By Maryah Converse
My Peace Corps recruiter gave me a little book of stories written by Volunteers about their service. I’ve lost the book in the two decades since, but one story sticks with me. In a small African village, everything this young Volunteer did for two years was destroyed each night—gardens uprooted, volleyball net shredded…. He left his village despondent and didn’t bother to stay in touch.
Twenty years later, an internationally respected journalist, he returned to his African village for the first time, entirely unannounced. Not only was he recognized as soon as he stepped out of his car and fêted as a prodigal son, but a dozen young men in Western suits and ties appeared to thank him. “Every night, we destroyed, and every day, you started over,” they told him. “For two years, just like you promised at the beginning. We thought you would go back to America, but you never gave up. You inspired us to be just as persistent, to become doctors and engineers and successful businessmen.”
That story was a lifeline I clung to throughout Peace Corps and my subsequent teaching career, a source of my persistence. It helped me make peace with a lot of frustrations, but it didn’t prepare me for Kawthar.
After ten weeks of training, mostly in Arabic language, I found myself in a small hilltop village in the north of Jordan. It was April, tail end of the school year, so I shadowed and co-taught with sid Safa in eighth and tenth grade English.
She was a short woman, pleasantly round, maybe twenty-six, in a long loose duster jacket called a jelbaab, and a practical cotton knit hijab. She barely spoke above a murmur, and I never once heard her raise her voice. The moment she entered a classroom, the class rose to their feet as expected and recited, “As-salaamu ‘alai-kum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaatu-hu—Peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and his blessings.” Then they sat down quietly, opened their books, and never talked back or spoke out of turn. When sid Safa’ began asking me to teach, I could just focus on imparting curriculum.
When we came back to school in September, the headmistress sid Muna assigned me to teach eighth and tenth grade. Alone. I tried to argue for a co-teacher. Peace Corps Volunteers work alongside teachers we can transfer skills to, and Peace Corps had cautioned us not to let ourselves be given solo classes, not to take jobs away from Jordanians.
I also knew I wasn’t ready. Maybe no one is truly prepared to step into a classroom for the first time, even with a degree in education. It’s a job you learn by doing, and on top of that, I was an outsider, still struggling with the language and the culture.
Sid Muna would not be swayed. “I don’t have a teacher to spare,” she said. “You came here to teach. So teach.” It was not meant unkindly. Sid Muna was also my neighbor, and considered herself my mother, a responsibility she took very seriously. Even so, like every public school headmistress in Jordan, she just didn’t have enough resources.
As I walked into the tenth grade the first day, I was acutely aware that sid Safa had at least one thing I didn’t. Just like in Pennsylvania dairy country where I grew up, I wasn’t related to the big local families, didn’t have my father or grandfather’s reputation to precede me. Being labelled sid Muna’s daughter, however well intended, was not the same as blood and history. Worse, I spoke Arabic like a semi-literate, inarticulate kindergartener.
Burying my doubts as best I could, I entered the tenth grade classroom with all the confidence I could muster, and at first glance, all seemed well. The first faces I saw were sid Muna’s daughter Ala’ and her best friend Selsabeel, whose father drove us to school each morning before teaching across town at the boys’ school. Behind Ala’ and Selsabeel were two rows of girls with pristine uniform smocks, perfect posture, their books already open on their desks, eyes front. Immediately on their feet, Ala’ and Selsabeel gestured everyone else up and led them in a perfect chorus of “As-salaamu ‘alai-kum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaatu-hu.”
Setting my books down on the teacher’s desk, I replied, “Wa-’alai-kum as-salaam.” Then they all sat down and I got my first good look at the other half of the class, slouched in their seats.
