Thursday, September 16, 2021

Responsibility and Empathy


How did you observe this year’s 9/11 anniversary?

Did you ever wonder how Muslim Americans observe it?

This press release from CAIR stopped me in my tracks.

CAIR condemns 9/11 related bullying of Maryland Muslim student, calls of Howard County Schools Superintendent, Board to investigate and take appropriate action 


The family tells CAIR the incident was prompted by a lesson on 9/11 when the fifth grade student, who was wearing a Muslim prayer cap, was instructed by his teacher to explain to the class “who was behind the attacks.” They say that after he attempted to describe the attackers as “Saudi nationals,” students in the class started mocking and ridiculing him and chanting “you’re Muslim like them.” 

In response to inquiries about this story,  Board of Education President Chao Wu shared a memo sent by Superintendent Martirano written to members of the Board. Since he shared it in a private group I don’t feel comfortable passing it along without his permission. I double-checked his (Dr. Wu) public-facing social media accounts and he doesn’t mention the episode at all. A brief synopsis of the memo might be that the family didn’t follow the proper HCPSS channels to report, CAIR didn’t contact the school system before publishing the release,  and that the school system believes there are inconsistencies in the family’s story. 


The memo is thorough but the one thing it is not is sympathetic. I’m puzzled by this, but I guess we have to wait to see how this plays out. I have a hard time understanding why any Muslim student would want to draw attention to themselves by falsifying a story like this. 9/11 is an extremely difficult day to be a Muslim in this country. Why would anyone take a risk to point a big arrow at themselves without a good reason?

In America white Christians are never put on the spot to answer for the entire ‘white race’ or for their religion. No one has ever demanded of me why my people enslaved Africans, or why my Christians have committed all sorts of atrocities in the name of faith. Yet these things are asked of those we deem “other” all the time. If you can imagine someone using the term “you people” about a non-white or non-Christian person (or persons) then those are the people who are targeted for such questions.

People feel comfortable asking these questions and singling out people who are different, who are marginalized in our culture. They would be dumbfounded if the tables were turned. Why is that? Why do we ask such ridiculous questions and why do we think we are exempt?

Even though I have never experienced being put on the spot in this way, as a teacher I have no doubt that being treated in this way is detrimental to a student’s learning environment. You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. As I have said here in the past about the effects of school policing on Black and Brown students, or the punitive treatment of young women and girls through sexist dress codes, we have a responsibility to create safe and healthy learning environment for all students.

Not just those that we deem to be the “typical” student, or the students we feel comfortable with or naturally empathize with. 

All of them.

To be clear, a memo between a Superintendent and a Board of Education is very likely to be all business, just the facts as we know them, a “let me bring you up to speed” sort of document. I look forward to a public statement from Dr. Martirano that contains the kind of empathy and insight for which he is known. In my own opinion a touch of humility, taking responsibility, and a believable commitment to do better would not be amiss.

Stay tuned.

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