Current Occupation: Molly Gleeson works as a writing tutor at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana.
Former Occupation: I taught English overseas in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.
Contact Information: Molly Gleeson spent seven years teaching English overseas in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. She has been published in several online journals, including Way Beyond Borders, The Apeiron Review, and The Voices Project. She has also been published in a local-to-her magazine, The Ryder. Molly is working on a memoir of her time in Saudi Arabia, entitled My Heart is a Wilderness.
“Everyone who has a job needs therapy,” my younger sister said to me in a phone conversation last week. I was commiserating with her over her students she was teaching as part of an intensive English as a Second Language class in Boston. They were from Saudi Arabia, and I, too, had taught Saudi students. In Saudi Arabia. It was one of the hardest years of my life. After telling me about the students’ ridiculous excuses (“I can’t write. I had my blood taken today.”) and their technological ineptness (writing papers on their iPhones instead of a computer, none of them ever having used a flashdrive), my sister said to me, “Gosh, I can’t imagine having these kinds of students, and then living in Saudi Arabia on top of it.”
“Now you understand why I went crazy,” I said.
“I do,” she said.
I arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in early October of 2008 after spending three years in China. I had no idea what I was in for.
My classes were part of an intensive English course the students took for a year before enrolling in college. I had several groups of students, or “sections”, and each section for six or seven hours a week, a total of 20 teaching hours a week. I taught reading and writing. By the weekend (which was Thursday and Friday in the heart of Islam), we were all thoroughly sick of each other. I wish I had counted how many times I was asked if they could go to the bathroom five minutes after the break. I wish I had counted how many times I told them to be quiet.
“I feel like I’m going into battle,” I said, turning to Camille, a fellow American teacher, as our driver took us to school. She rolled her eyes in agreement.
One surly minx said, “You’re ugly,” not directly to me, but clearly she wanted me to hear it because she said it in English. I ignored her. School is the only place where girls can rebel because home life is so strict and confining. They certainly couldn’t rebel in public. Although these girls were in their late teens or early twenties, I had to learn in a very short time how to be an elementary school teacher, constantly disciplining and trying to contain the chaos. I told them that if they were late three times during the entire semester, I would start taking points off their grade, and yet many of them were late that many times in the course of two days. Then they tried pleading and making ridiculous excuses. They were such babies, I thought. These girls didn’t know anything about life. They had no responsibilities, they were spoiled and always got what they wanted, and yet their lives were so restricted and limited a small part of me felt sorry for them.
One student told me she liked the color of my eyes, and one told me I was “lovely”. They weren’t all horrible.
My students had written short essays on their personalities, and I was struck by how many of them said they worried about their anger. So for the next in class assignment, I had them write about what made them angry. I was alarmed by how many students said that they got angry when they saw a man hit a woman. I thought they must be seeing this in their homes – where else could it be? A lot of them talked about being slighted by friends or family. Some of them talked about being angry when they saw poor people. They liked writing on this topic, and I, too, felt that I had learned something about my students and about Saudi.
Once I played music as part of an exercise, a song about religion, Sami Yusef’s “My Ummah” (My People). Yusef is British and Muslim and his song was about the state of Islam today -how Muslims should come together and be “whole again” and bring back the glory of the past. I got a little choked up watching these young Muslim women thinking and talking about the song. It provoked an interesting discussion. Most of the students said Muslims don’t think about each other, they’re not united, they don’t pray enough, and women don’t “cover” enough in their dress. They chorused that it was other cultures causing problems in Islam.
I asked “What culture?’
One student said, “You.”
I laughed and asked “What’s wrong with me, Raya?”
The rest of the class very quickly interceded and said it wasn’t me, it was Western culture, that Muslims had taken the bad things from Western culture.
When I asked what Sami Yusef was saying, everyone seemed to understand except Raya. She said, “He’s saying everyone should be Muslim.” Clearly, that’s what she believed. Later in the week she brought me some books in English she wanted me to read: The Only Right Choice: Islam; Death and Eternal Life: Judgment, Paradise, Hellfire; Islam: Our Choice, and Various Aspects of the Miraculous Nature of the Holy Quran.
I teased her, “Are you worried about me Raya?”
She looked sheepish and said, “I am very happy if you are Muslim, Miss.”
I asked my students to write about the song, and even the difficult students were active participants. After I gave the assignment, they were quiet and working, and when I told them to take a break, no one moved. I went to the bathroom, and still no one had moved. At 3:35pm, I told them that if I had seen something from them and we had discussed it, they could leave. No one left. They still wanted to show me more of what they had written. I was there for another 20 minutes.
One student, Aimen, as usual, underwhelmed me with this assignment. She wrote:
I love Islam. Islam is good. Islam is the best.
I read it to the class, and everyone laughed, including Aimen. She knew that she was lazy.
“Aimen,” I pleaded, “I want more. I want MORE!.”
“Ok, miss,” she said with a smile.
For all the problems with my time in Saudi – not getting the proper residence permit, not having internet at home, constantly having to be in the company of the teachers, many of whom I disliked – I started warming to my students
In that same class, a sweet girl named Dunia said to me, “I want to go home with you and see how you live every day.” She wrote me a note before the end of the first semester:
Hi Miss Molly:
I write this letter because I want to tell you that you are a special person in my life. Thanks for you very much because I feel myself better than before in writing. You are the best miss in the college, and the much miss I loved in the college. I like very much your personality, your face always smile. I love you so much, I love you. I’ll be very angry if you’ll not teach me in the second semester. I can’t imagine the college without you ‘re teach me. I hope you’ll teach me because I want to be better and better.