In southern Pennsylvania where I grew up, we would have called them Treads—treading water until they were eighteen and could legally drop out. They were easily identifiable, with their studied nonchalance, their belligerent bravado and disdain for teachers and “nerds.” Treads had sneered at me all through high school for knowing too much, raising my hand too often, reading too many books. They wore black Aerosmith and Guns’n’Roses t-shirts. Their expectation of the future was a job on the assembly line at the Harley Davidson plant like their parents, and who needed World History for that, anyway?
The logos on their clothing may have been different, yet these Jordanian girls still looked like Treads—a little unkempt, a little frayed. Across the kingdom, schoolgirls wear the same smocks, blue through the sixth grade and green starting in seventh, with long sleeves and a fake necktie, falling to mid-thigh, maybe pleated. It was the clothing they wore underneath that told the story. The studious, “smart” girls to my left wore regionally-manufactured shirts and sweaters, cheap polyester bought new. The girls on the right wore second hand clothes, castoffs that hadn’t sold at the Salvation Army and were exported for pennies on the pound to Jordanians, who in turn sold them for as little as a quarter at the secondhand Friday markets.
Every clique has its hierarchy. In the front row on my right sat a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular girl named Kawthar, her jeans more worn than most, with a permanent patina of ground-in dust below the knees. Constantly catching the eyes of her girls to share a joke, she was the ringleader. Unless she and her friends had found something about me to mock, she ignored me, just like the Treads back home.
I took it personally. Kawthar didn’t behave this way with sid Fida’ the Arabic teacher or sid Samira the computer teacher, and she adored sid Ismahan the religion teacher just like everyone else. Kawthar would never dare to ignore other teachers, let alone mock them. She only did that to me.
It triggered memories of being an outsider in my own elementary school, with my Pilgrim-descended parents from half a thousand miles away, while my classmates’ Pennsylvania roots went back to the colonial days of William Penn. I was certain Kawthar had some personal vendetta, that she disrupted my classroom because she was targeting me specifically. It was personal, I took it personally, and I just wanted her to shut up so I could teach the girls who cared.
Ala’ and Selsabeel and the double row of attentive students behind them felt the same. They sat perched on the edges of their seats every day, hanging on every word, waving their hands in the air to answer every question, diligently scribbling down every example and explanation. They always did their homework and never spoke except to give the right answer or ask smart questions about grammar and vocabulary.
If I could have had only those ten girls in my class, we would have flown through the stultifying textbook and had a whole month at the end of the year for creative enrichment. It’s what I think the headmistress sid Muna and her daughter Ala’ expected of me.
Instead, I alternated between constant scolding of Kawthar and the Treads to my right, or trying to teach over their incessant laughing chatter. The girls to my left would hiss and shush at their classmates. Every few days, Ala’ would raise her voice. “Girls! We’re here to learn, not to chat! Would you please just shut up so sid Maryah can teach?” She was no more successful than I.
In other Peace Corps countries, any overnight trip away from one’s site village requires that a Volunteer take a vacation day. In many places, it takes at least two days to get anywhere. In contrast, Jordan is a small country, a mere six-hour bus ride from the Syrian border to the Red Sea, though perhaps uniquely difficult. Over the standard two years of service, Jordan had the highest attrition rate in the Peace Corps. My cohort arrived in Jordan as twenty-five, and only the Tenacious Ten finished two years. We had electricity and amazingly efficient public transportation and our squatter toilets were porcelain—“not the real mud hut Peace Corps,” we often said—but as some visiting Volunteers from Togo once pointed out, we were under psychological pressures that they thought would be much harder to bear than the physical deprivations of their mud hut lives.
Everyone who left had their own reasons. For some, abstaining from alcohol or romantic relationships proved more than they wished to bear. One village in the more conservative south tried to confine two consecutive Volunteers to their homes, because women should never leave home alone. Many male Volunteers talked about how hard it was to handle the gender segregation, the casual misogyny in the teachers’ rooms of boys’ schools, the isolation of bachelorhood, while every female Volunteer seemed to find herself adopted by at least one neighbor. It also wasn’t easy living between Occupied Iraq and Occupied Palestine, or as King Abdullah II likes to say, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place.”
