Every year I’d begin my classes the same way. “I know two things are true,” I’d tell my students the first day of class, as I walked slowly between their desks, scaring them a bit with a well-practiced professorial glare.
“First, I know with almost absolute certainty that by the end of the year, we’re gonna be friends.”
That would usually scramble a few heads in suspicion, or at least mild disbelief.
“I’ve been at this for a long time, and I’ve learned that with damn few exceptions — and none of you look like ‘exceptions’ to me — I like my students. And, from what I can tell, they think I’m all right, too. We’ll see, but I’ve got faith.”
I’d walk to the back of the room, trusting their heads would swivel, their bodies twist and their eyes follow. There I’d pause, and take a seat on the bank of radiators. I’d gesture for them to follow and then thumb their attention to Washington Cemetery, the graveyard that sat four stories below down on 20th Avenue in Brooklyn.
“The second thing I know is this: by the end of the semester, without exceptions, we’re all going to be five months closer to our graves. No matter how much longer we all have left on this planet, fifty years or only a few, that is undeniably true.”
It was my way of introducing them to “The Conversation.”
Predictably, the kids would buck. Telling teenagers that they’re going to die is not the normal way to begin a high school social studies class. Usually one of the kids would be brave enough to voice a complaint, and in Brooklyn that generally took the form of, “Yo, Mista, you nasty. Why you gotta be sayin’ that for?”
The response was prepared in advance.
“First lesson in economics, my dear. As supply decreases, value increases. The less you have of something, the more you want it. The fewer there are of something, the more precious that thing becomes. Everyone get out a pen.”
Kids would head back to their desks, bags would unzip and fresh three-ring binders would clatter open.
That would be a very good sign. They were engaged, on edge.
“How much did you pay for that pen in your hand? Write it down! A dollar? But what if your pen was the only pen in the world? What if all the presidents and all the poets needed that one pen! What would they pay you for it? What if there was only one pen in the whole world and you owned it? How much would it be worth then?”
“Yo, Mista, probably a lot, but people don’t write with pens no more. They use computers.”
The class would laugh, I’d roll with it. Good. They’re with me.
“Be that as it may, you get the point, yes? The shorter the supply, the greater the value. Simple economics. And it works with doughnuts or days on Earth just as well as it does with pens or peacocks. Every day, every moment you’re on this planet is more valuable than the last. Every single day. There’s no way around it. Life always becomes more valuable, unless you’ve figured out a way to live forever!”
I’d pause and then thumb back down to the graveyard below.
“Just ask them.”
If I’d timed it right, the last sentence would hang in the air as the bell rang. Then they’d gather their things and head out into the hallway wondering what the hell that was all about, and I’d smile, thinking that another strange and beautiful year was underway.
It is indescribably cool to hear tumblers click into place deep inside a 15-year-old’s brain. And no matter what you’ve heard, “kids today” are just fine. They could use a lot more support, but their brains are as thirsty as human brains have ever been. And if I’d learned anything in my years teaching, it was this: if you wish to engage students about something important — like ethics, morality, rage, mortality, resentment, betrayal, or hope — all that stuff that actually comprises human history, all you have to do is ask and then give a damn about their answers. They’ve got a lot to say if you are willing to listen.
As a teacher, I long thought that curriculum was a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Education professionals who don’t understand that miss the central point of our profession. In my view, the main point of education — the important part that will stick with them for years and encourage them to continue seeking — is to engage kids in thought, engage them in The Conversation. It’s the same conversation that has been flowing through human history since we were bumping our heads on stalactites and cursing the appetites of saber-toothed tigers. It’s the discourse between Socrates and Plato. It’s the debate between Pilate and Christ. It’s the mutual ruminations of Jefferson and Madison as they wondered what to do about King George, and it’s the argument between Malcolm and Martin as they tried to forge a new world of justice and love. But it’s also the conversation that two serfs had after the king’s horse just knocked them off the path and into a pile of manure. It’s the one that two Brooklyn teenagers have after they’ve just been rousted from their favorite corner by some cops just for hanging out and looking young. It’s the vernacular of the town square — be it Tiananmen, Tahrir or in your hometown. It’s The Conversation to which I was first introduced by Bill Burns, my high school mentor and Shakespeare teacher, as he taught us about King Lear’s crisis on the moors or Prospero’s maturation through the storm. It’s The Conversation that I’ve been having with my father now for thirty years, since I was old enough to understand that the essence of citizenship is found in questioning how to build a better world, and then setting your soul to doing so every day. In the end, The Conversation is the one we share whenever we honestly discuss the world in which we live, and it is one in which kids are eager to participate; you’ve just got to know how to invite them in.
