“Ms. Ali, what’s that thing you’re wearing on your head?”
Twenty-four little faces, all directed at my headscarf, anxiously wait for my answer. It’s the question that every single one of my students ask, usually within hours of meeting me on the first day of school.
“Um… it’s just something I wear for cultural reasons.”
For the past six years, that’s usually the answer I mutter to my third graders and then quickly change the subject.
This school year, however, my response will be different.
This year, I will share the whole and complete truth with my students. I will tell them that I do not wear my Islamic headscarf for cultural reasons. I wear it because it’s a requirement that I believe is set upon me as a practicing Muslim.
Yet, I struggle so much to share my truth.
I worry that my students won’t understand. I worry they’ll get upset. Or, their parents will get upset. This runs through my mind every year. I know it’s inevitable that the dreaded question is coming—usually during the first week of school.
The first week of school . . .when bright, new faces look upon me with such hope and anticipation. The week when parents trust their babies to me. Those parents want me to love their kids and make my classroom a home away from home. The first week is when I spend an endless amount of time getting to know students, hoping that they’ll open up and allow me to reach them.
How can I expect them to open up if I refuse to make myself vulnerable too?
How can I understand their truths if I refuse to share mine? Teaching is no ordinary profession. It’s based on love and respect. I’ve realized that I cannot earn their respect unless I’m honest with them from the start.
I have a new set of third graders this school year. They’re ready to get to know me—the person who’ll share their lives for the next year. We’ll all feel those first day jitters as we meet for the first time. They’ll have a million questions for me and I’ll answer all of them as accurately and honestly as I can.
And, when they ask about my headscarf?
I’ll respond with a smile on my face. I’ll tell them the truth. I wear a headscarf because I’m a Muslim. And, being a Muslim is something that makes me feel unique and special.
I hope they’ll realize that I swallowed my fear to bravely share my truth. And, when I ask them to share, “What makes you unique and special?’, I hope they’ll do the same in return.