As a relief valve on the pressures of our Jordanian villages, we were allowed one free weekend a month out of our sites. Usually, we met up in the capital Amman on the first Thursday night of the month, ending our weekend at the Peace Corps office on the first Saturday, the only office hours that didn’t conflict with school. It was an opportunity to share a meal, maybe some wine, with English-speaking companions who understood the frustrations of our daily lives as no other could. We vented, we laughed uninhibited and loud, we shared advice.
I spent fully half that time in Amman with the older Volunteers. Since childhood, I had been drawn to adult company. I used to drive my mother’s friends crazy: “Go outside and play!” Particularly with the retirees in our cohort, I found a degree of both dedication to and appropriate distance from the difficult and emotional work of both teaching and cultural integration that helped me find my own equilibrium.
Jackie had been an elementary school teacher for twenty years, and an after-school tutor for ten more. She had divorced one husband and buried another. She was tall, slender, white-haired, and spoke only English to her students, neighbors, teachers—even most of the fruit and vegetable sellers. “What do I need Arabic for? To put on my application to the nursing home?” Her school and village encouraged her monolingual policy because it forced them all to practice their English. I admired her mix of confidence and little to lose.
When her headmistress tried to place Jackie solely in charge of three grades of English, she just said no. “I managed my own classroom for twenty years. I’m not doing that again. I’m here to train teachers, and to give the greatest number of people the opportunity to improve their English.”
If I ever do it again, I’ll do Peace Corps like Jackie. She co-taught once a week in every classroom in the school, never alone with her students. She made every English teacher sit with her and plan their lessons together, and made them participate in teaching every lesson they shared. Jackie taught students, but as a means towards building the skills and confidence of teachers.
As a veteran teacher, she had an oft-repeated piece of advice that helped me make peace with the shortcomings that Kawthar represented. “Every student has a right to fail,” Jackie said. “It’s not that you give up on them. You give them every opportunity to succeed, but there will always be students who deliberately choose to fail. Some of them exercise that right vigorously, and you have to let them.”
I don’t know if I gave Kawthar every opportunity to succeed. Maybe I did give up on her, just as everyone else seemed to have. I was new to teaching, new to managing a classroom, new to this level of responsibility. I’m still no Jackie. Yet, I suspect that no amount of effort would have convinced Kawthar to see herself as anything but a Tread.
Jordanian mothers frequently dropped by school, wandering unannounced into classrooms, then stopping in sid Muna’s office to chat on their way out. I was walking out of the tenth grade one day when I came face to face with a weathered, middle-aged woman as tall and broad-shouldered as Kawthar, equally square jawed and plain faced, with a generous soft belly under her long, loose, chocolate brown jelbaab.
“Sid Maryah!” Everyone knew who I was, the only grown woman in town without a hijab. “I wanted to talk to you.” She had a hearty outdoor voice and a heavy Bedouin accent I wasn’t accustomed to yet. “I’m Umm Kawthar.” She stuck out her hand for a handshake uncommonly firm for Jordan. Everything about Umm Kawthar made me feel small.
“An honor to meet you,” I said dutifully to the mother of the bane of my existence.
“You’re Kawthar’s English teacher.”
“Yes, I am.” I knew that one of two awkward conversations was coming next.
“Kawthar behaves in your class, in shaa’ allah?”
God was not willing, I thought, yet on some level I did feel sympathetic to Kawthar. Several months as a substitute special education teacher before Peace Corps had taught me that troubled students were usually more complicated than they appeared on the surface. I didn’t want to throw Kawthar under the bus. “She’s a good kid, but she talks a lot.”
Then Umm Kawthar said the thing I was dreading. “You have to hit her.” She looked down at the books in my hands. “Where’s your stick? Do you have a stick? You have to hit her. That will make Kawthar pay attention.”
