Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Halleluja. Praise Allah. Amen

Whenever I substitute for one of the teachers, I have the chance to experience how it is to teach these children at this school, and I tell you it is no easy job. The lack of walls between classrooms means that when a neighboring class is singing, you either stick to singing yourself or yell yourself hoarse. It is hot; a good third of the class has no writing implement or at least none that works properly; there are not enough colored pencils to go around, and all the pencils there are need sharpening desperately, but there is nothing more than a razor blade one of the children has brought from home and my own Swiss army knife to do the job. This morning I had exactly four blisters on my hands at the end of the main lesson with Class IV.

It is also not entirely unpleasant, however. Take for example the morning singing. This morning I substituted for Mr. Conteh in Class IV so he could take over Class III for Mrs. Taylor, who had an eye doctor's appointment. I asked Cecilia, a smiling girl in the front row, to lead the morning prayer, which she began with a very popular song:

Tell Papa God, say tank ye
Tell Papa God tank ye
Tell Papa God, say tank ye
Tell Papa God tank ye
What e do for we
We go tell e tank ye
What he do for we
We go tell e tank ye.

So go the very straightforward and repetitive lyrics, but the song in the mouths of these children carries tremendous energy. When it gets going, the class transforms into a Christian revival. Kids sway with their eyes closed and their hands in the air. One boy calls out a verse, and the rest echo him. Later in the song, a girl takes the lead. Still later another boy calls out a verse and receives his due response. Everyone is clapping vigorously, and many have left their spots to dance in the aisles. I sing along, clapping and grinning at this event I have had no hand in creating, despite standing at the front of the room. My smile blends with the general mirth and makes no one self-conscious. One song becomes another, but the rhythm stays the same, and it is not until they are a few verses into it that I realize the children are no longer thanking God, but are telling Satan to stay away. The whole thing is finished off when Cecilia tells the class to close their eyes for the Lord's Prayer and follows up with a prayer in Arabic to Allah.

What might strike many as a strange, even haphazard, approach to invoking a reverent mood among children of different religions, is typical of Goderich, where I have met as many Christian converts to Islam as Muslim converts to Christianity, and many people celebrate both Ramadan and Christmas in their homes. No one at the school, or from what I've seen in Goderich, seems to be fundamentalist about Islam - I've seen only a few headscarves on local women, for instance, and none fully covered - though the brand of Christianity most common is strongly evangelical, complete with slick-dressing pastors who love to invoke the holy ghost spirit, often speaking in tongues, over headache-inducing PA systems. Many households are in fact both Christian and Muslim, so for the children at the Goderich Waldorf School, what to me is an amusing mix of these often incompatible versions of two great religions, is simply the way of the world.

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