Monday, March 17, 2014

My First Muslim


"I led a very sheltered life", is what I tell people all the time. I say it because I grew up on a farm, my parents were extremely protective, and I attended a small high school (with about 300 total students...the only minority student was one-half Native American). My total environment was pretty much controlled. I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. Boys were carefully screened, and strict guidelines were enforced. I had the same circle of friends since kindergarten, and the wildest parties I ever attended were my own slumber parties. Sure, I went to downtown Des Moines, such as it was in the middle of the twentieth century, but only on Saturday mornings and under the close supervision of my mother and older sisters. Let's just say, it was a VERY sheltered existence.
      When I went to college, at seventeen, I was allowed to live in the dormitory, but my parents had arranged for it to be the smallest dormitory on a campus that was only fifteen minutes away from my home. I was picked up for church every Sunday morning.
      At college, however, they really had nothing to say about the people I met. I had been taught by my mother to love all people. My father had a generous portion of ethnic biases. The bottom line is, I was simply not aware of the variety of people who were "out there". A girl from Hawaii lived across the hall from me. I met my first Bostonian. He was Catholic, which had been taboo for me to date in high school, so it was kind of exciting to have him ask me out on a date. It turned out he was a terrible kisser and I could barely understand what he was saying, so we only had two dates. The same was true with the young man from Africa. He was pretty easy to understand, but when he asked me to marry him after three dates (and we had NOT kissed), I knew I had overextended my emerging reach for diversity.
      So, I dated a few more guys and by the middle of my junior year in college, I finally settled on one to marry. We married and a few years later, after finishing college and living in several different states, we settled in Minnesota. It was a Lutheran haven, which pleased my parents, and I started my teaching career. My first year of teaching, I made my first openly gay friend, Tim.  I had a classroom associate who was Lakota Sioux.
        My principal, Dr. Sajaad Haider, was my first Muslim. I adored him, even after I personally observed him cheating on his golf score. It was really the only character flaw I found in him in the nine years I taught at his school.
      Dr. Haider, or "Saj", as he wanted us to call him, was totally devoted to helping intellectually challenged kids. He was in charge of Emerson School, which educated about 200 severely handicapped students. He originally had a doctorate in entomology and came to the United States to study agriculture, but when his youngest son was born with Down Syndrome, Saj obtained his doctorate in special education and administration. He was determined to improve the quality of education for all students with special needs. Saj was from Pakistan and had his quirky pronunciations of English words. My favorite was discipline, which he pronounced as "dah sip ah lin". He knew it was wrong, but eventually just gave up ever trying to get it right.
        Saj faithfully observed Ramadan, which is the Muslim holy month when there is no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for 29-30 days. He made no big fuss over it. He was a humble man, and extremely patient with his young staff of teachers and associates. When I saw him at the shopping mall, his traditionally-dressed wife was dutifully walking the prescribed ten feet behind him the whole time. However, on the golf course, Saj and I walked side by side down the fairway.
         One time, Saj was in an awful car crash and had to have some surgery around his mouth. He walked around school holding either a newspaper or a folded white handkerchief in front of his mouth for more than a month, so none of us had to look at the mess on his face. He didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or uneasy.
        Saj always worked extremely hard to get us all the resources we needed for our students. He personally helped get Boy Scout uniforms for nearly fifty handicapped Scouts. He made sure "Santa" had nice gifts for all the students and all the staff at Christmas. He regularly brought us delicious treats from his home, always proud to tell us what a wonderful cook and loving mother his wife was. All of his five children, except the youngest, were either a doctor or a professor.
       I know Muslims are extremely suspect for many people these days. I understand. I just know that the first Muslim I knew personally was a wonderful, gentle, humorous man. When he walked through the halls at school or into my classroom, I felt his fatherly presence watching over us. I worked with him every day for nine years. I know there are extremists, who are dangerous. Saj would never have hurt a fly.
       Cheat on his golf score...yes, he did...but I imagine it was only because he thought he might lose to a girl...which probably had more to do with him being a man than being a Muslim.