I stood there with my mouth open, unable to find the right Arabic words to respond.
Then Umm Kawthar said something very different. “I want to help my daughters,” she said. “I know how important education is, how important English is for their futures. But how am I supposed to help them study English when I never finished the fifth grade and can’t even read in Arabic?”
I heard this from mother after mother, and I never did come up with a satisfactory answer.
“Remember, sid Maryah,” said Umm Kawthar as we parted ways. “Get yourself a good stick, and hit Kawthar and the other girls when they’re bad. It’s what she needs.”
I knew I was lucky. Teachers in our school frequently carried a stick or dowel with them to class, perhaps eighteen or twenty-four inches long, but I only ever saw them beat their sticks against a desk to get class’s attention. They talked about hitting kids, laughed about it, swung playfully at students on breaks, and regularly recommended that I should hit my students, but I never saw them do so. It may have trickled down from sid Muna, who was known to disapprove of a big stick in the classroom. In her own household, she used verbal admonishment and positive discipline, and her children were model students.
By contrast, when I visited my students in their homes, it wasn’t unusual to see parents hit their children with stiff pillows or open hands, occasionally out back with a stick. Older children hit their siblings for even minor perceived infractions. Sometimes I would see bus drivers hit misbehaving youths they knew—more than likely their relatives of some degree—in the bus station.
If the subject ever came up with Jordanians, it was always the same argument. “We have to prepare them for the world. You’re not an Arab, but for us, we must always be prepared for violence.” It was the same argument they used for showing bloodied, broken victims on television. Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon—they all had bloody, violent pasts, civil wars and brutal colonial occupations. So did Jordan—two wars with Israel and the attempted Black September coup in 1970. “The world is a violent place, and life is brutal and short. Our children should get used to that when they’re young.”
When those students came to school, they expected to be hit for bad behavior, and their parents expected it, too. I tried verbal admonishment, extending even to yelling. I tried reasoning with my students, even pleading. “Just ten more minutes, and then you can go downstairs for your break.” Occasionally, I threw a student out of my classroom. I tried positive reinforcement, ignoring bad behavior and rewarding good.
Regardless, it seemed clear that if I were unwilling to use my big stick, even when I carried it around with me and beat it against the teacher’s desk but never against a student, then they would never fear or respect me.
Abandoning half my tenth grade class made my heart hurt, but I learned to accept it.
So I was secretly relieved when sid Muna took the matter quite literally into her own hands.
Every morning, the classes lined up in the schoolyard for morning assembly. They did some perfunctory jumping jacks, heard some announcements, recited the fatiHa—the Muslim corollary of the Lord’s Prayer—and sang the national anthem. One morning, instead of announcements, sid Muna called Kawthar and half the tenth grade class up onto the elevated portion of the schoolyard from which assembly was led. They stood in a line along the leading edge, uncertain, their shoulders curled forward in apprehension.
“I have heard,” announced sid Muna so that everyone could hear her, “that you girls have been disruptive and disrespectful in sid Maryah’s English class.” As a few nodded, the girls’ eyes were fixed on their toes, or on a three-foot length of one-inch black plastic tubing in sid Muna’s hand. “This is not the way we behave in school. Understand that your teachers don’t work for the wizaret at-ta’liim—the Ministry of Education. We work for wizaret at-terbia wa-t-ta’liim—the Ministry of Upbringing and Education—responsible for molding you into better people. We are very lucky to have sid Maryah teaching here with us. You can learn a lot from her, about English and other things. And she is our guest. This is not how we treat guests in our culture, in our faith. Your behavior is unacceptable, sinful, shameful. Allahu ‘aalem—God knows.”
Then sid Muna made her way down the line of girls, with the whole school watching, made each one turn around, and hit her twice on her backside with the plastic tubing. It was not a rigid plastic, and she didn’t hit them hard. This was not one of those stories you occasionally hear in Jordan, usually at a boys’ school, where the student is beaten to disfigurement. Though you might think so from how the girls wailed, sid Muna was not intending pain. This was about embarrassment, and about setting an example.
