The last weeks were bad weeks for all of us who believe in peace and coexistence. Hell, it’s been a bad year so far. There was the terrorist attack in Tunisia and new reports of young people from Europe being groomed to join IS. A new IS member highlighted in the Swedish news supposedly comes from the projects in Malmö in Sweden, where I once worked as a substitute teacher. Maybe he is one of my former students?
Even though my teaching job was several years ago, I remember my students well and still run in to them downtown sometimes. Unfortunately very few of them have been able to break the cycle of poverty and alienation. I know some of the boys I used to teach are now in jail, and the girls, now young women, I often see pushing strollers outside the discount store, married early and on welfare. And now we are starting to loose some of our young ones to the terror machine of IS. If the new Swedish recruit is one of my former students, this would be almost unbearable to know.
But then last week something happened in my own life, something surprising, that turned things around. Since it’s been a bad year for most of us believers this year, I decided to share the story with you.
On the evening train a young woman sat herself opposite of me. A classy girl, one of those I always envy: nice jacket, glossy hair, carrying a trendy, cream-colored bag full of books and papers. She kept peeking at me from her side of the small table. Suddenly she spoke to me, asked something about a school.
“What?” I unplugged my headphones.
“Were you a teacher in… (the school were I used to teach)?”
“Yeah, I was”, I answered, surprised. “Why?”
“You were my teacher.”
When she said her name, I couldn’t believe it. Was this really she, the young and angry girl that had once been one of my students? I remembered her well: a girl that had possessed the mix of sharp intelligence and inability to make use of her talent. She had confidence, I remember how she in an essay called “My Dream Job” wrote that she wanted to be the Prime Minister of Sweden, whilst other girls wrote that they wanted to marry a football player. But most of her energy she put into fighting with other students and bullying teachers, instead of her schoolwork.
We leaned over the small table between us and hugged. I asked where she was going on the train.
“I’ve been to uni, I commute.”
“You’re at university?”
“Yeah, I study engineering, first year.”
Within seconds, words spilled out. She was studying a bachelor’s engineering program in another city. It was long hours and hard work but she really liked it. After junior high school where I had taught her, she had wanted to get away from the projects and applied to a new high school in the other end of the city. She had coerced her mom to sign the school application.
“My mom didn’t realize why it was better there. You know, she didn’t go to school herself.”
The daughter of uneducated refugees from Kurdistan, she had started a school where everyone else had well-off parents. She had to study more than full time in order to keep up with the other students. Her grammar, vocabulary, everything had been at a much lower level than her peers’. It had been three years of tears and hard studying, and from her family she couldn’t receive any help, but she didn’t cave in. When graduating high school she had the grades to enter university. She stilled lived with her family in the projects, they hadn’t been able to move out, but she wasn’t in touch with anyone of her old classmates. When I asked about the kids that had been in her class – I was curious to know about them – she didn’t know.
“But what about Mohammed?” (one of her best friends, not his real name)
“I stopped hanging out with all of them. They drained me on my energy. Most of them didn’t finish high school and… I wanted to move on with my life.”
We spoke of politics and she delivered her own opinion about IS and the women’s rights situation in Kurdistan. She asked about me and I said where I have been working – she was thrilled to hear I have been working in Kurdistan. She told of her own plans for the future:
“I might go for a master directly after my program. As a women they’ll always regard me as less than men in this business, you know what engineering is like, so I need to have twice the competence of the men who apply for the same jobs.”
When the train stopped and we went off, she hugged me and wished me good luck for the future. Soon she had disappeared in the early darkness of the March evening, I watched her bouncy ponytail as she disappeared. She, the girl with so little chances who had made it so far, had wished me good luck for the future. It used to be the other way around.
Of course I didn’t tell her, but that evening, she was my light in the global darkness. No matter how far IS will advance, or where European terrorists will strike next time, my former student will still be my light, a hope to hang on to. One million dollars couldn’t beat that feeling.