by Janan Zaitoun
When you walk into Al-Noor Academy, you will see the main hallway stretching out in front of you and typically hear voices emanating from behind classroom doors. The deepest, most distinct one is a sixty-year-old male voice. If you follow the sound of that voice, it will lead you to the first classroom on the left. If it happens to be his free period, you will find a large, tall man wearing reading glasses, seated on an armchair behind his desk, drinking his coffee while singing a cheerful tune to himself as he works on his laptop. That is Mr. Booth.
Mr. Booth, a former newsman for over 30 years at the Westerly Sun newspaper in Rhode Island, who lives in Norwood, knew he would be on a cultural journey when he accepted a job offer as an English teacher at Al-Noor Academy, a Muslim high school in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Because Mr. Booth is a non-Muslim teaching at a Muslim high school, he faces plenty of cultural differences every day. Muslims pray five times a day. Every day at one o’clock, there is a 10-minute break to perform the second prayer at the mosque upstairs. On the days when it is his turn, Mr. Booth accompanies the students to make sure that they walk upstairs in an orderly line. After students have entered the mosque and the silent group-prayer begins, Mr. Booth stands on the side with his head bowed down in respect.
At the beginning of any event, Muslims start with the recitation of portions of the Qur’an. During a workshop the school organized, Fatma Abdelwahab, the school Registrar/Administrative Assistant, said “I actually looked at him during that time,” she said. “Because he brought to my attention how I should react when the Qur’an is recited, […] He showed all respect.”
“He doesn’t know everything [about our culture], but he’s learning […] He always finds a way to relate to it.” Said Firas Al-Shaar, a sophomore student. He also mentioned how Mr. Booth, who usually assigns the students plenty of homework, makes exceptions for them during Islamic holidays. “If we have a special holiday, he won’t give us a lot of homework” Firas said appreciatively.
In the Academy, boys and girls are separated. “They can come together for class projects,” however “they don’t date” Mr. Booth explained, acknowledging the Islamic culture’s system of preserving individual reputations, and protecting society’s morals.
Mr. Booth has been very responsive about the boundaries between genders. Besides teaching English, he is the adviser to the Academy’s Lighthouse newsletter, and takes pictures of the school’s events. “Whenever he has to take a picture of a girl,” said senior Nour Tabidi “he’ll be like ‘Okay, one of you girls come with us.’ He’s really respectful and sensitive toward that situation.”
The Academy’s school uniform for girls consists of the hijab (head scarf) and jilbab (a long, loose-fitting garment). Malak El-Sayad, a junior student, said she was surprised to find out that Mr. Booth sees the hijab the way the Qur’an presents it: as a protection for women that also illuminates their faces. “Muslim females in this school present themselves as ladies in the American/English sense of the term,” said Mr. Booth respectfully. “They’re modest. They’re the way I think the girls in America used to be like 60 years ago.” Malak, as well as the rest of the females at the Academy, expressed their appreciation towards Mr. Booth’s unique view of Muslim females’ modest way of dressing “He really brings in new insights to Islam,” said Malak. “Through his eyes we see things that we never saw before.”
Respect is clearly a two-way street, and the central factor keeping Mr. Booth working in a place that is culturally foreign to him is the amount of respect he is getting from students. He mentioned that even though he has never been to a Muslim country “certainly at the Academy we get enormous respect. And it’s just priceless!”
Another senior student, Sharif Abdelal, sees it as a learning experience on both sides. “We’re learning from him as a teacher, but he’s also learning about us as a people.” This leads to one of many new insights Mr. Booth has found while working in a different environment, and that is to withhold judgment about other people.
Mr. Booth praises the girls and boys at the Academy for being motivated, self-confident, and persevering. He believes that Muslims take for granted that their children do not drop out of school. “At least the ones I know,” he said. He also noticed a clichéd ambition among the Academy’s students, which is: Yes, I’m going to be a doctor. “The fact of the matter is half of them will!” said Mr. Booth. “And they can do it, and they know they can do it.”
He believes that if more non-Muslim teachers knew about how motivated Muslim students are, “They’d come a flockin’ to teach at a Muslim school, because it’s a dream come true.”
Mr. Booth admits that he works in a private school where resources and financial rewards might be less than others; nevertheless he believes that “the moral rewards are just spectacular.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that with all the cultural differences Mr. Booth has to face every day, he still comes to work before everyone else, still sings happy tunes to himself, and still plans to stay next year.
“I tried to resist, but I fell in love with the place. I found a home here,” Mr. Booth said.