The Conversation is one of those things in life that makes the always-dwindling minutes worth spending. And in a school system fixated so intently upon easily-gamed test scores, it’s one of the many things we don’t do nearly well enough.
In my small way, I tried to fix that over the years by engaging in The Conversation with my kids whenever possible, and I’m remembering one such class now.
In the fall semester of 2001 I had a non-English-speaking American history class that met during fifth period. Non-English courses were stopgap measures the school used to shore up our beleaguered bilingual education program. Fifty-five languages were spoken at FDR High School when I taught there, and while we tried to provide bilingual support for all of our students who were transitioning to English, we just didn’t have the resources to serve them in all in their native tongues. So when space in classes given by our Russian, Urdu, Chinese, Spanish or Polish-speaking teachers ran out — or for students who spoke a language for which we couldn’t provide support — the school would create a non-English class.
As you can imagine, one class could have dozens of languages, none of which were understood by the teacher.
They were interesting courses. The teachers needed to be creative in approach, and moderate their expectations and methodologies to account for the difficulties of communication — but generally the kids were super polite and eager to engage. Professionally, I really liked teaching these kids.
In the fall of 2001 that fifth-period class was a perfect example. They were incredibly nice students. What was strange, however, was that nearly all of the students (28 out of 30 if my memory holds) were Muslim. That fact took on much greater meaning after the attack of September 11 of that year. Normally a non-English class would be fairly representative of the school’s immigrant population overall. It was unusual to have a majority Muslim class. It wasn’t a problem, but it was unusual.
The first day of class I’d introduced the “economics of existence” lesson, and by using some students in class to translate for others, the substance and the strangeness of the message got through. It also allowed me to identify who had stronger language skills and who would be in need of more attention. One of the kids I noted first was Eddie, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy. He was bigger, older and far more Americanized than the rest of the kids. He spoke English reasonably well, and I was pretty sure he’d be a good classroom ally. I liked him at first sight.
The class had its jokers and its geniuses. It had some girls who were more interested in putting on makeup than they were in mercantilism. And it had other girls who wouldn’t doff their hijab in public if their lives depended upon it. It had some boys who were more interested in the girls than anything else and it had others who were more interested in video games than girls. In the end it was a pretty normal Brooklyn class, if you overlooked the religious factor. And even given that they were almost all Muslim, they were still an incredibly diverse group. These kids came from every part of the Greater Middle East — their countries of origin stretching across Northern Africa all the way to Afghanistan. In class were Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Persians, Yemenis, and a whole bunch of kids from Pakistan and Bangladesh. And they generally got along pretty well.
When the events of September 11 hit the city and the world, though we’d only known one another for a week, the class became a family. I’ll never forget being with them just two hours after The Towers had fallen, holding one of the more articulate boys by the shoulder as he wept and pleaded for my understanding that he abhorred violence and that the people who did this, if it did turn out that they were Muslim, didn’t understand the teachings of Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, and didn’t represent his faith. I expect that scene played out in many schools and workplaces throughout America over the course of that terrible day, with Muslims turning to their friends and saying, “This isn’t us. Please understand — this isn’t us.”
God, I felt for that kid. He and all the others were not only terrorized, same as any New Yorker, but they were terrified that they would be blamed for such an act of barbarity. I’ve reached the point that I have to leave the room, turn off the television or get in a fight when someone says that “Islam is a religion of hate.” People who say things like that just don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know my kids.
