By Samah Jabr
Ali, 8, suffers from allergies which cause a frequent nasal discharge. Running out of tissues during class, he asked his classmates for some but the teacher scolded him. “You always have a snotty nose!” The teacher forbade other students from giving him tissues so that he would remember to bring his own. Afterwards, Ali spent the rest of the day covering his nose with his hand.
Raghad, 16, was in a very demoralised state but recovered from her depressive episode after a few months and was able to return to school. Last week, the school had planned a spring picnic but Raghad was not permitted to participate because she is a psychiatric patient taking medication.
Muhammad, 15, arrived at the boys’ school one day chewing gum. An athletics coach noticed him on the playground, and interrupted the game. Pointing at Muhammad, he said: “Come on guys take a look at this girl who has shown up here by mistake!” The other students burst out laughing.
While the names have been changed, their stories are quite true and unfortunately these are not uncommon or extreme examples. Though similarly painful experiences of exposure, humiliation and shaming might happen everywhere, we in Palestine are at special risk. As the occupation goes on and on, and especially in areas where people have been victimised by political violence, people are becoming unkind and ruthless with each other, especially with easier victims and hierarchical relationships, like a teacher to a pupil. Oppression of this kind is proportional to the intensity of the tyranny of the occupation.
It is clear that our teachers themselves may often feel humiliated, frustrated and burnt-out; in these states of mind, the teachers cannot empathise that young students have a full repertoire of human feelings and can be easily damaged by ruthless mockery, just as adults can.
Ali and Muhammad were not only exposed to the teachers’ shaming words, but exposed to classmates who had been purposely inhibited from responding to them with kindness and compassion. Their teachers interfered with the social bonds linking Ali and Muhammad to their peers, reducing their connection with and interdependence upon their classmates. Such isolating experiences can be generalised to a wider society, tending to disengage the victimised children and their peers alike from assuming a responsible role within the community.
We must remember that schools teach not only information and skills, but also shape personal identity, social and emotional development and attitudes towards the self and towards others.
In Palestine, we have an urgent need to develop a pedagogy that promotes well-being, resilience and empathy. We must help our students cultivate solidarity and compassion as well as skills in critical thinking. We must help children develop ways of personal expression and provide them with the possible freedom to eventually express themselves without feeling threatened or ostracised.
In Palestine, children are at special risk, because the occupation erodes every aspect of Palestinian life, demolishes the homes, humiliates the parents, arrests children and wastes many opportunities and dreams. But the proper school environment can give students invaluable tools to sustain themselves through this reality. The school has the power to engender hope for freedom and the promise of social transformation, to achieve liberation for the self and for the nation.
Liberation applies to everyone, as a perspective and an approach; it applies to all aspects of life and all circumstances. But liberation cannot be achieved in a context that tolerates personal or institutional oppression, or the acceptance of authority figures or systems of authority in schools that perpetuate oppression within the school itself. Such schools enforce compliance through brute force, through character assassinations and through destroying the initiative and self-esteem of their students with cycles of shame.
We cannot speak romantically about emancipating ourselves from the occupation and yet be offended at observations about oppression from within. Reforming our schools and providing a holding environment – one where they feel safe – for our teachers so that they can provide a holding environment for our children, these are challenges that merit the attention of our policy makers, researchers and educators. This is a chance to turn oppression into opportunity and to place those who are currently at risk into a different future of promise and hope.
– Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community – beyond issues of mental illness. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was first published in Middle East Monitor)