Before School Begins

The initial impression was, of course,  the interview process.  After our second interview we knew we would take an offer if it was given to us because we were impressed. The school was very transparent with us regarding living circumstances and life-style in Saudi Arabia. So, if anything, things were made to be worse than they actually are (i.e. the housing---details in another post). 

The next first impression was of the visa processing journey. The school was communicative and clearly doing everything possible to get us through the process and to Saudi Arabia. After my husband's trip to KSA to process my visa and his return to the US to pick us up, we finally arrived on September 20, a month after school had started.

Members of the welcoming committee have gone out of their way in helping us get settled. Sheets are on the bed and food is in the fridge. Rides are arranged to stores and souks for gathering supplies. Phone numbers and countless small details are handed to us to aid in adjusting quickly. Even a glorious trip to the beach has been arranged.

I arrived during the Hajj break. So, I was met by an empty classroom the first time I went to the school. A run-down room without students is just a run-down room. A small sense of sadness wells within me. Suddenly I miss my last school. And thoughts and memories of my former students flood through my mind. “Will these students also find a way into my heart?” I wonder. “What if they don’t?” I worry.

In preparing the room a small sense of excitement begins to appear. The tables are in place, the whiteboards ready to go, and my desk organised. But the packed cabinets will have to wait (there are many interesting things in there to explore. It’s definitely going to be a treasure hunt). Anticipation of students is present.

My First Week (the King extends the Hajj break in a last minute decision so the first week is only 4 days).

First of all, lots of beards. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of fully bearded students (and faculty).

“Hi Dr. Markham!” rings through my ears as I walk through the hallway. How do they know me? I return the greetings and make my way to the classroom. All morning students pop their heads in to welcome me. “Which class do I have you in?” “Oh, I don’t have you but I just wanted to meet you and welcome you to the school!”

It’s a treat to have the students so eager to meet and welcome me. Others come in with tales of “the substitute” and how “she didn’t have us do ANYTHING” as if to prepare me for their lack of progress in my absence. 

Their greetings warm my heart and their excuses make me smile. Many come from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other areas of the Middle East. Even those who were born or raised in the U.S.A. have arabic origins and present with names like Abdul, Omar or Mohamed. 

They are typical, delightful teenagers and it is clear, they will work their way into my heart! They are why I am here. They are what will give me purpose and satisfaction. Rapidly my classroom fills with life and energy.

We are on a rotating block schedule so I see each class every other day. Thus, the first two days are filled with trying to calm the chaos of my absence, sorting assignments, learning names, and establishing rapport. You’d think it would be easy to recognise and learn the names of the few non-middle eastern students but I still struggle to differentiate Joshua, Justin, and Jason. 

How quickly beards and scarves become the norm. Very few wear the abaya in school but many students and teachers wear head-covering. I have a colleague who compiles stunning color combinations of scarves and clothing. I worry that she’ll catch me staring but I am entranced with her elegance.

It's so busy that there isn't much time with my science colleagues. However, it is apparent that our one lab room is overbooked. So, to reduce stress in our department and on our lab assistant, I create a "mobile lab" with a funky cart found tucked away in the chemical store room. I'm proud of this gem that will allow me more flexibility in doing lab work with the students.

It’s so strange to have had 6 weeks of communication with students but to still not know them. It’s unsettling and leaves me feeling a bit out of sorts and fiercely missing my old school and my former colleagues.

However, during days 3 and 4, faces and names are becoming familiar. Personalities and learning styles are emerging. During an introductory lab my groove begins to appear. And there it is, the warmth. That creeping into the heart. My love for these teenagers is beginning to blossom. And as the the weekend approaches, I am looking forward to a new week.