In my last post, I described my experience interning at the Tamar Center through the Onward Israel program. Weeks have passed since then. When not working, our program took us to places such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, but Beersheva increasingly felt like home. My internship played a substantial role in my affinity for the city.
A fundamental part of the internship has been teaching Arab-Bedouin students, and staff English –an odd task considering my lack of training and qualification.
Yesterday, one group of 9th-grade students and I had our final lesson. As the course drew to a close and the students and I exchange goodbyes a sense of nostalgia and gratitude overcame me.
Saying farewell to someone, a goodbye that both parties know is permanent, threw me into a state of reflection. Once a week for more than a month, the connection between the students and I shifted into something I never expected.
I remember the first course vividly — in the hours leading up to their arrival, anxious thoughts swirled in my head. These were students only a few years younger than me, yet their culture and my own concerned me — would I offend them somehow, would they accept me as an American? I couldn’t stop thinking of potential cultural friction emerging from differences in our language, religion, and experiences.
After the students filed into the English room, I chose food as the day’s subject, a seemingly uncontroversial way to start the course. Ironically, my efforts failed as I soon realized it was Ramadan and the students fasted all day. I felt hopeless, if food, a topic mundane to me, could create friction between us what was there to teach them?
I left the first lesson feeling like a failure. Having lived abroad before I considered myself capable of navigating cultural varieties, after the experience, I thought the differences between our cultures would lead to weeks of uncertainty.
In hindsight, my expectation for myself was too high. Perhaps I had a faux-pax, but none of the students were outraged or offended, and even the awkwardness I fixated on may have been a psychological reaction to my discomfort. As painful as it is to say, I started my journey with Arab-Bedouin youth from a place of apprehension, a deep-seated inability to relate with their culture blinded me to the potential of future lessons.
Within a few days, I had another lesson with a different group. Their knowledge of English was higher, and as a result, I felt more at ease. Such is the power of language, being able to communicate and gauge their reactions dissipated my fare of the unknown.
One week later, my original group returned. The nervousness crept up on me again, but I reminded myself how well the second group had gone. It occurred to me moments before the class, my attempts to flawlessly understand their culture wasn’t helping me but hindering my ability to engage fully. As the students settled in and with no curriculum planned, I drew a horrific house on the whiteboard that appeared Picasso-esque. As I began to teach locatives, one student asked what I drew on the whiteboard. I responded that I was a famous artist. A burst of laughter filled the room as the students responded to my attempt at humor –completely surprising me. As we laughed together, the boundaries I once considered insurmountable seemed to fade into a world of possibilities.
As each lesson passed the students and I grew more comfortable with each other. If I ran out of content towards the end of the course, they’d teach me Arabic amused by my ability to count to five but an inability to learn subsequent numbers.
In those moments, the students became my teachers. In other discussions where we practiced discussing family, they taught me how their lives where, what their parents did, where they wanted to vacation and eventually what were their dreams.
As my internship drew to a close, they grew emboldened and asked me about American life. The discussions were never political and focused on our differences in family life, hobbies, and studies. My fear of offending them faded as a sense of camaraderie developed that transcended language barriers.
After the last lesson, a sudden feeling of nostalgia and gratitude overcame me. The students had given me the ultimate gift, a connection to a culture I initially feared. As time progressed, they showed me that we could laugh, talk (albeit in broken English), and interact in ways that show our commonalities superseded differences.
Initially, teaching English was not the primary purpose of my internship. I viewed promoting the Tamar Center’s work on social media and writing about my experiences as paramount. Soon I’ll leave the Negev, but its’ spirit and potential gave me an invaluable lesson in recognizing an often forgotten shared humanity.