Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Lure of Extremism : a Personal Anecdote.

As a high-school teacher, you can sometimes be confronted to the unexpected and this anecdote is a good illustration of this interesting facet of the job. Yesterday, I came across the fascination of a kid for religious and political fanaticism.

Context: At the beginning of class, I tend my students on the previous lesson which they are supposed to learn. It is usually an oral test on a few things we saw in class the previous time. When the test is “oral”, I’m usually pretty cool about it - the idea being simply to make sure they learn on a regular basis. So I don’t really grade them or fail them. If they don’t know their lesson, I lecture them and take note of it so that next time, I may test them again. So the stakes are not very high.
So I was surprised when one of the students overreacted because he had done poorlyl on the test. He decided to leave class without permission. His schoolmates asked him to calm down but he wouldn’t. I knew there was something wrong with him and it was obviously not the test itself. I didn’t want to worsen things as I could tell there was a lot of anger in this kid – but I did tell him that if he left the class, there would be consequences. He left anyway and I went on with my lesson with the other students.

I had noticed before that this boy was very sensitive and that there was also something eating him up. The key to undrrstand this kid had to do with in his first name – he is called “François” while his last name shows he is obviously of Arab descent. This is very unusual and when I asked him about it one day, he said that his parents chose a “French” name so that he would be better accepted into French society. Now yesterday was unusual as he has always behaved quite well, and even though he had sort of questioned a few things I said a couple times before, he had always done so politely. At the end of the period, he came to me and apologized. I decided to have little chat with him and this is when it becomes interesting.

He said that he had relationship problems with his family. Nothing unusual there but then he said that his have been mostly about “religion”. His parents who came from Iran before she Shah was overthrown are divorced and his mother is raising him and his older brother alone. They do not live in a bad neighborhood and seem to be middle-class. The older brother has done very well in school but François is not doing so well. He feels like he has been the black sheep in the family. Contrary to his family, he also feels very strongly about Islam. I asked him if he went to the mosque but he said that since he’s a Shiite, he doesn’t [most mosques in France are Sunni]. He also said that he recently contacted the Iranian Embassy so that he could go there and join the army or something. He said he wanted to fight Israel.
When you hear that, it tends to make you a bit nervous these days – not that I was scared but I felt some responsibility to find the right words not to scare him away on the one hand, but also to make him see that things are not exactly the way he thinks. He eventually said he had nothing against Jews as individuals but rather against the state of Israel which persecuted his “Muslim brothers” and that they should give their land to the Arabs. I could see the anger in his eyes even he was perfectly calm. I could tell he also resented his family for not being Muslim enough.
I asked him what he thought of the recent words used by the Iranian president but he didn’t seem to have any idea of hat I was talking about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to pursue this conversation. I asked him if I could meet with him and his mother, he agreed but only if I didn’t tell her all of this. I don’t want to breach the trust he seems to have had when he confided in me and I think she already knows anyway. It has been obvious throughout the conversation that this boy has no one to talk or turn to. No adult anyway. It is a very sensitive situation and I have to make sure we are going to continue to talk so that in the end he sees that his problems have nothing to do with Israel, Iran or the Palestinians. I just hope he's not going to fall into the trap of religious fanaticism.
I think it would be ridiculous to draw some general conclusion out of this this simple anecdote. But it is interesting to see how easy it would be for some ill-intentioned people to prey on the weak mind of a teenager.


At 13:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few days ago my youngest son told me smiling he knew his brother better than I. I realized he was probably right. When feelings really go the wrong way sometimes even a mother hardly discovers it on time and may be François looks ok at home. Reading, I couldn’t help thinking of kamikaze missions but maybe that boy only needs good friends or to be recognized as helpful and in his true colours in France or anywhere else. What matters is to get why he’s tending to reject his present life, the words he’s ready to hear, what is his goal telling about his plans. Maybe he didn’t talk to you as he did by chance. I think you’re walking a tightrope but I get you need to make something for him. Meeting his family is a good idea, perhaps they should merely accept he is average at school and an Arab descent...


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