Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Afternoon with the Freedom Writers

I finally found the opportunity to watch The Freedom Writers this afternoon. The first time I watched it was I think a year ago at the college, but I didn’t get to digest it due to the group of restless students who didn’t make any good effort to understand the whole story. Upset with the lack of efforts by these students I left the hall halfway through the movie. I was so caught up with my frustration that I forgot all about the movie.

The passion and enthusiasm shown by Erin Gruwell played by Hillary Swank in the movie really inspires me as an educator. Are there any more teachers like Ms Gruwell that would do the extra mile for her students? Personally, I would love to be able to do what she did for the students and to inspire them to want more than what they have been handed with in their life, to encourage them to dream and have hopes in their lives and to be someone, somebody great.

I have always loved reading and when I came here to work at the college and was required to teach reading classes I was dumbfounded for I had been telling my other half that I wanted to teach people to read, to love reading to make reading their priorities, because reading had been my savior when I was growing up. Now, it was handed to me and I was given a free hand in how to handle the class. Allah is Great.

However, in real life, it is not easy to instill the habit of reading in people because first of all one needs to have the thirst for knowledge and the realization that the knowledge that one has is still not enough. I had a firsthand experience of this hard truth with my own students. No matter how frequent and diligent I told them to read a book, they still do not understand the importance of reading in their lives. Some did get inspired but many of them are still ignorant of the benefits of reading. They are too caught up with life as a young adult, dealing with the anxieties of being away from the comforts of their own families and kampongs, too busy with living the new life that they don’t pay much attention to the reason why their parents forked out their life savings for them to be here at the college. It’s a sad truth that I have to face each day, and I take it upon me that this if where I fail as an educator.

Facing this hard reality every day, it is very tempting to just go with the flow, clock in, do what I am paid to do, clock out and never bother about anything else. If they seem disinterested in their studies, if they fail, it is none of my business, because I have done my part and I don’t care if they have done theirs. It is damn tempting I tell you.

But to do that means I would have to forsake the personal vow that I made to myself when I first started teaching 12 years ago, that I will do the best that I can to share the knowledge I have gained and the ones that I have been picking up along the way to the students, whose parents send their children to get education for the betterment of their lives. And to forsake that would mean I would have to betray the students and their parents who came here full of hopes, where some of the parents had even pleaded to me personally to take care of their precious children. To do that means I would have to betray everything that I have believed in my life, the very core of me.

Erin Gruwell and her freedom writers have knocked some senses in me, have reawaken the dying fire inside me. My other half always tell me that he knows the reason why Allah put him where he is, because Allah wants him to serve. The things that have happened to me, to us these past few years, have made me believe the same too, that I am here to serve others. The reason Allah tested us with hardships, toils and tribulations are for us to have the empathy that so eludes many of us towards people who are not as fortunate as us. And these students of mine, who mostly come from kampongs whose parents are not the rich or the famous, are the people that I should serve.

I might not be able to help them to have meals at hotels or take them for a field trip like what Erin Gruwel had done for her students but I know I can do something. I know I can encourage them to reach for the stars no matter what deep shit condition they are facing at the moment, I know that I can give, if only a sliver of hope to them and inspire them to do everything that they can to achieve a great life that they and their parents have dreamt of. It is not going to be as easy as I how typed these words, but I believe when you have good intentions, Allah is beside you. Insya Allah.

So when you feel that the fire inside you is dying out, find the time to watch The Freedom Writers or other such inspiring movies to help you reignite it. Do not give up without fighting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Camp To Remember

The Ibadah Camp, which is a compulsory requirement for graduating students at the college, was jointly organized by the department of languages and the school of management. Not a graduate of IIUM, I was ignorant of the programme and its modules and proceedings. I took up the challenge of being its Head Programme nonetheless, although I had doubts about it at first. It turned out to be the best experience as a facilitator I have ever had so far.

After weeks of preparations, the big day finally came. Early Friday morning, laden with overnight bags and travelling suitcase, the final semester students, came excitedly to register for the programme. They seemed very eager to participate which surprised me a bit since I had not seen this kind of excitement and response given to a collegiate requirements before. After many briefings by both of the organizers, the CEO gave another of his memorable speech to mark the opening of the Ibadah Camp. One of the memorable quotes was “Work is poison, but doing nothing is suicide”, but then I digress.

The committee departed to Air Tenang Resorts in Janda Baik earlier than the students to ensure smooth checking in process. The four buses came at around 4pm, which was later than estimated. Despite that, the checking in process went on smoothly without any major problems.

That night, we proceeded with the first module, where we invited an accomplished speaker on the scientific significance of solat. It was a talk that left a lasting impression on me. I had never thought that there are an abundance of benefits that one can gain from the actions in solat. Allah is Great. Tears fell, mine included, when the honourable speaker made us close our eyes and imagined that we had a heart to heart talk with the Creator. O Allah, how we have sinned!

Drawing on my past experiences participating in these kinds of programmes when I was in school and university, I didn’t want to be too rigid with the participants. I told myself that they would be graduating in a few months time, and the last programme organized by the college should be something that they can remember us by. It was my prerogative to ensure that the participants enjoyed themselves to the fullest.

