We started the day off in the local bazaar.
There are few things in life I enjoy more than markets in other countries. This one did not disappoint either.
The bowls of spices and herbs, Persian rugs, fabrics and copperware are intoxicating.
We are cruising along when two little boys want to sell us plastic bags. Our guide tells me they are Afghani refugees. The little sister looks at me and says, “Do they have parents?” I look at the guide and she shakes her head no. So she digs into her pockets and pulls out 20,000 rials and says, “Here. They can have this.” The guide says, “It’s too much. They’ll get used to it.” I face this problem often when traveling. I know that giving money to poor children does not actually help their situation and those that work in areas trying to raise the standard of living for them do not recommend giving them money. I know this. Yet, it’s all I have as we’re passing through so quickly- I can’t help myself. It’s $2 for us. Yet, it’s more than a weeks’ work for them. The little sister then asks why they don’t have parents. “There’s war in their country.” I tell her. “With who? Who bombed them?” “Ummm… we did, probably.” Now I’m sure we haven’t given them enough. “Why?” she asks and all I can say is, “I don’t know.” I really don’t know. What am I supposed to say, “So we can have cheap gas in our cars.” “For freedom.” “We’re killing terrorists.” “To install our ideas of democracy.” What? Why would we kill these two little boys’ parents leaving them to survive on their own at such a young age in a neighboring country that allows them to exist here illegally while they are young. What is their future? What could justify this? Why would we do this? Why.
After the bazaar we had the unbelievable privilege to spend an English class period in a first grade classroom. Unfortunately, I was not given permission to film or photograph in so I will need to rely upon the written word exclusively for description. Photo taken outside a school.
The teacher student relationship is very different in the east than the west. The teachers here have a much more prominent role in their lives than in the west. Since they teach morals and conduct they have shared responsibility in who the child is and how they behave. In Japan, it is thought to be the teacher’s fault when a student commits suicide.
The classroom was about one fourth the size of the average American classroom. There were 5 rows of benches and tables on each side of the room with 3 students on each bench and about a two foot isle down the center. There was no room behind each bench to get in and out so if one student wanted out they had to climb over the others. Of course girls and boys have separate schools, so we are in a girls’ school. There were 30 students packed into this little room. Classes are held from 8 to noon for primary school and first graders are 7 years old.
The class is already inside when we walk in. All students jump to their feet and shout, “Welcome! Welcome! Please come in!” Now when I say shout, I really mean shout! All these little high voices in quite a powerful unison makes for quite the welcome. My girls are asked to sit with the other students so they may join the class. All the girls in the class begin asking the teacher, who they call, “teachar” if the girls can sit next to them. The teacher chooses and the girls who were chosen hugs each of my girls and scoots over so now there are 4 on two of these very narrow benches.
The lesson begins with a skit with one student outside the classroom door and she knocks. Another opens the door and the first says, “I'm home” in a low deep voice that has all the girls watching burst into laughter. The teacher joins in the laughter. Student number two says, “Daddy’s home!” with a grand gesture of her hands and the 3rd says, “Oh, he’s my daddy.” In a lilting affectionate tone. When it’s finished all the girls clap and the laughter continues. About 5 groups get a turn and the lesson moves on.
They are learning the letter K today so the teacher draws a K on the board and then a kangaroo around it. She draws a few move pictures on the board of a teeter totter – I think something to do with a K on it’s side and a few other words that begin with K. The students use blank notebooks to draw their pictures in. Each child’s picture is completely different and they are given ample time to incorporate the elements into a drawing of their choice. While the teacher was doing her drawing there was one girl who kept jumping out of her seat and coming up to the board to correct the teachers drawings. On one she added a bit of blue chalk to the top of the teeter totter and then anther time she couldn’t reach the top teeter totter picture so the teacher asked her to draw it lower on the board, which she did – adding a middle portion to the center of the teeter totter. The teacher then added it to her own drawing and said, “Like this?” the girl said, “Yes,” and sat back down. Then the teacher thanked her! The class was 45 minutes and every single student in there was completely engaged the whole time. At any given point there were at least a few girls out of their seats, there was LOTS of talking going on and tons of laughter. The teacher looked like she was having fun and enjoying herself. When she wanted to speak she tapped a book on a stool and they quieted down immediately just long enough for her to speak and then it was really loud again. They were all doing their work though.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in a variety of schools and have taught on numerous occasions in the States and I will say from my own observations of schools in the US that all of these things are rare. I’ve rarely seen teachers that look like they’re having fun. For little moments maybe but an entire class- no way! And this woman did not try to control these girls at all. She let them be. She let them be noisy and engaged and bouncing out of their seats, which keep in mind were benches with no way out of the back -only a side exit with other students in the way. They literally were climbing all over each other the whole class. These girls here in Iran with uniforms covering their bodies and hair have WAY MORE FREEDOM than girls do in American schools. In a regular public school in the US letters are taught with worksheets. There are lines that the child simply fills in letter and after letter, row after row. This is how I learned and how most American children still learn today. When watching the faces of American children doing this type of work there is rarely any joy. When the children jump out of their chairs or become noisy the teacher scolds them. When using worksheets there is no room for freedom of expression or creativity, something most Americans would pride our system in. Most Americans would judge a country like Iran as not having enough of those things. Yet, here in first grade the tables were turned. Their hair is covered, yet their creativity is loose. The ability to express themselves is allowed and their spirit is free- so much freer than the children in our institutions called schools.
Each country I’ve ever visited has certain incongruities that stand out from the rest and the one that grabbed me today was Barbie’s presence in the school. She was everywhere! On pencil cases to backpacks, shoes to jackets, Barbie was in town. But Barbie.com is a blocked website here. We went to an old garden with a small gift shop. The shop carried the poetry of Rumi and Hafez as predicted, holy pictures, postcards, music and Barbie and Disney puzzles. Oh, or I should say -non-licensed Barbie and Disney knock-offs. No trademarks, but remarkably similar. They are made here, not imported. I imagine a lawyer to have a field day here.
When we got back into the car, the girls remark at their surprise to see all the Barbie stuff. The guide asks if the girls like Barbie and they tell her, No. I then explain to her that Barbie is not allowed in the girls’ school back at home, as they attend a Waldorf school and that we do not have any Barbies in our home. She asked why not and I tell her that all licensed media are not allowed on any bags or clothing because it distracts from learning and the children are encouraged towards the natural world, rather than the materialistic at their school and they are asked to not watch TV or play computer games that interfere with that connection. I explain that I feel Barbie’s figure is too unrealistic and sexy for young girls to play with and that I prefer they play with dolls that are babies or themselves young because it keeps their play young. When young girls play with Barbie they are acting out adult behavior, not childhood or mothering behaviors. It is all about dressing nice and having boyfriends or husbands and that I don’t think it’s age appropriate. It was the first time I saw shock on her face. Again, on this particular aspect I am more morally conservative than she is and it’s surprising to us both. She knows I wear tank tops and shorts in public back at home so how could I possibly be so conservative. She knows I had henna on my pregnant belly and wore it out in public to a wedding! She knows I am traveling by myself with my two daughters so how could I possibly believe this about Barbie? And I know that she believes it is best to dress the way she does and would still dress modestly even if the government changed the law. She is a good Muslim girl and wants to marry a very good man. She is highly educated and intelligent and yet thinks Barbie is fine for girls to play with. In the end it’s all perspective and there certainly is no right answer here but it sure is fun to chew on the differences.