“Miss, are children in America like us?” The question caught me off guard. I looked at the sea of dark faces staring intently at me and paused, knowing that the subject had to be broached carefully. The last thing I wanted to do was reinforce their negative views. Influenced by the biased British media and the negative attitudes in their homes, my students had great difficulty reconciling what they thought they knew about Americans with the American that stood in front of them every day. Normal me. Neither valley girl nor warmonger, I was beyond perplexing.
A year earlier, living naively in the shadow of Notre Dame’s campus, I had imagined that my sixth-grade students in London would have milky-pale skin, dress in plaid uniforms and speak with upper-class accents—the Harry Potter gang. I was a little off; 95 percent of my students at my state (public) school in east London were ethnic minorities. I’m not sure where they were hiding that 5 percent majority. Indeed, the only milky-pale skin in that classroom was my own. All my students were either born in Bangladesh or were the children of Bangladeshi parents; all but one were Muslim.
Are the children in America like you, I thought, scanning the class. No. Most of these girls wore head scarves to show their modesty, their lunches contained Indian delicacies I had neither tasted nor heard of, and they jabbered in English and Bengali without realizing they were mixing the languages.
Their differences, and my ignorance, brought unexpected challenges that would never have arisen in an American classroom. A portrait assignment in art class produced 30 drawings with Xs instead of eyes. Drawing a face with eyes, I was later informed, was Islamic taboo.
But I soon learned that even in their differences these children were not different at all. The boys loved all things football (American soccer). Before school, recess, lunch time, after school—their days were a series of competitive matches broken up by educational interludes. They worshiped the sport’s heroes like my American students had revered Michael Jordan.
Similarly, a papier-mache project screeched to a halt when the handsome face of a male celebrity was nearly slathered in glue and pasted to a balloon. My girls rescued the precious image of Abhishek Bachchan, heartthrob of Indian cinema. The picture was carefully clipped and taped to the front of a notebook, reminding me of the Justin Timberlake photos that adorned some of my American pupils’ books.
Not all similarities were so endearing. Indeed, their misconceptions about each other were the most disheartening to me. Following the attacks of September 11th, a white student in my U.S. classroom had suggested, “We should take all the Arabs and put them in one place so we can keep an eye on them.” I reminded myself that this child did not come up with a such an idea on his own.
I remembered this incident a year later when a British Muslim child commented, “Osama bin Laden didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just an old man. What could he do to hurt anybody?” Wanting to cite his videotape confession and continued threats on America, I bit my tongue and ended the appalling discussion promptly. Children, I realized sadly, spout the ignorance of their parents on both sides of the ocean, regardless of religion.
I also wondered how the British public, regardless of age, race or religion, could have any feelings but ill towards Americans. The underlying theme of all the recent media coverage was that we were bloodthirsty, arrogant and self-obsessed. Could I blame my students for their bias? Truthfully, no. There was no reason for them not to believe what they saw daily on the news and what their parents firmly believed: Americans hated them.
Thank goodness the U.S. press isn’t so terribly biased, I thought. Then I thought again. As a resident of South Bend, Indiana, I had seen only one type of Muslim: the militant fundamentalist on the news, swearing vengeance on all Americans in his videotaped suicide message. Of course I knew all Muslims were not like this. I just didn’t know any personally. How could children, then, believe anything but this negative image? Muslims hated them.
Standing in front of my class that day in London, I wondered if I had the power to reverse this mutual animosity. If only they could see how similar they were, I thought. I wanted to hold up a mirror and show them exactly what American children were like. How they failed tests, got crushes, broke legs, passed notes, told jokes.
“Yes,” I answered, staring directly at my inquisitive students. “American children are a lot like you are.” Ignoring their dubious expressions, I proceeded to tell them. And as I spoke, I prayed that they would believe me.
Jessica Low Martinez lives in Miami, Florida, where she is a professional violinist and freelance writer.