Amidst the pain of a hurting people, a pain that often feels overwhelming, came an unexpected ray of hope. It felt as welcome as sunshine after days of rain, as welcome as a warm spring day after the cold of a Canadian prairie winter.
We spent a couple of hours this week visiting the school at Khirbet Shuweika. The school headmaster, Jafar al Salamin, had invited us there after our meeting at the olive grove incident last week.
We pulled up to the white two storey building and were immediately welcomed into the headmaster’s office (which also served as the school office). There were chairs to sit on, curtains on the window, and electricity. The headmaster was conferring with 2 others in the room, both of whom were using computers. Someone went to bring the senior years english teacher to join us for the meeting. Other teachers stopped in for a quick visit during recess. Coffee and tea were served and we began what proved to be a meaningful discussion with a variety of school personnel.
Initial conversation focused around the situation here in Palestine, with specific reference to the situation in Khirbet Shuweika. We heard of settler harassment of villagers….not only the destruction of the olive trees, but also stories of settlers stealing sheep from shepherds while out grazing in the fields, stories of settlers visiting the school late at night and the villagers concerns around that, and stories of their sense of fear when army vehicles pull into the school parking lot during the school day carrying armed soldiers who “watch” the children for spans of 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The villagers, the teachers and the children have learned over time to fear the Israeli soldiers due to their active support of the settlers and due to the soldiers past history of abuse towards the villagers.
But we also heard of their hopes and their aspirations for peace. With passion in his voice, Jabar said to us “We love people. We want to have our freedom. We want our students to live in peace.”
But again, we returned to the sense of fear that is always present. One of those in the room spoke of what it is like to live as a parent in this place of violence. “I am afraid my son will be shot.” We shuddered, understanding that these fears are real. Given the actions of the settlers and the actions of the soldiers, Palestinian people live their lives in a climate of fear.
Conversation then changed to the school.
Khirbet Shuweika school is the school home of 236 Gr 1-10 students. Many of the students live in the community while others are bussed in from surrounding villages. Gr 1-4 students take all of their classes with one teacher, except for english, which is taught at the primary level by a teacher who rotates through the single graded classes. From Grades 5-10, students study from teachers specializing in a given subject. The regular courses of math, science, geography, technology (computer skills), arabic language, english, etc are taught by a teacher holding a university degree with either a major or a minor in the subject he or she is teaching. Each teacher teaches five 40 minute periods per day with anywhere between 40 and 80 minutes per day for prep time. There is one 30 minute break per day and 5 minutes between classes. Upon graduation from Grade 10 the students move on to a school in another village to obtain their grades 11 and 12. University studies are encouraged.
In this building, education is taken seriously. Emphasis is clearly placed on student learning. “These students are our future” explained the headmaster. “We tell them that even at the young age they must study so that they can go on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers….whatever they want.”
As we toured the school, visiting each classroom, the classes seemed organized and the students were busy working. An annual budget of $2500 for school supplies barely covers the essentials. Additional supplies sent by UNICEF (channeled to them through the Palestinian Educational Authority) have been gratefully received. However, such a meagre budget does not provide for any investment in technology. As a result, computer skills for the entire school are taught on two very old computers. Internet is not available but they are optimistic that once a phone system is installed within the next year they will be able to access the internet and augment student learning through that medium. Hopefully, these two old computers will hold together and be up to the task.
Thinking of the tents that many of these students live in I asked about homework, inquiring whether or not the students take home work to do in the off hours? “Yes” he said, “they take home some work. But not too much…..They need to play football, to watch movies…. They still need time to be children.”
They still need time to be children. In an environment troubled by violence, pain and fear, the school headmaster acknowledges and affirms the need for his students to be children. To play….to explore….to laugh. The need for children to be children.
Khirbet Shuweika school is making a positive difference in the lives of the children and the families they serve. It is a school that is striving to maximize student learning. It is a school that is striving to prepare students for the 21st century. As they do so, they provide a ray of hope for themselves, for our world, and for our shared future.