Later in the day, when I came into the tenth grade classroom for their English class, the Tread side of the room was in tears. They were quite loud about it, as if they wanted to make a point about how miserable I had made them.
“Why did you do that, sid Maryah?” Kawthar demanded. “Why did you get the headmistress involved?”
I shook my head, trying to explain, but Kawthar would give no quarter.
“This should have been between us, sid Maryah! You didn’t have to get sid Muna involved!”
“It wasn’t me!” I exclaimed, struggling for some semblance of my own composure. “I didn’t say a thing to sid Muna!”
“How did she know?” insisted Kawthar. “You must have told her!”
“I didn’t say anything to sid Muna.” I spread my palms, once again aware that I was not much older than these girls and in some ways much more sheltered. “I would never say anything to her.” I was too embarrassed by my own incompetence.
“You told her,” insisted Kawthar. “You did.”
“No.” I shook my head. “Someone else told her.” I very carefully didn’t look towards my left where sid Muna’s daughter Ala’ and her best friend Selsabeel were sitting, silent and composed, in the front row. I was certain it had been them, but as much as I didn’t want to tattle on them to their classmates, I was also furious at them for embarrassing me like this. I said only, “Your behavior hurts your classmates’ learning a lot more than it hurts me.”
For a few days, Kawthar and her crew were more subdued.
Over time, I began to appreciate the differences that were less visible in the classroom. It started with the word “stupid,” which made my inner special educator fume.
“Really, don’t bother with Kawthar,” said sid Safa in her quiet, sweet voice. “She’s stupid. She’ll never pass the tawjihi. Kawthar probably won’t even get into thanaweeh.” That’s the last two years of school, culminating in the tawjihi exams, like British A-levels. This series of tests not only determines if a Jordanian will graduate and get into university, but also dictates what she’ll be allowed to study. High scores get the plum spots in medicine, law and engineering. Sid Muna’s daughter Ala’ wanted to be a pharmacist.
The physical education teacher once told me that English had been her passion in school. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her favorite teachers. On a late June evening, while the whole kingdom gathered around their televisions, the test scores of every thanaweeh student in the country scrolling across the screen, her fate was decided in a very different direction. “If I wanted to go to university, I could study physical education. My score wasn’t good enough for anything else.” She sighed heavily. “I hate exercise.” I thought about the bored, desultory way she led calisthenics at morning assembly. “But I wanted to go to university, get a job. I didn’t just want to get married to some shepherd and have a baby a year for the rest of my life.”
For Kawthar, by the time she got to my classroom, it was probably too late—not too late to learn, I don’t believe that of anyone—but too late for her to believe that she could. The best I was hoping for was that she would at least value education highly enough to push her own daughters to work hard, get into thanaweeh, and pass their tawjihi.
Her mother and I both knew that Kawthar would never have that for herself. In a couple years, her family would find a mechanic or a bus driver or a farmer for her to marry. Within another year, she would likely be pregnant. With a national epidemic of anemia, she would probably miscarry often. With unemployment high and wages low, she would always be stretching her dinar, struggling to keep protein on their plates.
Until then, school with her friends was much better than home.
At home, Kawthar tended to little siblings, cooked and mended for her mother, and cleaned. Keeping ahead of the dust of the desert was a constant battle, bent over double with a hand-held broom, on hands and knees with bucket and rag. Her big, thick-fingered hands were perpetually chapped and already well on their way to leathery. I imagined her broad-shouldered, sun-weathered mother Umm Kawthar with a sharp temper and high standards of cleanliness. The only things Umm Kawthar had to take pride in were the condition of her home and family, and the destiny of her immortal soul. This was the life that Kawthar would foresee for herself.