The moment of truth came the day after, on Saturday morning, after a session of simple stretching and a much simpler breakfast of fried rice and tea, the participants and all the committee members, took a walk to an orphanage, which was about 200 kilometres from the resort that we were staying in. The cool air and the wonderful sight were no indications of the heart wrenching tales that we would later hear.

We were greeted by the Badan Amal Nur Zaharah’s manager and his assistant and some of the children who sought protection at the home. They seemed oblivious to the arrival of 180 of us and went on with their routine. I remembered thinking that they seemed indifferent.

After a simple briefing about the house (shown in the picture), how it came about and the children that they take in, we roamed about the land that housed the double story home to these children, several vegetable plots and a goat’s pen. According to Encik Yahya, the manager of the orphanage, the home’s expenses are sponsored by organizations as well as individuals and they in turn sell organically grown vegetables and the goats that they reared themselves. Every Thursday, the workers will transport the vegetables and send them to their customers in Kuala Lumpur. Apart from that, to make ends meet, the manager himself will sell the Holy Quran to family and friends and members of the public. They need around RM25,000 each month to cover all the expenses of the two homes (the home for girls is 4 kilometres away).

I did not know how to go about these unfortunate boys lest I might say or do something that would hurt their feelings. However, I decided to trust my instincts and tried to have a conversation with one of them. I managed to get close to Danny, a standard five boy, who looked frail and small for his age. I knew better than to ask him about his family, so I probed on his daily routine at the house. According to this shy boy, they had a quite organized schedule, one that includes getting up early to get to his school, which is 10 kilometres away.

My heart sank when I asked about his school and he seemed lost. It’s common knowledge that children who came from broken and abusive homes, poor families and abandoned children, do not fare well in their studies. For an educator, this fact is extremely frustrating. I wish I could do more for Danny and the other children at the home in terms of improving their studies.

We came to the home, not empty handed of course. Prior to the visit and to the event, a colleague had organized a charity drive on Facebook, collecting donations from relatives and friends for the home. We were wonderfully surprised and impressed of the response because in that short period of time, she managed to collect around RM3400 and the money was then used to buy nine bags of 10kg rice and six bottles of 3kg cooking oil. We also decided to pack goodie bags for the children containing biscuits, chocolates as well as toiletries and some money for each of the children. When I mentioned this to Danny and his friends, their face lit up. I couldn’t stop myself from crying. The things that we packed for them were everyday things that most of us take for granted, but for Danny and his friends, these things were much valued.

When I heard from the home’s assistant, Rahim, that the youngest boy they have at the home was only four years old, I had to bite my lips to prevent myself from crying in front of him. He is only four years old and life has been cruel to him. He is the victim of a failed marriage and his mother cannot take care of him anymore. O Allah, please have mercy on this little boy.

I have a mountain of respects for Rahim. A young man, fresh out of polytechnic, he only did a friend a favour when he volunteered at the home. After much adjustments and getting used to the responsibility of taking care of 15 boys of varying ages, he finally found his place at the home. He has been taking care of the boys for four years now.
We left the orphanage with sadness in our hearts and prayers that the boys will find happiness and their place in the world. O Allah, please protect these children and guide them to Your path.

In the afternoon, the participants were required to slaughter fowls, clean and cook them for dinner. There were 15 fowls, one to a group. This module, according to an Ibadah Camp veteran, was never done before. It was such a wonderful feeling to see the students worked together to prepare the main dish for their dinner. I was amazed by the talents that some of them seemed to have. Alhamdulillah, somewhere, someone did something right.

The soup was simply marvelous, prepared by our budding chef, Naim, assisted by some of his friends. The same cannot be said about the fried chicken though, but to set the record straight, it was none of their fault since the problem was in the chickens, the meat was too hard. Despite that, I am sure they had fun preparing it. Alhamdulillah.

The night was filled with music, songs and laughter, when after a short period given for them to practice, the participants succeeded in performing their acts for the Islamic Cultural Appreciation Night lined up for them. Given chance and an outlet, the students could really shine. Time and again I have learnt that one cannot underestimate the students. The participants as well as the committee alike, came away satisfied that night.

On the last day, the second speaker came earlier than the allotted time. Miss Julia Shapiee, or Kak Ju, as cordially called by the participants, shared her life experiences in fighting and winning over breast cancer. It was such a lively talk given to a participative and sporting crowd. I am very glad that we made the decision to invite Julia, a family friend to share her experiences.

The end was near. After the talk and their morning break, the participants were gathered for the closing ceremony. Winners for the Islamic Cultural Appreciation night and the Explorace were announced and hamper baskets changed hands. It ended with a roar.

This Ibadah Camp was truly a new experience for me. I am sure it is very educating not only for the participants but for the lecturers as well. Alhamdulillah. Allah has blessed us with this learning experience that I believe not many got the chance to experience. There are lessons to be learnt from all of this and the knowledge of that lies with the All Mighty.