Monday, October 30, 2023

American Community School, Jordan—two days after Hamas attacked Israel

Part of a series: Middle East, October 2023:

Whew, what a year in school visits.

In Taiwan in March, a trip in the works since before the pandemic, two of my three librarian hosts were unable to be there for my school visit because of unexpected, 11th hour developments—one due to a family matter, the other because she got COVID.

In Georgia in August and Texas in September, schools canceled me when I refused to omit the word “gay” from talks to elementary students. 

Then came an issue even more personal for me.

I am sharing it here because I feel it has the potential to be insightful and inspiring, as it was for some people directly involved. For others, it may instead be infuriating. 

The month before an October trip to speak at an American school in both Jordan and Oman and a side trip to see Israel for the first time, parents at the Jordan school were in a “fervor” when they discovered that I am on the board of an Israeli organization.

Except I’m not.

But I am Jewish

The parents were referring to my time serving on the regional board of BBYO, a Jewish youth group—yes, when I was a teenager.

This somewhat fraught situation was about to get even more complicated. I departed for Jordan the evening of 10/6/23, and while I was on the plane, Hamas attacked Israel, murdering more than 1,400 people (primarily civilians) in a day and seizing more than 200 hostages.

In the Middle East, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. I was scheduled to present for three days at the American Community School in Amman starting on Monday 10/10. This would include three assemblies (elementary, middle, and high), a professional development workshop, and writing/visual literacy workshops for smaller groups of high schoolers (meaning I would see every participating high schooler twice). 

The night before, I was asked to join a Zoom with heads of school, none of whom I’d been in touch with before. 

They wanted to check if I felt safe and wanted to update me on the rising tension at the school, which has a significant Palestinian population. They also—understandably—wanted to know if I planned to mention the geopolitical situation that had gotten even more volatile overnight. I said no. They asked how I would answer if a student asked me about it. I said I would say it’s a valid question, though not a topic I was there to discuss, nor one about which I have any authority.

I appreciated their sensitivity on both fronts.

Earlier that day, an administrative assistant, who is Palestinian, was asked to read several of my books to assess them for content that could be problematic for their population. (Page 1 of Bill the Boy Wonder mentions that Bill Finger was Jewish.) The assistant wondered if the mention of Hitler (in Boys of Steel) would upset their (few) Jewish students. Otherwise the assistant expressed no concerns.

That same Sunday night, more than one anonymous account posted “Free Palestine” or similar comments under my Instagram posts related to Judaism.

The following morning, my first at the school, the administration received a petition from a significant number of parents who did not want my visit to proceed. They had seen and disapproved of my Facebook post of 10/7.

(With great disappointment, I called off my trip to Israel.)

Administration saw this as a chance for the school to live up to its stated commitment to inclusivity

Unlike Georgia and Texas, ACS did not cancel my visit—which would have been the path of least resistance. And the stakes in Jordan were serious on a whole other level. 

I, too, was eager to carry on and prepared to compartmentalize.

I applauded and thanked the school—not on my own behalf but rather for the kids. I told staff how much I appreciated their courage—which I would repeat numerous times over the next three days.

Before each assembly, school leaders reminded students how to treat a guest. At least one teacher cautioned against ad hominem

However…students were allowed to opt out of attending. I said that I am not in favor of opt-out options. I believe we should require students to attend all events within a safe space, even those that may be beyond their comfort zone. 

The world is challenging. We do students no favors by trying to shield them from this.  

The subsequent discussions with teachers and parents are fertile opportunities for growth.

But due to the fragility of the circumstances, I felt in this case it was acceptable to offer an opt-out (not that it was up to me). 

I was originally told that 30 high schoolers chose to skip my talk, but later learned it was more. A few tried to walk out during the assembly, but staff stopped them, saying “You already made your choice.”

Some kids wore the Arabic headdress called a keffiyeh or hattah and/or shirts referencing Palestine. I did not feel threatened, but did not feel welcomed by that segment. I was told that students did not wear keffiyehs on Sunday, the first day of school after the attack, and instead started on Monday—the day I arrived. So it was indeed a statement aimed at me.

Of course I am not an official ambassador of Israel or the Jewish people. That said, I understood—emotions were in overdrive and we all have the right to support our communities. Some students have family members in Gaza. (The following week, after the 10/17 explosion at a hospital in Gaza, ACS closed for three days of mourning.)

The high school audience was virtually nonreactive. Typical teen behavior? More protest? Likely some of both. I was told that they would not get a Q&A session.

(The middle and elementary audiences, however, let themselves enjoy the presentation. They laughed and applauded at the usual cues. And I was able to answer questions.)

The high school breakout sessions were more charged—at first. Fewer kids, smaller space, nowhere to hide for them or me. But the material is engaging, if I may say so, and my approach, as always, shows kids I respect their intelligence and value their opinion. They warmed to me. We got our Q&A. I felt I had a few breakthroughs with Palestinian students.

After one session, a senior asked my advice on his college application essay. After another, a high schooler walking out with his friends turned back to me and placed his hand on his heart. This silent gesture moved me deeply.

Throughout my time at the school, to my surprise, none of the Jewish staff or students approached me and identified themselves as such. Indifference? Fear? Likely some of both.

A central element of who I am combined with highly distressing current events meant my hosts had to contend with more than they signed up for. I was frequently asked if I was still comfortable. My hosts answered hard questions and sometimes had to be the bearer of bad news. They thought of everything. 

Example 1: my hosts suggested that the division heads hold their pre-assembly debrief with students before they enter the auditorium—in other words, before they see me. That probably wouldn’t have occurred to me but seemed like a good call. 

Example 2: I used the same laptop for every workshop and one night we left it out in the library overnight; the next morning, my hosts suggested that I check my presentations before starting in case anyone had modified it. (No one had.)

On my third and final day at the school, I was told that a high school student had told a staff member that after hearing her friends discuss the assembly, she regretted that she had opted out of it.

Despite the underlying feeling of unease, I felt the visit went smoothly. I did not directly hear a single negative comment or see a single instance of inappropriate behavior. I realize I was not privy to all that happened behind the scenes, but that is all the more reason I hold this school in the highest regard. 

Despite intense objection and fear of reprisal, they forged ahead as planned because they felt that was in the best interest of their students—and in the spirit of the school. 

This was bravery. This was conviction. This was leadership. 

Thank you yet again to ACS for showing how it’s done. 

I echo the sentiments of some of your staff who told me they feel my visit will have positive ripple effects beyond any academic boost from my sessions.

A primary goal of my school visits is to inspire students to speak up for whatever cause is meaningful to them—even when that is difficult. 

A primary goal of this school visit was to connect with kids one human to another and embolden them to view others not as symbols but as individuals.

1 comment:

Padma Venkatraman said...

Thanks for sharing this, dear friend.
Padma Venkatraman