One time in high school, our math teacher was absent and so a councilor took over our rowdy class. After she gave the usual, brief, banal lecture about self-discipline and our duty toward our teachers, she randomly selected some of my classmates and asked them questions.
I still remember when she picked Manar, who was surreptitiously chatting with the girl next to her. After she ordered Manar to stand in front of the class, the teacher asked her, “What’s your favorite color?“
Manar hesitated and looked clueless for a couple of minutes. Her face turned red and she started trembling. Some girls laughed furtively; others tried to help her by whispering, “Say anything! Red, blue, black, anything!” Manar stopped looking at us and stared instead at her torn shoes, moving them slightly.
The counselor repeated the question again while she toyed with a pen in her hand. “She is just amusing herself at Manar’s expense,” I thought to myself about the teacher. After she finally realized Manar was paralyzed by embarrassment, the teacher ordered her to sit down. Manar had thought she was being punished for talking in class, and that there was one right, fixed answer to the question that she had to guess. She was afraid to be wrong.
Education, Gaza style
We are taught that there is right and there is wrong from the time we are born. When we go to school, we are told there are right answers and wrong ones. Nothing is in the middle. Nothing is negotiable. We are raised to fear our own thoughts.
“To believe your own thought, that is genius,” wrote Ralph Emerson in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” Although it sounds quite simple, it took me time to understand what he meant when he explained, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet, he dismisses his thought because it is his.” Expressing one’s self is, in a way, a courageous act.
I attended six public schools in Gaza, but only twice did I encounter extraordinary teachers who didn’t stick rigidly to the norm, urging us instead to think outside the box and the textbooks.
The other teachers preached as they tried to force as much information as possible into our brains; quality of thought didn’t concern them. Under such an educational system, once students pass a test, they instantly forget everything they’ve learned.
A GIF that a bunch of my friends on Facebook shared showed a student collecting his textbooks and setting them on fire; the headline read, “THIS IS WHAT I’M GOING TO DO AFTER EXAMS.” The comments were encouraging, saying, “I’ll join you!“
The most important exam Gazan students take is called the Tawjihi, which determines which majors they can choose in college and who gets scholarships. It doesn’t take into consideration the different types of students and their various ways of learning; it is based solely on their ability to memorize textbooks. The pressure is so intense that some students have committed suicide before or after.
We in Gaza are not raised to think for ourselves or to believe in the capability of our own minds. Some of my literature teachers at university in Gaza would ask a question and allow some hesitant hands to go up, but disregard the students’ own ideas until one (often reading from a source online) comes up with the answer the teacher wants. It’s then the teacher is satisfied and proceeds.
This technique makes students reluctant to speak up about what they think about literature or to analyze a text they have read for the first time. Instead, like Manar, they feel clueless and puzzled when they first read a new text. They look for the “right” answers instead of trying to think for themselves. That might explain why some of my Gazan friends tend to quote from texts when describing on social media how they feel, instead of “free associating.”
Under our educational system, you lose what distinguishes you from everyone else, your individuality. College doesn’t prepare you for anything; you discover you’ve lost more than you’ve gained as you get closer to graduating and your eyes suddenly open.
Culture shock: university in Montana
On my first day at university in the United States, where I was an exchange student for a semester, I finished the required reading for my U.S literature class and then experienced my first culture shock. The teacher asked simple, introductory questions, but I didn’t even try to raise my hand, although I knew all of the answers.
As I listened to the other students’ answers, I realized that my thoughts were not any different from theirs and the teacher respected each one, asking them to elaborate. Everything discussed afterward was based on the ideas the students proposed. And these teachers read my papers and discussed them with me while none of my teachers in Gaza did that, so I had no idea what was missing or whether I was doing well or not.
Actually, reading isn’t a common practice in Gaza, even if you study literature! Almost no one reads for pleasure growing up, and texts are the only books used in secondary school. Even in university, only a few books are required or available.
In the United States, I was asked to read more than 30 books in one semester—more than the number of required books for the past three years at my college in Gaza. I discovered almost everyone in my U.S. class had read Jane Austen, Henry James, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, John Keats, etc.
When I told Danielle, my roommate, about this observation, she said she had never thought about it that way. For the first time in her life, she felt grateful. “You have no idea how privileged you were,” I whispered.
I checked the reading list for one of the classes I attended at my exchange college and learned that while I read one book for the same class in Gaza, students at Carroll read seven. This isn’t only an issue with the teachers, but also the students, who aren’t willing to read. Even with the books we have, we regard them like exam material, regardless of the content.
Three weeks ago, on my way out of the cafeteria, a bunch of students were preparing for Sunday mass while six other people sang and played music. Tory, another student at Carroll College, played the violin so beautifully I took a seat and wept. I cannot read music or identify types of music.
Music is a luxury in Gaza and I was ignorant of anything related to art as well, but with every new song I heard that day in the U.S., my heart was whipped hard. Now I cry at the beauty of classical music and opera.
I hope music and art will be appreciated by Gazans someday, but right now we fight for mere existence, and if you can’t earn money from it, it’s not considered worthwhile. Now that I’m back in Gaza, I’m looking forward to becoming a part of change. There is this hope dancing at the edge of my heart and I would like to cling to it.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally featured on WeAreNotNumbers.org. We Are Not Numbers operates under the umbrella of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, an independent, international nonprofit. With a focus on the Middle East-North Africa region, Euro-Med investigates and exposes human rights violations, suggests solutions to intractable conflicts and nurtures the next generation of advocates.