students were doing presentations about their home countries. It was the perfect assignment for a class of newcomer English Language Learners.
Two girls wearing abayas and hijabs presented a slideshow about Yemen. “This is how we say ‘hello.’” Next slide. “These are some of the foods we eat.”
When it came time for questions, a girl from Dominican Republic asked, “So you all have to wear, always . . .” and gestured with her hands to indicate the hijab.
The two girls looked at one another. “No,” they said cheerfully. It wasn’t clear they had fully understood the question.
The girl from Dominican Republic looked expectant, as if she hoped they’d explain more. But she nodded politely. “OK.”
Her question hadn’t been fully answered—and also hadn’t been fully asked. In the hallways between passing, the same girl is enthusiastic and loud. On the surface, I’d assume she has no problem being curious. Yet she has internalized the idea that asking a question about cultural or religious dress would be impolite.
For the past two years, our school has held cultural assemblies in which students do presentations on their countries and cultures for the entire school. The assemblies have done wonders in creating a sense of community and even appreciation for each culture.
And yet it’s still challenging for students to talk about their differences. Our school is diverse in a way that most of our students’ parents never experienced in their schooling, and even most of our staff. I’m excited by the possibility of teaching students to talk about their differences in a manner that is respectful yet open, to dissolve the membrane of un-knowing that invisibly keeps them separate.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman