Knowing Our Stories, Helps Our Students Write Their Own

Sarah Said is the English Learning/ Bilingual Director of two suburban school districts in the Chicagoland area in Illinois, shares some practical tips and reminders for working with culturally and linguistically diverse families. You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @MrsSaid17.

by Sarah Said

I am a mother and wife. I am an educator. I am an advocate for learners. I’m a Middle Eastern girl who grew up in one of largest Arab American communities in the country — the Chicago Southwest Suburbs. I didn’t always keep it as “real” as I do now. My eighteen year old self wouldn’t picture myself totally in education. She probably didn’t even know what the acronym ELL stood for. She also didn’t think she would wear hijab regularly. She didn’t know that as an ELL program leader, she would walk into a classroom with a first grader tugging on her ankle length skirt telling her that “you are what I think princesses look like…” She didn’t know the importance of a comfort with her identity and how that could help her inspire others.

My eighteen year old self was clueless and it took “her” years to find herself. Over a decade later, “she” is still fine tuning that. I had become honest, unapologetic and at times even vulnerable in front of my students and school community about who I am.  As educators if we don’t find a comfort in our own identity, our students will have a hard time creating theirs’.

Here is my story…

The commuters in Chicago’s Union Station were getting on trains as I was getting off. It was my first month in college and I was still learning how to take the train into the city from my suburban home that I had spent most of my life in. I thought it was a little odd that so many people were getting back on the trains rather than off. Some had a look of panic on their faces. Conductors were telling people trains were full.

I shrugged it off. Maybe the trains were going elsewhere that people needed to go? I was eighteen and just trying to be a college freshman. My major was sort of undecided… Who does really know their major first semester of freshman year? It was still warm outside. I pulled my long hair into a ponytail, adjusted my t-shirt and capris, and headed with my backpack on to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus about a mile away from the train station. Again, there more people on the street, suits, dresses, and stock market yellow jackets headed towards the station. I shook my head and kept moving. I had an exam that I needed to get to on campus. I had spent the night studying for my Political Science midterm.

When I got to campus, I stopped at the coffee booth. I turned to the barista and ordered my usual a caramel macchiato. I was eighteen and didn’t care about the sugar content. The barista, a middle aged man we all affectionately referred to as “uncle” gave me a puzzled look. “Are you staying on campus?”, he asked. “Why wouldn’t I?,” I asked.  He told me that I needed to watch TV more often.

I got on the escalator and headed towards the student lounge where I normally hung out with friends. We usually congregated there before class to hang out or play Middle Eastern card games before we went to class. The sight was not what I expected. College students of all backgrounds and walks of life were glued to an image on the television. The image was unreal to me. It was a plane crashing into a skyscraper. I had realized that not one but two twin towers in New York city were destroyed by airplanes. I came to find out later that the Pentagon in Washington DC had endured a crash as well. And a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. So many lives were lost, impacted, and broken. This was the one of the biggest tragedies on American soil.

My first impulse was to frantically call my sister who was living in the DC area at the time and ready to give birth to a child any second. I could not get through the lines. Then I called my father who worked close to campus. I couldn’t get through to him either. Many of us were in panic mode. Is Chicago next? Will they hit the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) or the Hancock building? We’re only a short distance away from tall skyscrapers.  

I tried to focus and walked over to my class. A sign on the door said that the professor had cancelled our exam. Later we all received an email that campus would soon be evacuated.  I was trying to figure out how I would get home. There were no more trains into the suburban region I came from. I kept calling my dad until I was able to get a connection. My father said he would pick me up from school.  

As we walked off campus, questions were being asked. “Where they Muslim? Where they from a Middle Eastern country?” Yes… they were…the attackers were people who identified as themselves as Muslims…they were also from the Middle East. September 11th, 2001 became a time where I realized that there were people out there that had a  discomfort with my identity more than ever. As days and weeks passed, the community of the mosque that I grew up near was being tormented. There was a group of people trying to attack the mosque to get “revenge” for what had happened. Women in hijab spent days in their homes scared to leave. The Muslim private K-12 schools nearby had to take extreme security measures to protect students and staff. We didn’t feel safe. We didn’t feel wanted in our American communities. We worried about our futures.

As the days and weeks went by, people showed either great support or hatred towards our community. I worked at a department store in the local mall as a part-time job.  Our employees were very sympathetic towards a fellow employee who missed work for a week because she didn’t leave her house. Being that she wore hijab, she didn’t feel safe in the community and she stayed at home days after the tragedy. Most women in our community made the decision to keep wearing their head scarves, but they endured danger through road rage, harassment, and discrimination. Even people who “looked” Middle Eastern were harassed and subjected to violence.  

All over the country, hearts were broken and they ached. We just experienced an event in our country’s history that will never be forgotten. Families lost loved ones that were irreplaceable. From California to East Coast and from Montana to Texas we felt wounded.  Our country would never be the same. In a matter of minutes, the New York skyline changed, heroes and lost ones became household names, and people asked why this would happen.

This country was changing quickly. Our generation was beginning to wonder about their identity as a country. I started to wonder who I was. I was beginning to really try to understand life. I was eighteen, in college and my major not really completely decided.  Did I want to be a lawyer? At one point in my life that was what I wanted. But, I developed a larger love for books and writing. As I was trying to find myself, watching the way some people had treated the Arab community post 9/11 was a trauma that hit many of the youth in our community hard, including myself. I dealt with it through reading literature, writing poetry and creating fiction… it was always how I dealt with trauma.

As a Muslim of Middle Eastern (my father’s family is mostly Palestinian and mother came from Syria to the United States in her late teens) descent who is an American, I really used literacy, reading and writing, to begin self-discovery in that first year of college. I read a lot of fiction about self discovery from different ethnicities. Sandra Cisneros, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Julia Alvarez became literary heroes to me.

