This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
I arrived in Ramallah in the summer of 1986, eager to find a way to deepen my understanding and strengthen my commitment to (and activism for) peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. Little did I know that I would soon witness a momentous milestone in Palestinian history – namely, the popular uprising or first intifada. I was fortunate to be hired that summer as a volunteer teacher at the Friends Schools in Ramallah where I had the privilege to teach boys of all ages; often times without the privilege of textbooks or curriculum. Thanks to my good liberal arts training in the US and being a child of teachers myself, I was able to be somewhat knowledgeable on many topics and could be creative in capturing the imaginations of my students. In my art classes, boys used to feel daring when they painted in the then-outlawed colors of the Palestinian flag, and in social studies they loved learning about different cultures, religions, and how people were able to solve conflicts.
A Palestinian woman flashes the V-signs, January 8, 1988 in
Gaza, while facing barbed wire of the Ansar II prison camp.
(Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
Many of my students were Palestinian-American kids who were coping with identity issues and missing the comforts of shopping malls and sports teams to cheer for in the US. But the first intifada that began in December 1987 shook them all up. All of a sudden, clandestine drawings of Palestinian flags in your backpack may mean that at the checkpoint, you could be beaten or arrested by Israeli soldiers. And some of my students were. Lectures on the value of peace treaties were marred by shots of tear gas entering the school compound. School tardiness became routine due to roadblocks or nervous parents navigating crowded Ramallah traffic, insisting on driving their kids to school to keep them away from harm.
One day I remember particularly clearly, as it was a day when I realized that the greatest “educating” happening in school did not come from me, but from my students. Khaled was a sweet boy in my fourth grade social studies class. I had his older brothers in classes too and he always brought me cheerful stories about life in his village. One day he arrived late to class, carrying a heavy backpack that really made it look like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. When he arrived he would not look at me, staring instead at the floor. I asked him why he was late and his response was, “They raided our village last night.” The room went silent. Khaled sat at his desk, not removing his backpack. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I responded and began to refocus the class on the social studies lesson. A few minutes later, Khaled interrupted saying, “There was just so much blood. Blood was everywhere.” I learned later that a young man was shot in his village and bled to death in his kitchen. “I’m sorry Khaled,” I think I meekly responded as the class again went silent. “I think I’m going to kill myself,” Khaled said after another long pause.
At that moment, while my heart was racing trying to think of what the appropriate response would be from me as his teacher, another boy in our classroom, Muhammad, stood up quickly and said, “What is wrong with you Khaled? If you die, the Israelis have won! Killing yourself means they win and we lose. We will win if we stay in school, stay on our land, and build our country. That’s what this intifada is about – it is about us showing we are stronger than the occupation. You need to live Khaled.”
Mohammed’s classmates began cheering and Khaled slowly took off his backpack. I think maybe I tried to connect that moment to something that we were studying that day, but honestly all I remember is that the best comfort to Khaled was his classmate. And I witnessed, from our fourth grade social studies classroom, the lesson of sumoud or steadfastness yet again being passed onto another generation of Palestinians.