The class of ten students with special needs at the school in East Jerusalem was almost prosaic insofar as how typical it was. They were out of their seats, all talking at once, had gotten into paint and were sailing paper airplanes across the room.
They had broken the second broom in less than a week, had spilled ink all over the floor, and I was wondering why I had ever decided to go into special education in the first place. The lovely young teachers with whom I work were valiantly trying to teach a lesson, and I was diligently writing names on the board, as a warning.
One, two, three strikes and you are out in this ball game, in which the bases were loaded and we were clearly outnumbered.
I tried to be philosophical, supportive of my fellow teachers and grateful that we had less than a month to go before I could sleep later than 5:30 a.m. All at once, they began to chant, while gazing at an ipad that had previously been forbidden:
"Hitler! Hitler! We love Hitler!"
My equanimity vanished and my blood began to boil. Eight years of blood, sweat, and tears. Eight years of this Jewish teacher loving and serving this Palestinian population and this is the thanks I get. HITLER!?!
I swallowed hard and asked them if they knew who he was.
"Yes," they answered, gleefully. "He killed 'the Jewish' so we love him!"
Mazel tov, I said to myself. You have really made some difference in the lives of these kids.
I tried to explain that he was a very bad man and that killing people is not a good thing, as I looked at their shirts on which is written "Peace Begins with Me." They were unfazed. So, I pulled rank and I said, "You are not allowed to say that!"
Well, that went over like the proverbial lead balloon and thankfully the period and the day was over.
The next day, they started again and I told them if it continued, they would go to detention. It was rude and it was unkind. One child in particular, Hassan, who had been particularly dismissive of me, continued, so off he went.
Just before I brought him to the detention room, a fellow (Jewish) teacher said, "Oh, well, you can't really blame them. They see the Jewish soldiers oppressing them. So, it's natural for them to feel this way. You have to love your enemies."
I freaked out! Then, I coldly said, "He is not my enemy. He is my student and I do love him. This is not about the soldiers. He is a rude little boy, and he will not speak this way."
Off we went.
After we had both cooled down, I said, "Hassan, I want a letter of apology. How would you feel if someone, God forbid, had killed your family and I said, ‘I love him.’ Do you think your feelings would be hurt?"
He looked shocked and said, "Yes, Miss. I would feel very, very bad."
And I said, "That is the way I feel. Especially in this school from my very own students." He wrote a very sweet letter in which he said,
"Dear Mrs. Rittie. I am very sorry I said I love Hitler. I was joking and it was a mistake. I won't do it anymore. I hate Hitler." -Hassan.
Never mind that half the words were misspelled. I kept the note.
I felt as though I needed to follow up, so I went on the Internet and found out about Muslims who had helped Jews during World War II and wrote a little narrative in which I explained that Hitler thought the "master race" was comprised of blond, blue eyed, fair skinned people. I explained that he thought that anyone not like this was vile, inferior, and dangerous. I asked, rhetorically, how many of them had blond hair and blue eyes. Then, I told the class about two Muslim heroes who lived in Albania and Tunis and had helped the Jews. I explained how Arabs and Jews are similar and share DNA, customs, and even some names. I ended it with a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King in which he said, "We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."
I graded this test, we discussed it, and I hope the kids learned. One can only do what one can do.
But, best of all, Hassan and I are now friends! He is polite, more respectful and asks for help. He is committed to doing better in the class, and hasn't been to detention since. I actually wrote a commendation for him, so much has his behavior changed. It may be the interaction; it may be the Ritalin he was recently put on (it was either Ritalin for him or Valium for me), or it may be a combination of the two.
Tough love and Ritalin: an unbeatable combination!
And I thanked God it was almost June!