In the months that followed, a group of boys and girls from that class would meet me on 20th Avenue to walk to the F Train at the end of the school day. At first it was because they feared reprisal from other New Yorkers and they felt safe when they were with me, but with few exceptions that anger never manifested itself in our great city. So after a while our afternoons were just an additional twenty minutes (or forty if the train was late) to hang out and talk, sometimes about the lessons, sometimes about life. It was a bit more time to engage in The Conversation — or just shoot the breeze, depending on the circumstances. I really loved those kids. I still do.
Despite the language difficulties they, as a group, were down to talk and think. And they worked well together to make sure everyone stayed up with both the concepts and the coursework. So I was surprised one day when I very nearly lost control of the classroom in a religious argument so fierce that I feared it might tear our little family apart.
And it all stemmed from a mistake that I made in their presence.
That day we were doing a lesson on immigration into New York City in the middle of the 19th Century. I mentioned that on my father’s side, in 1861, my great-great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland. The explanation of “great-great-grandfather” took longer than I’d expected. It seems easy, but it’s a pretty confusing word. I had to use some board drawings and some additional translation work into Arabic, Urdu, Bengali and Farsi, but in the end it was met with nods of understanding and an appreciation that I wasn’t just saying that my grandfather was super-duper wonderful AND over 150 years old.
With that cleared up, Eddie raised his hand and asked me if I knew my grandfather.
I told him that, sadly, both my grandfathers died when I was just a boy. But that I remembered them. And that I loved them both.
Eddie said that he missed his grandfather and wanted to see him again, but didn’t know if he ever would.
Eddie, whose given name was Omar, lived his first 13 years in Ramallah and was an undocumented immigrant in the United States. His family had sent him and his brother over years before on visitors’ visas, which they then overstayed. It was a rash decision, but when the choices are Brooklyn or your kids joining the Intifada, who’s to say what’s right or wrong? The mother and father were back in Palestine with the younger children. So was the grandfather. Eddie and his brother lived alone in a small apartment somewhere off Coney Island Avenue.
Eddie reached under his collar and pulled out a miniature Qur’an affixed to a chain around his neck and said that it was a gift from his grandfather. He’d received it before he came to America.
Eddie, I knew from earlier conversations, was not religious. He was, essentially, the Islamic equivalent of an Easter-Only Christian. He’d fast during Ramadan, but not if there was pizza that day in the cafeteria, if you catch my drift. He’d fully adopted the dress of an American teenager, having an ample helping of underpants on display above his loose-fit jeans every day of the week. On his head was a Yankees cap, cocked impetuously to the side. His jacket was a puffy, down-filled North Face knockoff. He wore lots of rings. He had a silver grill on his teeth.
And around his neck, he wore his grandfather’s Qur’an, which he’d taken out to share with me.
The book looked beautiful, and I asked him if he might bring it to the front of the room so I could get a better look at it. He did, and the class gasped in unison as he dropped it into my hand.
It was a beautiful book, ornate and inlaid with gold on the cover. It was only about three inches by three inches, with hundreds of fine, thin pages of yellowed parchment. I was going to open it to check the script when another boy, one of my Bangladeshi students, appeared at the front of the room waving his hands in front of him frantically and saying over and over again, “Mr. Tallon. Please. Please put down. Please. Mr. Tallon. Please. Put down please. Down. Please.”
I handed the Qur’an back to Eddie, quite taken aback. What the hell had I done?
To Eddie it didn’t matter if I touched the book. It was a book. A gift from his grandfather. But to much of the rest of the class, Mr. Tallon, an otherwise favored teacher, should ABSOLUTELY NOT be touching a Holy Qur’an.
Like nothing else we’d covered that year, The Conversation that day took off like a rocket. And to my way of thinking, a giant donnybrook on the subject of maintaining religious identity while learning to acculturate in a multi-ethnic society was an entirely appropriate conversation to be having when the subject was immigration in the 1800s, even if the immigrants now were of a slightly darker hue. Change the century and the Holy Book, and this fight might have occurred way back when, with my own Irish ancestors.
Eddie took the book, chuckled, and headed to his seat in the back row where he kicked up his unlaced Timberlands on the empty chair to his right.
Alia, one of my Egyptian girls, told me that I shouldn’t be touching the Qur’an because I’m not a Muslim. Some of the kids disagreed. They said it was fine if I respected the book. Alia said, “NO! Mr. Tallon isn’t mutahiroon”
“I’m not what?”
