Imagine a classroom with children of 13-14 years old. Some and of them are of Turkish, most of them of Moroccan origin. There’s not one pupil with blue eyes, blond hair and a Dutch family name.
I’m their teacher.
Today, this afternoon, I would like to share two little stories with you. I’ll use them to illustrate my message, which is that children in certain areas in cities like Amsterdam need the best teachers and schools possible, the best education possible.
Because it’s their only way out.
Ouassima says she needs to talk to me. In private. And no, it’s not possible to just whisper to me what she has to say. It’s top secret. So we step outside.
Her smile is tiny and twitchy. Big brown restless eyes, black curls swaying with every move of her head.
“Yesterday, just as I was about to start doing my homework, my father came home. He had just finished work. He’s a driving instructor, you know. All of a sudden we heard sounds outside like fireworks going off. When we took a look, my father’s car -parked just in front of our house- was on fire! The fire brigade arrived, and the police. There were lots of people in our street. Afterwards my parents had to go to the police station to report what had happened. And I had to babysit my little brother who cries soooo much. Anyway… my parents didn’t get home until 10 o’clock and by then it was too late, so I haven’t done my homework.”
“That’s quite a story” is all I can say.
And then I ask if they know who did this.
“’No, we don’t. It’s so weird Miss, when you look through the window now, you don’t see a car anymore. Only black, burnt rubbish with burnt chairs standing in the middle of it. My mother will, by the way, try to write you a letter if you want her to, to prove it’s all true. Her writing isn’t very good, you know…”
“That won’t be necessary. I believe you. What a story…”
“Yeah…” she sighs, “and I got into an argument with my mother because I was giggling all the time and she got upset with me and told me to stop, but I couldn’t.”
“I suppose you were pretty nervous, weren’t you?”
She nods and looks me straight in the eye.
Later that day I remember all the well written letters I received at my former school, not even very far from the one I’m working at now. In beautiful Dutch sentences, perfect spelling, faultless grammar, it was –almost poetically- explained to me why Jorinde or Pepijn hadn’t finished their homework. Usually the family’s pet had suddenly passed away, which had caused everyone to be extremely upset and in full mourning. The importance of school had disappeared completely…
Letters from a different world. Letters from a different planet.
About a month or two after this, I get a phone call from my brother. I’m at school, just about to start a new class.
My mother has been taken to hospital. Apparently her last chemo has weakened her. We know she has an incurable aggressive form of lung cancer.
It’s Friday afternoon. The school is buzzing with the vibes of the approaching weekend, I am quite tired and now anxious as well. What is the wise thing to do? Stay on, perform my duty and give some more classes? Or leave immediately to get to my mother as soon as possible?
In class, it is as if my pupils sense something is wrong.
“Are you okay Miss?” someone yells a little bit obnoxious from the back of the classroom.
Everyone really hopes I’ll say yes, because they need me to be all right, since they’ve got so much trouble in their own lives already. Even though they are still so young.
I decide to be frank with them, because my phone can ring again any moment and I’m not my usual self and they need to understand.
So I explain the situation: my mother, cancer, chemo, hospital, lethal. At first it’s completely silent. Then the humdrum starts.
“It’s your mother Miss; you must go to her, right now!”
“She needs surgery; they have to take the cancer out!”
“If my mother dies, I want to die too, woelah!”
I explain that for me it’s different, because I’m an adult with my own life and my own family. I don’t need my mother anymore, not like they do. I’ve learned to take responsibilities: eating healthy, getting enough sleep and coming to work in time.
I end with a big smile, saying “All those things you are still learning.”
We all chuckle and then there’s not much left to say. It’s comforting in a way to be silent like this together, even if it’s just for one minute.
“Maybe we should make something for your mother? Something nice and pretty?”
It’s Hamza. Of course it’s Hamza.
Hamza is a big Turkish boy who always sweats, because he wears this multicoloured polyester jacket and is at least 20 kilos overweight. He loves making jokes and can’t seem to stop himself disrupting class with his funny remarks. He’s made me crack up with laughter many times.
But now his voice is different, he’s got a serious glow over his face.
“Our next class is Arts,” Ouassima says “I’m sure the teacher will be okay with it”.
Everyone’s relieved, it seems: they really like the prospect of being able to DO something about the situation.
Next Monday morning I run into Hamza in the big hallway.
“How’s your mother doing now, Miss Mischke? And how are you?”
His head at an angle, his eyes into mine, his voice friendly, his hand very softly and protective on my shoulder.
I tell him my mother is still in hospital, but feeling much better and that I visited her with my children. Hamza nods understandingly and calls out to his class mates who are standing a little further down.
Within a few minutes I find myself surrounded by some ten eagerly moving pupils who have given me a folder filled with handmade cards with drawings and wishes for my mother. They want me to take a look at them right there and then and give my comments. On one of the cards I see a big crying eye above a bucket that is already running over. There are beautiful flowers, butterflies and lots lots lots of little hearts with greetings, wishes and love.
And I read a text: “Mrs. Mischke, forget about the negative and focus on the positive.”
For a while we stand there together in a little flock of warmth and lovingness.
All children deserve the best schools and the best teachers and the best education.
The children in the Amsterdam area where I work NEED the best schools and the best teachers and the best education. Because it’s their only way out.
Thank you so much.