By Danielle Schlanger
Earlier last month,while anti-US riots were erupting throughout the Islamic world, I sat down with Stephanie Chesney, a 25-year-old Muslim convert living in Astoria, Queens.Chesney, who also goes by Aisha, teaches 2nd grade at the Al Medina School in Park Slope. She discusses her experience teaching young Muslim children in post-9/11 New York City.
Ms. Chesney, Aisha, you teach at a school in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn where the students are mostly from Islamic backgrounds. Tell us what an average day is like for an educator at the Al Madina School in Park Slope.
I get to work really early,usually at 6 to set up for [my second graders]. I pick them up from the cafeteria,and we all eat together. Then we go upstairs and we start our day. We have computers,a gym,art,science,social studies,all the subjects. At one p.m. we have to dhuhr prayer,which is the second prayer of the day. If you do [the prayer] by yourself,it’s not even ten minutes. But with the kids,it takes longer. We have to take them upstairs,and then they have to stop talking. Then they take off their shoes,and then they can’t find their shoes. It takes 40 minutes. But our school starts a half hour earlier and ends later than a regular school,so it makes up for that lost instructional time.
There are Islamic schools in Queens,but I wanted to work at this one in particular because I really wanted to be in a good school,and this school had a good name. We have strong academics,but we still have prayer for the kids.
Where are most of your students’ families from?
I have a few kids from Pakistan. I have some from Yemen,Egypt,Algeria,and Palestine. I have four kids from Palestine. But they lived in Jordan. Most Palestinians that I’ve met lived in Jordan because they didn’t have a place to live anymore.
What’s the socio-economic status of these students?
I don’t think these kids have a lot of money.
Where will they end up going to high school?
[Al Madina is] an elementary school and high school. Depending on whether their parents can afford it,they’ll stay at the school or they’ll just go to public school. I think the tuition is 3,000 dollars a year to go to the school. But a lot of people can’t afford that,especially if they have 4 or 5 kids.
How do you explain to your young children that you teach about discrimination against Muslims?
I just started this job,and this is only my second week of teaching. I teach second graders,and they’re all Muslim. So I haven’t touched upon that in my classroom yet. But I do tell them that I wasn’t always Muslim,I do share that with them.
Do they react to that?
They don’t really understand yet,they’re still little. When I tell them “my mommy celebrates Christmas,” they’re like,“what? I don’t understand?” And when I tell them about my parents and the countries they’re from,they’re like,“really,they don’t speak Arabic?”
But when I’m [at a youth group] with the older girls,they’ll come up to me and say,“Aisha,I want to wear hijab [a head scarf] but I’m too scared to,because people at my school are going to make fun of me or treat me different.” Once you put on your hijab,its very obvious that you’re Muslim. Everyone’s going to see you and that’s it. You can’t hide it from people. So I just try to give them good advice by telling them what I did when I put the hijab on and just try to be supportive of them.
The older girls are very aware of Islamophobia. It’s just something we deal with as Muslims. It’s something that I never thought I would be a part of because I grew up as a white person. I never experienced it,or understood what it felt like,until now.
Interview has been condensed and edited.