“Pure. You’re not pure. You’re not Muslim.”
I asked her to write the word down for me. She didn’t know how to spell it in English, so I had her bring it in the following day. On the fly homework!
Zahir, one of my Bangladeshi boys, offered in broken English that I should not be touching the Qur’an even if I were Muslim because maybe I didn’t wash “after I made the pee pee.”
I assured him that, mutahiroon or not, I had definitely washed my hands after the pee pee.
A number of the boys began to giggle uncontrollably, and Alia went apoplectic at the mention of pee pee while the Qur’an was at issue.
But, understanding I’d caused offense, I apologized for touching a Holy Qur’an without properly respecting its sacred nature. Then I told them that, to me, no books were any more sacred than the others, but I understood that the Qur’an was sacred to many of them. I told them that I thought books could be very special, like the gift that Eddie had from his grandfather, but that in the way I saw the world, books were just books. Words were just part of the conversation, water in the stream.
Still, I asked their forgiveness.
Most of them nodded in assent. I’d made a mistake. No harm done.
But one of the Yemeni girls was still really upset, and rather than taking it out on her teacher, she lit into Zahir and some of the other boys who were laughing about the pee pee reference. She said that they should all keep their mouths closed about everything — because they were not real Muslims.
Whoa . . .
The room got quiet. Even Eddie dropped his feet to the floor and leaned forward to hear what was going to come next.
The Yemeni girl started to shout in Arabic. The boys started to shout in Bengali and Urdu. I looked at Eddie for help.
“She says they don’t know Arabic. She says they are not real Muslims. They just pretend to understand the words of the Qur’an,” he shouted from the back of the room, chuckling a bit.
This is something I didn’t know before working with Muslim kids: For many in the Muslim world, the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, may never be translated. It is believed in Islamic tradition that the angel Gabriel brought the entirety of the Qur’an from the thoughts of Allah directly to Mohammed, who transcribed them in classical Arabic. For those believers, the words are considered to be perfect and perfectly beautiful. The beauty of the language is, in fact, one argument for the existence of Allah: no man could write so beautifully, so perfectly. Arabic is believed by many in the Muslim world to be the language of Allah, and to try to express such beauty in other human tongues would be both insulting and impossible. Hence, most Muslims who do not speak Arabic learn to sound out the Qur’an in Arabic without knowing what the words actually mean. Thus, the Yemeni girl’s accusation: how can people who only speak Urdu or Bengali (or English for that matter) know the true meaning of the words of Allah? And how can you be Muslim if you don’t know Allah?
This was heavy theological stuff and presumably the cause of countless intra-Islamic battles over the past fourteen-hundred years. And here we were having one in my classroom.
Unsurprisingly, the Bangladeshi and Pakistani boys took offense to what she was saying, and started shouting that they were as good Muslims as anyone else in the world and that the Yemeni girl should shut her own mouth. This offended some of the Yemeni boys who were ready to fight for Yemeni honor, and pretty soon the class was near full meltdown.
It was unusual to have to do so, but I waded into the middle of the room and had to shout over everyone else and tell them to quiet down.
I apologized again for having started this whole ruckus by touching the Qur’an. And I reminded them that we were a special group of friends, forged together through the horrible experiences of that impossibly difficult fall, and that above everything else, we had to stick together. The unofficial network of translation carried that message to the farthest corners of the room.
I talked to them again about The Conversation and how we should always be having it, but we shouldn’t ever hate one another for what is said. There was no need for translation. They nodded their heads in assent.
I asked them if anyone wanted to start again.
One of the girls raised her hand.
“What do you think, Mr. Tallon?”
“About what, Saidah?”
“About Allah. About religion.”
These are questions I generally tried to avoid. The Conversation is important. A proselytizing teacher is dangerous. But here, in this particular setting, with these particular kids, after our particular set of interpersonal experiences, I decided to speak my mind. We’d get back to the 19th Century tomorrow. Looking back on that day I see that it was one where I could have gotten in serious trouble had my supervisors known what was going on in my classroom. Thanks be to Allah, they didn’t.
