Headscarf

Whenever I write a serious blog entry, I usually try to follow it up with something light-hearted, – but as anyone who read the last one could probably guess, my heart is still a bit heavy. I can’t get racism and prejudice out of my mind, so I’’ve decided to delve into my own.

It was sometime in the 1990s. For several years, the number of foreign sounding names on my course registration lists had been steadily increasing. Slovenes, Croatians, Bosnians, Kosovars, Albanians, Serbs, – and then later Bulgarians and Romanians and the occasional Russian . . . Generally speaking, I was pleased with the development. My students were becoming more diverse and I was learning a lot from them. There was just one problem: – cheating – and in many cases, a Bosnian was the culprit.

I have written before that I had gotten rid of exams in my courses. Instead the students had to regularly hand in different types of work for evaluation and accumulate enough points to pass the course, and more of it for a higher grade. Some of my colleagues had a bird about this. ““You can’t do that! There is no control!”” Of course a type of honor system existed. Did my students get someone to look over their written work before they handed it in? Well, why not? That sounds smart. (And how many of my own college papers did my mother and sister have to read and edit before I submitted them? Dozens!) My skeptical colleagues added: “”Then . . . any student can get any grade they want!””  Yes, that was the point. I didn’’t want to put them all on a single scale, judged against one another. Each one should work to improve from whatever level they were starting at. A weaker student who did lots of work and really got a lot better in English should have equal opportunity for that “”A”” as a proficient, privileged student who could sail through with minimal effort.

But back to the Bosnians. A lot of them came with little or no English proficiency and had to sit in the same lecture hall with local students who had all had 8 years of English in school. The Bosnians listened to the explanation of how grading worked, but many didn’’t recognize the opportunity it presented to them. They handed in their first piece of written work and it took me about 5 seconds to recognize the plagiarism. Usually I only had to google the first sentence to find the original. (Sometimes the students were a bit more adept, so I looked for a word like ““essentially”” or “”vicarious”” or the thousand other words that no non-native speaker would use.) I printed the plagiarized article out, stapled it to their “work” and wrote a note ““Come see me in my office hours.”” Some dropped out of the course immediately. Others showed up.

In these talks, I learned something. If you grow up in a corrupted system, you approach everything with skepticism and an eye to getting around the rules. People who actually followed the rules were saps. They were taken advantage of at every turn. So when these students heard about “the system” in my course, their first instinct was to figure out ““how do I game this?”” I got better and better at convincing them to make an honest effort. A lot of them started to really learn English.

And then one year, on the first day of the semester, a woman walked into the lecture hall in a floor length, long-sleeved black gown and a black head scarf – actually it was more than scarf, it was a hijab that completely hid her hair. It was the first time in my career that I had had such a student. While going through the roll call, I asked her where she was from. She answered ““Bosnia””. When the first hour was over and I was driving home, I realized to my horror that I had no idea what this woman looked like and wouldn’’t recognize her if she walked up to me in other attire. Despite the fact that only her face was showing, I had noticed only the clothes. That realization about myself really disturbed me.

This woman handed in her first assignment and it was wonderful. Thoughtful, intelligent and well written. I immediately started to google, but nothing came up. So I corrected it -– not that it needed much correction -– and added commentary. I also wrote that I would appreciate it if she came to my office hours.

She showed up. We talked first about her essay and it quickly became clear to me that it was original. Then there was a lull in the conversation. We looked at each other and I asked her how long she had been in this country (only a few months) and then how she was doing here at the university. She hesitated and then admitted that some professors and students seemed to have a problem with her. I told her about my own experience of seeing only the clothes at first and then said ““I think that when people here see you, the first question in their minds is – Does she want to wear that? Or does she have to wear that?”

““I want to,”” she said. She visibly relaxed, smiled, and opened up. She told me about how she had made the decision a few years earlier to clothe herself this way in public (in private it was completely different -– there was make-up and hairstyling, jewelry and fashion . . . ) Her mother had reacted neutrally to this decision – it was her choice. Her father admitted that he wasn’’t happy about it, but it was her choice. Her grandfather was livid and tried hard to talk her out of it. She tried to explain her motivations to me -– the freedom she experienced by not being seen. I noted how much it contrasted from the women in this country who are acculturated to feel the desire to be noticed. It made me wonder why she wanted to study here and so I asked her straight out. She answered as honestly: “”I wanted to learn. And I didn’’t want to have to pay my professors for grades.””

Reading this woman’’s essays on various social issues throughout the rest of the semester enriched my life. Since then and to this day – whenever I listen to the news, whether it was 9/11 or Al Qaida, or Charlie Hebdo, or now ISIS – this woman remains in the back of my mind and helps me to process all of the sensationalism and knee-jerk reactions relatively.

She was on my mind again today as I drove home from my parent teacher conference concerning my daughter’’s experience three days ago. Unfortunately, it is election season and there is no way to avoid seeing all the local political ads that line the road through my village. Our “Freedom” party has actually succeeded in hitting yet another low. “”Now it is about US!”” one of them screams. “This is “YOUR chance for REVENGE!”” the next one adds. For heaven’’s sake, who are these people? Who dreams this shit up? It is all “”us against them”” with the ““them”” left conveniently open to interpretation. People can just fill in their own personal nemesis and in that way, the party rakes in the votes of the racists and the fascists and the opportunists and the threatened and the stingy and the ignorant and the just plain cranky. I am afraid we are way beyond a mere 13% here . . .

It seems to me – particularly in times like this – that this country is in dire need of a lot more chocolate and headscarves.

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