Between Home and School


The author with percussion teacher Hafez Kotain and their class.

When I was a student at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, I never had a teacher who looked like me. I never had teachers who didn’t speak English as a first language, and until entering the Mentally Gifted program (which no longer exists) I was never taught that I or my art were valuable. By handpicking talented artists and empathetic staff to teach this program, Al-Bustan gave these kids something I wish I had had.

My Syrian students were thrilled to know that we spoke their language and understood where they were coming from. My Spanish speaking students didn’t want to leave our class because Hafez translated everything he said in order to reinforce what they were learning. Being multilingual meant being sassed and inspired by many tongues.

I often talk about being the representation I want to see in the world. Because of Al-Bustan, I found myself teaching what felt like a class of me. I had young hijab-wearing students tell me that they wanted to match with me. Several boys played the games I grew up with but in their own words. I and a group of Arab girls looked for gelatin in our fruit snacks. Two Sudanese kids said they saw a piece of home in me. And I understand this transition. I understand their journeys because I went through them. I know what it is to learn a language that doesn’t fit right. Some of these kids have gone through what I’ve gone through, some worse. I hope that art and writing do for them what it still does for me. I hope they find the healing in it that I did. I hope it teaches them about themselves. I hope other kids get this opportunity.

When I was a student at Spruance, I didn’t have the language to explain what I was going through. I was born in Sanaa, Yemen because my family fled the conflict in Sudan. In Sanaa, and during my first visit to Darfur, I was exposed to war and cruelty that I did not understand. Not long after staring down a barrel of a gun, and watching my uncles carry our wounded neighbors home, and seeing my family wash blood out of their clothing with the same water we used to make tea, I was expected to be a good student in a classroom in Philadelphia. I became frustrated with myself when I couldn’t focus in class and couldn’t motivate myself to do schoolwork. I didn’t know I was traumatized because I didn’t know what trauma meant. I didn’t know I needed help, because I was never offered it.

When I was a student, even my compassionate teachers did not know how to accommodate students like me. Even then, I was not the only student going through something like what I was going through. Although everybody has a unique experience, there will always be students like me. I was struggling with English, and the war, and my family, and homework. Although I needed help beyond what a school could offer, I know I would have had an exponentially better experience if I had a program like Al-Bustan’s. This program was not perfect, and often, hot as hell. Even so, I know that I would have benefited from it. If I was introduced to art, music, performance, and creative writing early on, I would have been able to at least begin the process of working through my experience. If I had teachers who spoke Arabic, or at least understood the support that students who speak English as a second language really need, I wouldn’t have felt as anxious as I was in the classroom.

Kids need art because I did. Kids need representation because I still do. Kids need to learn how to express themselves because we all do. Everyone needs to know that their culture is valued. Everybody needs to know that their feelings and experiences are valid. For most of my life, including now, I’ve found myself struggling to work through the bad things and amplify the good. I’m an optimist when it comes to education reform, but only because I’ve seen what is possible when dedicated educators are given the resources they need in order to make the impact their students need from them. I’m an idealist because I’ve been a student, and a teacher, and I’m still affected by what I’ve learned from some of the students and teachers in my life.

When Hazami, the founder of Al-Bustan, first asked me to be a part of this program, I didn’t realize where it would take place or who would be a part of it. All of my students were immigrants or children of immigrants. All of my students spoke a language besides English at home. In this political climate, I can’t stress how important it is that programs like this continue to take place. Although we didn’t talk about politics in my classroom, even the existence of a class like ours could be considered political. There are still states who push to have “English Only” curriculum enforced in schools. There are still states who believe culture and identity should not be discussed in classrooms. There are still people who believe that me, and my students, do not belong in this country.

I’m grateful my family ended up in Philadelphia. This city has made me feel more welcome than any other in the States. However, I have still been made to feel unwelcome here and everywhere. Philly is where I remember being called my first racial slur, and Spruance is where I first remember being taught to hate my name and the color of my skin. As I write this, I think of how my students struggle with English the same way I did. I think of how far I’ve come even after being told I couldn’t. I don’t want my students to have the same experiences that I did, but I want them to feel the same joy that I do sometimes.

I’m still trying to understand what this month at Spruance means for me, but I hope it means just as much for my kids. I hope they’ll go back to this school and have the visceral reaction I did. I hope they stay in touch. I hope they keep playing music. I hope they write all the poems they need to. I hope they look back on this experience and think of ways to improve it. I hope they’re having a good day. I hope I was the teacher they needed. I hope they become the teachers that they needed.


Afaq Mahmoud
Poetry Teacher and Percussion Teaching Assistant



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