28 January 2013

An Autobiography (Memoir?) of My Learning

As cliché as it may seem, love is the theme of my life.  Ultimately, it is love that drives my learning, my educating, everything about me.


I believe in a love for which English has no specific word.  A love the Greeks called agape and the Hebrews called khesed.  This love is, unconditional, self-sacrificing, non-judgmental, observant, active, volitional, thoughtful.  It is a love as inclusive and as comprehensive as the 99 names of God in Islam: compassionate, affirming, emancipating, defending, sublime, nourishing, perceiving.

Love of stories:

I am the child of educators, so I have always been a good reader.  From birth, my parents took turns reading books to me every night before bed, and I learned to read before I went to school.  Until high school, I lived more in the world of my books than I lived in the real world.  The only time I truly engaged in my life was when I was traveling (I traveled abroad for the first time when I was 8 and have been addicted to it ever since) because then it felt like I was creating a story worth reading of my life.

Predictably, I excelled in literature, history, music, and languages in school because of the stories involved.  I first learned to love music because of the stories my middle school band teacher told about trips the high school band took to Russia.  I first learned the story of the marginalized reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in Honors US History.  I first learned that I had the capacity to analyze others’ stories writing research papers on Beloved, Heart of Darkness, and Hamlet in my senior year of high school.  I first learned how good I was at languages by learning Spanish through the stories of Latin American writers like Ernesto Sábato, Carlos Fuentes, and Garbriel García Marquez.

Love of Social Justice:

At 18, on a whim, I decided to apply to a Jesuit college because of hazily-remembered stories of a former camp counselor about her glory days there.  It was a happy accident, because this Jesuit college forced me out of my privileged white suburban world.  My learning and my life finally moved out of a book.  At Jesuit colleges, students have to take courses in philosophy and theology.  This requirement proved to be the proverbial pebble in the pond, and its ripples spread outward, affecting the rest of my college career.  I took a Liberation Theology course, and learned the ideals of the social justice movements and “saving the world” (for better or for worse).  I learned how the US medical system had failed mental health patients through volunteering at a suicide hotline.  I learned about Europe and Africa and the injustices of “multiculturalism” by studying abroad in Spain with a woman who had a Guinean clean her house and a Moroccan do her shopping.

This love of social justice solidified, however, when I learned about what it really means to come to the United States sin papeles, by participating an immersion trip that followed the reverse path of Central American immigrants into Nogales, Arizona.  By the time our group of 10 students arrived in the town of Agua Prieta, where the immigrants come to hire coyotes to take them across the border, we had become quasi-experts on the issue of immigration in the American Southwest.  As I was listening to a 23-year-old husband explain why he had risked his life to come this far from Guatemala to earn a living for his family, I realized I knew what he was going to face (extreme weather, drug traffickers, exploitation, vicious US Border Guards, and a society, in general, that saw him as less-than-human) better than he did.  It was that crushing realization that I could do nothing to right the injustices he was going to face that still drives me to seek justice for those I might be able to help.

Love of Morocco:

While studying abroad in Spain, I spent 4 days in Morocco, and, on November 1, 2005, while watching the sunrise in a white and blue mountain town, I fell in love with Morocco.  I became a volunteer because of the idealism and social justice I had learned at my Jesuit college, but I chose Morocco because of that sunrise.

In Morocco, I was loved by two families.  The love of the Aajaj family (I became their sixth daughter for two idyllic months of pre-service training) helped me learn and excel in Moroccan Arabic.  In my final volunteer placement, I lived with a poor illiterate Berber woman named Fatima.  We could not have been more different, but, needing a friend to lean on, I opened up to her.  We sat on her couch for hours, listening to each other, sharing our stories, and because of this time we spent together, I not only developed a Berber accent in my Arabic, but I also found a best friend for life.

While I was a volunteer, I also gave myself a six-month crash course in Islam and the Arab civilizations.  I devoured books borrowed from the volunteer library because of my love for Moroccans and my desire to understand them and their worldview.  I know that I am more well-versed in these subjects than anything I’d studied before because I learned it due to my own passion.

After my 27th and final month as a volunteer, I took a job in the capital of Morocco.  Thus began my first real foray into the world of education by (what else!) sharing my second home and first true love, Morocco, with Americans.  I wanted them to know the stories of my life as an outsider in a homogeneous country so that they could go home and find ways to help those who, in our home country, were the outsiders.  Moreover, I wanted them to know the stories of my Moroccan families so that they could go home and see that 24 and Fox News and Rules of Engagement in no way depicted the lives and passions of the real Muslims who had become my family.

The Next Love?

After 4 years in Morocco, I decided it was time to take all my love: for stories, social justice, and Morocco (and the Arab world) and learn how to do something productive with it.  That’s why you find me at this Ivy grad school, studying intercultural communication, and that’s why you (unsurprisingly) find me in this course now.  I hope that in this course I will be able to learn – through practical experience – a very specific skill set – understanding and designing curriculum – that I can use in any future job to do something practical and useful to tell a story, right a social injustice, or help Morocco.

“What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.  It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.  Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”  (Pedro Arrupe, S.J.)

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