Building Tolerant Relationships


By Shama Mir

As a teacher, I have been blessed with a strong intuition that helps and guides me through my day at school. Often when I am occupied in my mind, planning some idea or concept to be taught, I feel my urge to understand it better opens lots of windows to learn. I tend to view everything happening around me as a stage set up to direct my quest for learning.

Just recently, I took a vote in my Grade 6 classroom related to projects that they would like to do through the final term. The criteria set was “Projects Building Life Skills”. A group of students came up with the Project, “Building Tolerant Relationships”. Therefore since last week, my eyes have been in search of clues on human interaction and what helps build relationships. Even though as an adult, educationalist and simply being a woman, I could answer that easily with so many references and examples, the idea is to pick up something that the children have experienced and could relate to at their level.

And so, as blessed as all teachers are, I was cornered in my own classroom by the strong principles and beliefs of a young boy (I’ll call him Saeed), who identified himself through the last project on ‘Leadership’ as an ‘Affiliation’ kind of leader who likes to hold harmony as a priority through leading his team.

At school, the students are given a 15 minute Zuhar prayer break and classes resume at 1:00 pm sharp. As I walked into my classroom, I found all students ready for the lesson except Saeed. “Where is Saeed?” I asked the class. “Miss he went for the Zuhar prayer. This is the second time he is late.”

I started my lesson and saw him walk past the classroom over to the floor supervisor who gave him a few lines to write about returning to class on time. He was given a warning and this clearly shook his sensibilities.

As he entered the classroom, he ignored my presence, occupied in his own conflict and as soon as he sat down, he put up a strong argument in Arabic with his group mates. I sensed his frustration and tried to lighten him up by asking, “How long does it take to pray Zuhar?” He wasn’t amused and replied with authority, “Miss my prayers take time. That’s a rule. We have to pray taking our time and not rushing through them.” I could see his visible annoyance. “Well, I agree and understand your point, but I suppose since you are in school, and there is a set time to get back to class, you should be flexible and probably adapt to the environment that you’re in.”

He gave me a blunt look. “No Miss. There is no such flexibility in prayers. If it takes more time, then it takes more time. I cannot change the rule.”
I saw that his classmates were ready to side with his viewpoint as they nodded violently and supported his argument. I tried to side with logic saying, “When our Creator is so flexible that he allows you to do Wudhoo with sand if you can’t find water, then isn’t this indicative that in unsuitable conditions, we are allowed to adapt and show flexibility?”

They all remained silent.

I carried on with my train of thought. “For sure you should pray with focus and take your time, but you could easily do that at 2:30 when school gets off or simply in the comfort of your home or mosque. In a work place, your rigidity can cause inconvenience to others.”
Saeed’s facial expressions reflected strong internal conflict. I wanted to ease his mind, so I asked the class, “Do all of you feel that 15 minutes isn’t enough time to pray during break?” They all raised their hands.

“How many of you pray Zuhar in school?” I asked formulating a solution in my mind.

Few hands went up, some confused, some just enjoying the episode. “Please understand that the Creator we pray to, is watching you now. So be honest.” Suddenly all hands went down leaving Saeed as the only one with the complaint.

My intuition told me, this was the stage that I had been looking for and what will follow, will remain in our hearts for a long time.

“Well, the way I see it, even if we have just one person in class who needs to be accommodated, we should give it a serious thought. How many of you are ready to support him in this situation?” As expected, the whole class, Muslim, Non-Muslim raised their hands.

I smiled at how beautifully the events had unfolded so naturally to help me identify what helps bridge differences.

“Alright then. We are going to write a plea to the school as a class requesting for a 5 minute extension to the break so that Saeed does not feel the pressure through his prayers and the school rules aren’t violated either. Is that fair Saeed?” I asked him with a smile.

“Yes, he smiled back”, feeling relieved. The class felt a sense of achievement as well. But I felt, the message had still not been anchored and so I looked at him in the eyes and said, “So Saeed, how does it feel to have compassionate, understanding people around you?” He smiled enthusiastically and replied, “It feels great Miss. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome my dear. Now I hope that when someone will approach you in your life with a problem, you will not say that ‘Sorry. There is no such thing as flexibility and I cannot change the rules. I hope that you will accommodate his/her needs, make space by finding a solution and not be rigid and judgmental. Also remember, numbers don’t matter. Even if it’s a minority of people with a problem, your compassion and understanding will help build strong and tolerant relationships.”

And though the decision on the 5 minute extension is still pending, the entire experience left deep positive impressions on all of us. #BuildingTolerantRelationships will definitely turn out to be a successful project and once again, my intuition didn’t fail my desire to learn and grow.