“I’m not a Muslim. You guys know that. I was raised Catholic, but I left that church a long time ago, too. Best way I can describe what I am is to tell you what my brother once said to me when I asked him that same question while we were camping in Alaska. He said, ‘I’m a Blue Domer.’”
“What’s that?” asked Eddie from the back row.
“It means that I believe that the blue walls of the sky are the dome of my church, and that everything underneath them is holy.”
I waited while “dome” and a few other concepts were translated into half a dozen languages, with the assistance of hand gestures and pocket dictionaries.
Saidah raised her hand again and I called on her.
“Mr. Tallon, do you pray?”
Do I pray? This was thin-ice territory if ever I’d found it in a class.
Still, I looked at my students and reflected on what I knew about each of them. I’d seen most of them cry and held many of them in my heart if not my arms while they did. I’d seen all of them laugh and shared their laughter, too. I really loved these kids. I was right with the supposition that first day together. We had become friends, and in some way, family. They’d turned to me when they were scared. I’d talked to them when I was terrorized. We’d managed to be honest with one another so far. And as I thought about each of them, I thought about my own family, too. I thought about hiking with my younger brother in Alaska under the big blue dome. I thought about my older brother’s daughter and how sick she had recently been. I thought about my mother riding a rollercoaster at Ghost Town in the Glen when I was a boy and about the way her eyes wrinkled around the edges and her top front teeth showed whenever she just couldn’t hold back joy. Looking back at Eddie and his Yankees cap, I thought about walking through the gates of The Stadium hand in hand with my father for the first time back in the summer of ’78 and how we had tickets for a game against Boston in the spring of 2002 already lined up. All those thoughts and a thousand more flashed through my mind and I decided to plunge forward.
“Yeah, I do pray, but in a different way than you do, I think.”
I really loved these kids, but I feel in my core that fundamentalists of any stripe are utterly bonkers — whether the one book they believe is the Qur’an, the Bible or The Wealth of Nations. That much I’d gathered from my own participation in The Conversation over thirty years. And while I did want to respect their beliefs, I also wanted to present them with a view that was outside the parochialisms of “who’s a real Muslim,” or “who is pure.” Such beliefs, while defensible from the perspective of faith, are anathema to reason and rationality — and ultimately to human progress. They are, quite literally, conversation killers. So I chose to hazard a shot across the bow of my mostly Muslim class.
I told them that I thought that God probably didn’t have a favorite language or a favorite religion. I told them that the idea of a “promised land” or a “chosen people” didn’t make a lick of sense — particularly not after we’d all been able to take a look at our own little blue planet, hanging gracefully in the black vastness of space. I joked with them about two souls floating out there in the great black sea, one pointing to the Earth and arguing that “that little piece of land over to the east of that minor sea . . . no, no… not there, just a little to the right” was the real Holy Land, while the other soul argued that the first was crazy, and “clearly the Holy Land is in the middle of that oddly shaped peninsula just to the south.”
I told them that I thought that either the whole planet is holy . . . or none of it is.
I told them that I wasn’t sure that God existed, and I didn’t really much care. I told them that one of the reasons that I left the Catholic Church was that most of my fellow parishioners were satisfied with the assertions that God is Love, but didn’t seem to grasp that Love is God and we may as well just worship the sensation and the shared experience that is its eternal promise. Love knows no borders and is held by no one religion.
I told them that I do pray. I told them that I wanted my whole life to be a prayer and that when I died, when this whole dance of rollercoaster rides, terrorist attacks, classroom arguments and Yankees’ games was finally over, if there was a God, I wanted to be able to recite for him my own prayer in his truly divine language, a language that exists beyond any human tongue.
And I told them that my prayer only had two words, and I bet that someone in the room could guess what they were.
The bell rang, but the kids stayed still for a few seconds, some of them pondering the thoughts and some of them lost in the flow of words. I waited another beat, and then swept the room, searching for an answer.
I met Eddie’s eyes as he sat gathering his bags in the back of the classroom.
He nodded his head and silently mouthed the words: “Thank You.”
I beamed as I nodded my head, reflecting, not unhappily, that The Conversation had carried us 42 minutes closer to that rendezvous.