In the last few years of my life I’ve found it increasingly difficult to burn off that late night pizza slice or the friday burger at lunch. So earlier this year I decided that I would give this intermittent fasting thing a try. For roughly 8 weeks I woke up, chugged a bottle of water, took my morning shower and, in the twenty to thirty minutes between getting out of the shower and getting out the front door for work, tried to get another bottle of water in my system. And although I have not given up on this strict intermittent consumption routine, a few things have remained: I don’t automatically wake up and feel the necessity to eat breakfast and I drink a shit load of water. And of course, like most other things that I experience, I shared my small dietary journey with my students.
My daily “fasts” quickly became a light-hearted point of contention between myself and a few of my Muslim students. “Mr. Morris, you know you aren’t really fasting. I mean, you’ve been drinking water all day. That’s not a true fast.”
“No, no.” I responded. “Water is allowed in fasting, it has no calories and doesn’t force any of my organs to process anything. I’m fasting for real for real – no gum, no tea. I’m fasting.”
We would go back and forth all in fun and then they hit me with big guns. “Okay, Mr. Morris, you should fast with us during Ramadan.” Never being one to back down from a challenge, I said game on.
A group of my girls made sure to remind me every chance they got as the first days of Ramadan quickly approached. Once that first week hit, I caught a nasty cold and could not, for the life of me, maintain my fast. I needed tea, I needed water, I needed cough drops, I needed soup. And I consumed all of these remedies in my classroom. “Mr. Morris you’re not fasting because your sick but we have to do gym class and music and all this other stuff and we’re still fasting.” Week one of Ramadan was a complete failure. But I was back on my game in its second week.
Throughout that second week my students would ask me things, almost questioning the authenticity of our shared commitment. We would talk about what early morning, pre-sunrise time we woke up at just to eat, what we ate, or how our energy levels were. Some of my girls would complain about gym class so I told them I would go talk to the teacher. It sounds cliche, but I felt an elevated level of understanding or compassion. I could barely go a day without wanting to kill someone if I wasn’t eating food or drinking water and here these 12-year-olds were, waking up at 4 a.m., scarfing down some food, going back to sleep for a few hours, washing their mouth out and getting on with their day. And they plan to do this every day for a month, for the rest of their lives!
The gym teacher laughed me off and proudly proclaimed that he got them to run the 1500m race in gym class despite their pleas to him. “Man, these kids love to complain,” he joked. They told me that the music teacher told them to “stop making excuses” when they argued about playing or listening to music because it was their holy month. I was no saint myself, oftentimes wondering why their parents would “force” them to endure such a physical stress at such a young age when clearly they needed to have energy to concentrate on school work. We’re halfway through the Ramadan season and I will be the first to admit that I do not have the psychological commitment to see this all the way through. My fast basically lasts throughout the school day or any time I am around my students. Around 4pm you can catch me on my couch with a beef patty or a cup of yogurt.
But I’m trying. And what I’ve learned through this experience is that our students are deeply affected by the ways we show care and respect to their culture. I don’t know if my students think of me any differently for “fasting with them” but to be blunt, I don’t care. I am not fasting for their approval or to gain some type of insider status with them. I am fasting, well trying to fast, in order to understand them better. In this case, my learning comes through the fact that I teach Muslim students. Rather, it comes from the fact that I teach students who are proud to be Muslim. I am a black guy with a bunch of tattoos who dresses like he’s 24 and is currently listening to the latest DJ Khaled album while typing this. Hip-hop culture, the black male student experience, that culture, that comes second nature to me. I can connect with that group easy. But I teach a whole bunch of kids who don’t listen to A Boogie or Lil Uzi Vert. I have a whole selection of students I service who look nothing like me nor have any remnants of a shared experience with mine. The task is unto me, as an educator, to bridge those cultural gaps. And it works in all ways – for the white teacher who teaches in the hood to the devout Christian teacher who works in today’s heavily secularized high schools. I’m not saying that you have to “fast” during Ramadan if you’re not Muslim but teach Muslim kids or pull up in a pair of Jordans just because you teach black kids. But, we must be willing to figuratively step into our students’ shoes, not for them to “like” us more – but for us to learn them better.
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