She didn’t return the second semester, because she disobeyed her father by going shopping with a friend. He sent her to a girl’s madrasa, a religious school. She was so bright and so fun. What a waste, I thought to myself.
A sweet student named Aroosa once came to me to explain why she had missed so much school. Her home life was a mess; her father’s second wife was bullying and controlling, and she wasn’t permitted to live with her mother and sister in their house.
She said, “I just want to get married so I can leave.”
“I don’t think getting married will solve all your problems,” I cautioned her.
I had one student’s husband write a note to me that said “I was surprised at the low mark you gave Bdour for participation. I would appreciate it if you would change it.” Bdour told me how much she cried when her husband saw her low mark, and then said, much to my consternation, that the college was very expensive, suggesting that she was buying her grade, her teacher, or both. Teachers were viewed as just another form of servant in Saudi. I had one girl in another class snap at me to get my attention.
“What (snap) is (snap) that (snap)”, I said. She smiled weakly. “Don’t (snap) ever (snap) snap (snap) at (snap) me (snap) again (snap), “ I exclaimed. Some of this was cultural, of course, where it’s not considered rude to snap at someone to get their attention. I, however, found it very rude, and wouldn’t let my students get away with it.
I know I was hard on my students. They needed it. But to a one, I liked them and appreciated something about them: some of them were smart, some were hard workers, some were gifted writers, some were sweet, some of them were goofy, and almost all of them made me laugh. Their behavior overall was abominable, but I had hope for them.
By the second semester, what upset me in Saudi Arabia was not my students – it was everything else. Several female teachers had been fired unjustly, along with our driver. The school had not granted us our residence permits yet, and this was causing problems when we wanted to send money home. We were constantly being monitored and spied upon, both at work and at home in our shared apartment building. The women teachers were not allowed to write our own final exams; the men wrote them for us. The stress was mounting.
I felt that I was going through a “sea change”, even when there was no sea in sight. I was starting to see what an evil place I was working for, and I was starting to see the college as a microcosm of the broader society. It made me angry.
I tried to contain my anger and channeled it towards my students’ assignments. They wrote essays on the advantages and disadvantages of living in Saudi Arabia. One student wrote on the board:
There are many advantages to living in Saudi Arabia. Women are treated like queens. Moreover, you can not be on time. People in Saudi Arabia are good and kind. In addition, there are lots of places to shop. The country is very safe. I love living in Saudi Arabia!
I wanted to vomit, but all the same I thought it was a pretty good essay for such a low-level class. I thought it was interesting that she called Saudi “safe”. I had never felt less safe. All the rules in Saudi made it more dangerous than other places I had lived, because when a population is that controlled, it seems to bring out the viciousness of humanity in closeted ways. If this student knew a little more of what went on in Saudi houses, perhaps even in her own house, she wouldn’t have called Saudi “safe”.
There was one student who had studied in Geneva, and she was able to be a little less defensive. In her essay she pointed out that women can’t drive in Saudi, they can’t walk alone without a man, and that it was hard to get a job there. Both girls were very good students, but it was the willful blindness that was so pervasive in the country that I couldn’t stand.
Because friends seemed so important to them, I had my students write an essay about their friends. Misha, one of my rudest students, wrote about Akilah, “We are good people and are lovely to every person.” Misha, a petite, beautiful girl with long curly brown hair, was a little spitfire, and I think the other students were genuinely afraid of her. But her English was good – her writing even better. While I would often berate her for her behavior, I also praised her accomplishments. For Mother’s Day, I had all my students write an essay about their mothers in class. Misha wrote very carefully about her mother, and then disappeared. I read her essay aloud to the class in praise of her mother, and then thought belatedly that none of it was true. I thought it highly likely that Misha was the monster she was because nobody loved her. Misha, for all the hell she gave me, wanted me to love her. She would often unctuously proclaim, “Miss, you love me.” I would in turn make some smart-ass reply. But really, I think Misha wanted me to love her, thought it possible I could love her, because I both recognized her gifts, but was her equal in wit and repartee. I wasn’t outwardly fazed by her nastiness.
There were moments when my heart sang. I liked to teach them about poetry. I especially liked using Haiku, because they could understand how words break down in English.
My favorite Haiku was from Noorah in Section 3:
I love my father
Because he gives me money
He is a rich man
It was a perfect 5-7-5 syllable haiku, and I loved its brutal honesty. I was explaining that up until now in the class they had been learning all the rules and structures of English and writing. Poetry takes away a lot of that. They could play with poetry, with language in general, and their English was good enough to do it
I took the first two stanzas of Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, found a recording of it, and played it for them. We broke it down, and I pointed out that something he’s saying is that the human body is beautiful. It is as beautiful as the soul. All people are beautiful, all people are good. They really listened to that because, like all girls, they wanted to hear somebody tell them they are beautiful. I thought that they may have even wanted someone to tell them that they were good.
That was a good teaching day. I thought that my students frequently hated me. They laughed at me. Their judgments were vicious and personal. But sometimes I held them in the palm of my hand and I relished those few moments.
I let my students be human in a place that denied humanity in manifold ways. As for me, I was always, always far too human. I admired many things about my students, and one thing was their sense of humor. They could laugh at the ridiculous, and they could laugh at themselves. In such a hard place, laughter was a necessity. In part, it was laughter that got me through that year. Later, as my sister suggested, therapy would help me make sense of it. In the end, though, it was hope – hope for the future, hope for my students, hope for something better – that carried me through.