These things came to me slowly, of course. For most of the year that she was my student, I saw Kawthar as a flat character, a bad student—a Tread. Kawthar was a nuisance to me and a menace to the learning of her classmates like Ala’ and Selsabeel. I could rat her out to sid Muna again, but then I would have to admit that I couldn’t control her, couldn’t make half my class respect me … and it would only create a temporary lull. Kawthar had nothing to lose, and she knew I was only temporary—back to America, land of the rich, in just two years.
I left Jordan in June 2006 for Bloomington, Indiana. I finished my Masters in Arabic there in 2008, just as the economy was crashing. I moved back to Jordan, this time to the capital city Amman, and got a job teaching second grade in a posh private school.
Just a week later, I got a phenomenal job that paid twice what I had any right to expect. A new private English school for adults was opening on the top floor of Al-Quds Community College, just south of Amman. My mother had been right. They were willing to pay my way to a month-long training in Budapest for the certification I needed to take the job because they wanted an Arabic-speaking native English speaker on faculty. “We’ll be able to offer classes for complete beginners!”
The week before classes started, I felt terribly ill one midday. I didn’t know if I was sick or menstruating, but it didn’t matter. Under Jordanian employment law, I could get the day off for either. All I had to do was visit the college nurse and tell him why I needed to leave.
I wandered around for at least twenty minutes without finding the right office. Finally, I spotted a pair of security guards, male and female, in rumpled brown uniforms with two yellow stripes at each outseam, faded from too many washings in harsh cheap detergent.
The woman was thick around the middle but not fat, with broad shoulders and big hands that bespoke strength and competence. “Excuse me,” I said. “Could you tell me how to find the clinic?”
Instead of answering, she asked, “Are you sid Maryah?”
“Yes,” I said wearily, used to being the American celebrity, the foreign woman whose name everyone in the building knew.
“Don’t you recognize me?” she asked.
I had not been paying much attention, sick with my ears beginning to ring, so I gave her a long stare. “You look familiar,” I said finally.
“Sid Maryah, it’s Kawthar!”
“Kawthar! From Faiha’! Remember?”
Even through the fog of my ill health, the sentence jolted me. “Really? Kawthar? From the tenth grade?” I looked her over again—her square jaw and broad, nut-brown face—and suddenly I did remember.
I remembered, but I could hardly believe it. If I were Kawthar and saw me in my workplace, the teacher I held responsible for humiliating me in front of every school-aged girl in my community, I would not re-introduce myself. I would keep my head down and hope not to be recognized.
Sick and in pain, I was not much for conversation that day, but from time to time Kawthar would drop by my office to say hello, trade some news from the village. “You still live in Faiha’?” I asked her the first time. “And come all the way down here to work?” Buses in Jordan leave the station when they’re full, and when I lived in Faiha’, it might take me seventy minutes or three hours, depending on the day, just to get to the north side of Amman. Al-Quds was on the south side of the city.
“No, no,” said Kawthar. “My cousin Mohammad, he works here, too. He has a car, and drives me.”
“How long is the drive?” I only took taxis and buses in Jordan.
“It’s about an hour,” she said, a reminder of how small the Hashemite Kingdom is.
I always asked Kawthar about her family—it was only polite—and once, she brought her kid sister to work with her, whom I had taught in the second grade. Kawthar wanted me to see how much her little sister had grown, and for me to speak a little English with her. The sister was too shy to say a word.
I never understood Kawthar, then or now. She learned no English whatsoever from me, and made that first full year of teaching unbearable. I humiliated her and she was a daily reminder that I had absolutely no control over my students, that they learned on their terms and never mine.
I know I was too late to save Kawthar, to get her into university and a profession. I used to reassure myself that I would be successful if I could just convince a girl like Kawthar and the Treads that she could learn something, and maybe later she would teach her daughters that they could learn anything. When Kawthar kept reintroducing herself into my life—wanting me to see her, to recognize her, to know her—that meant something.