I began to write. I wrote poetry and fiction about my own identity from writing about Palestinian thobes and the identity of our people to writing memoirs of trips to Syria I took as a child. As I wrote, I realized that I could have been more defined in my own identity. I knew I was Middle Eastern. I knew what it meant to be Palestinian and Syrian. I also had a great support from a Muslim youth center I attended in the community I grew up with that taught me to really love my faith. We are a hard-working community of good people who speak a beautiful language, follow a faith that believes in peace and live harmoniously amongst one another.

Weeks went by, and at eighteen the overlying question of “What do I do with my adult life?” lingered in the heart of all of the pandemonium that poofed within my identity as I was dealing with the feelings I had as the country was in conflict. The family still assumed I was going to be a lawyer, I’m a talker. I was a forensics team rock star in high school. The year before I had actually traveled to New York City for the national tournament. Smooth and charismatic talking was what I was known for!  But, law was slowly losing its appeal to me. I didn’t know if I felt law school in my heart.

I began taking literature and education courses the following spring and summer. I realized that the coolest place on UIC campus was a building called Stevenson Hall. This where all the English majors had all of their coursework. I thought it smelled like books. I also got on the train often to Chicago’s Wicker Park and hung out in used book stores. I sat quietly and read anything I could get my hands on. It was my life.

That fall, I took a part-time role at the campus Writing Center as a tutor.  The Writing Center became a family to me. It was a family of people who were different from one another. While we worked together, we respected on another’s identities. Being in a place like this help me again begin to feel comfortable with who I am. It was okay to be different at the writing center your faith, ethnicity, political opinions, and gender identity were all embraced and valued by everyone who worked there.

I tutored people from all different backgrounds. I worked with students who were entering Medical school and were writing personal statements, a man who was a displaced Vietnam veteran who lived in a nearby shelter that was writing his own personal memoir, an international student from Guatemala who pushed herself hard every writing session her and I had to really master the fundamentals of the English language, and I worked with Freshmen who were transitioning to college writing. Each student I worked with inspired me to move closer to a career in the classroom.

Months went by and undertones of the worry of the impact of 9/11 on the Arab community still haunted me. I wrote… because that is how I dealt with my feelings. I met a local artist from the community I grew up in who was starting a magazine. I began to write for her. I started with articles about aspects of fashion…people who know me well know that I love clothes… to later writing about deeper issues that impacted women of color and their communities. As I was writing, I was still going through the motions of my coursework in English education with ELL endorsement. Having knowledge of two languages other than English, I was encouraged to sign up for the ELL endorsement. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to use it at the time. Law school was still on my mind, but a magnet was pulling me into the classroom.

I dipped my toes into the water with my first long term clinical teaching assignment in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood my last semester before student teaching. I was assigned to a high school with a history of serving students from a high needs population. Coming from the suburbs, as I got off the orange to blue line route on the CTA, I experienced culture shock and eye opening experiences daily. I learned more about the challenges my students faced they fought poverty and neighborhood issues to go to school everyday to be successful.

Not wearing hijab at the time, my identity was unknown to students. I never really talked about my identity to students. I didn’t know if I was supposed to. I also worried about how students of other backgrounds would feel about mine with the media that had surrounded my community post 9/11. I was still in college and trying to learn how to navigate the classroom, I didn’t know what risks I should take in conversations with students.  I have olive skin, dark hair, and I was able to communicate somewhat effectively in Spanish. My last name at the time was Dollah. One day as I was teaching about the importance of knowing our identities and histories as readers and writers, one student asked, “What’s yours? I was shocked that students wanted to know more about me. Ms. Dollah, are you Mexican or Puerto Rican? We really don’t know. We can’t really tell by your name.” I responded that my family was from neither background. Then one student said, “Oh, she’s like Brazilian.” I shook my head and explained that my family was from the Middle East.  

The class looked and me for a while. It was quiet. Suddenly, one hand popped up.  “Do you speak Arabic?” I smiled at them and nodded. More hands went up. They had questions. All good questions. None of them related to conflicts that the media had referring to in our country or across the world. They wanted to know how my family came to the United States. They wanted to know if I liked the way hummus tasted. And of course, they asked if I could write their names in Arabic. There were no questions about terrorism. They were just about me.

That day, at twenty years old, I realized that in order to help students develop their identities as readers and writers, I had to help them understand their own narrative. In order to support students in doing this, I had to be comfortable with expressing my identity and narrative in the classroom. I had to realize that children are resilient and have open hearts for people who love them and care to be their teacher. Knowing that, it is my responsibility to be vulnerable in the classroom and open parts of my experiences to them to allow them to create their own.

A couple of months later, I was assigned to a student teaching position on the Southwest side of Chicago near Midway airport in a Chicago Public School with a very diverse population. Days before my assignment began, I made a decision that would change the rest of my life.  I decided to observe the Muslim attire of hijab. I also started to really push back on that idea of law school. I realized that teaching and education were my passion. Within that passion, I can be who I want to be comfortably….

This was fifteen years ago. Years later, I moved on to different settings and classrooms. I also moved on to different roles. During those times, I wasn’t always “skipping through daisies in a field” happy. There were times I did experience difficulty and failures. And there were times I had to stand up for myself, my community and the students I served. Adversity does happen in schools. But we have to remember that it is important to maintain who we are and remember where we come from, because if we don’t our students will not feel that value in themselves either.

Knowing our stories, helps students be able to identify their own. Knowing our stories, helps our students write their own. As we write our narratives, they will all coexist together and be woven into the fabric of our school communities. If we give our students the ability to embrace each others’ stories our schools, communities, and country will have a better chance at being a place where the vibrancy and strength of our fabric.