I was 21 years old in 1997 when I first returned to Lebanon. Like most Lebanese families during the internationalized civil war (1976-1989), my parents migrated to Greece where I was raised shortly after I was born in Beirut. When the war in Lebanon erupted my parents did not want their children to go through the ordeal they had experienced with war, occupation and displacement when they were growing up in Haifa, Palestine and had been dispossessed from their land like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 (who still to this day are not allowed to return). Therefore, when the opportunity arose for the family to migrate to Europe my parents seized it. I had known nothing about what it meant to live in a conflict-affected society and took for granted the blessing of growing up in a stable and peaceful country like Greece.
After graduating with my BA in the US, I decided to visit Lebanon with my parents and wanted to study Arabic for the first time. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after my Liberal Arts and psychology degree but was ready for the next chapter of my life. One evening at a dinner in Beirut my parents introduced me to friends of friends one of whom was a principal of a school. During our encounter, this principal mentioned to me that he was desperately looking for an English teacher to teach the last three years of high school. I said ‘yes sure why not’ though felt daunted by the challenge as I knew little about teaching students or about life in Lebanon. When I first encountered the grade 12 class, they outright rejected my presence and the formal curriculum I was attempting to apply. My naïve desire to share my love of learning was squashed by their full rebellion. One bright-eyed female student stood up pointing at me and said with full confidence, “the last four teachers quit and your next!” The class cheered her on even after expelling her from class. Shaken by such student defiance, I met with the principal afterwards who told me not to expect much from them because they were unteachable anyways and rude teenagers. He suggested that it would be sufficient to merely keep the peace in class (i.e. baby sit them) until the end of the year. Rejecting this as a possibility, week after week I struggled to teach the students within what became a hostile environment with continuous power struggles between us. After a month I had three choices: quit this class, keep fighting back, or do something radical – Listen.
I decided to throw out all my preconceptions about these students and about classroom teaching, and rather spend time asking about their lives and listening without judgment to their frustrations, their sense of being trapped in Lebanon’s unresolved tensions, fragmented society and bleak future, the impact of the war on their families, and their disgust at the hypocrisy of political and religious leaders. They also shared with me that last year their beloved English teacher had been unexpectedly killed. Devastated by this tragedy, they lashed out at whoever tried to take his place while they silently grieved. They had opened my perception and my heart to connect with them as human beings.
Moved by their emotional honesty, vulnerability and strength, I decided to throw out the UK based curriculum because I realized it was irrelevant to their lives. Instead I turned the class into a creative writing class focusing initially on brilliant Arab and Lebanese authors whom they had never read before. We explored the beautiful Lebanese-American writer, Khalil Gibran, and discussed his mystical book, The Prophet:
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
We reflected on relationships between parents and children, and the families we are born into and the ones we choose to consciously create in our life. The students also expressed repeatedly the shocking hypocrisies they observed in Lebanon from politics, to religion to social norms that held the population captive in limbo. Expressing such hypocrisies is the elegant Khalil Gibran in his political article, ‘The New Frontier’ written in 1925 which we read and discussed together:
“Are you one of those coming into the light or one going into the darkness? Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a fervent one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert…. Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil? Or are you a spiritual man who sees in the soul of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation?… Are you a husband who allows for himself what he disallows for his wife?…”
Impassioned by Gibran’s challenge to the different members of society, the students shared with such enthusiasm what was beautiful about Lebanon and how to appreciate our cultural treasures in particular hospitality and generosity. The students came alive with hope and inspiration as we discovered the power of one’s voice. They blossomed as writers, philosophers, artists, journalists and initiators of change during the year. We honored the deep wounds of a war torn country that we were all carrying consciously and unconsciously and started to heal together. Whereas education is often reduced to merely passing exams and getting degrees, here education was about coming together to share, grow and evolve as human beings.
My first year teaching in Lebanon had enabled me to discover my passionate calling as an educator where I decided to devote the next fifteen years of my life to improving education. Little did I realize that in twenty years time in 2017, I would redefine what education meant to me – that is the knowledge of self as extension of a greater whole. My passion for a more meaningful education led me to create my eight-week personal development program, Reveal your Authentic Self.
Sign up here to receive my latest blog posts directly in your inbox.