Of Plants and Planets

Of Plants and Planets

Not all cultural surprises and misunderstandings make for amusing tales years later.

Most children of ex-pats attend an international school, or private school with other ex-pat kids. My girls studied at the Saudi government school in Riyadh. I visited the school once, and was appalled at the litter, disarray, and drab appearance of the entire place. The teachers welcomed me, but underneath their greetings I perceived a suspicious interest, and a smug sense of superiority. By that year, 1993, foreigners were part of the Saudi scenery, except in our neighborhood, where “foreigner” meant Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian or Pakistani. They knew I was American, and they were waiting for me.

The visit was short and sweet. I was shown my daughter’s classroom, the teacher’s offices, and the door out. I am certain I was the first American (and probably the last) to set foot in that school.

My daughter used to come home with tidbits of misinformation she’d learn from those teachers. Invariably, the most offensive bits concerned the character and habits of the American people, of whom those teachers knew nothing, my visit notwithstanding.

Crowning the pile of manure they told her was that Americans all had filthy bodies, because they did not use bidets, nor take wudu, and therefore could not clean themselves well. My daughter knew better, as by this time she’d visited my family in the States several times, but she felt distressed about the teacher’s vile remarks. I asked her if she ever contradicted the teachers. She said no, “That would be impolite.”

One day she came home and told me that the English teacher said that planets were green leaves and shrubs growing from the ground. My daughter knew the correct word- plants. She knew the definition of planets, too, and she felt sad that the teacher taught something wrong to the entire class. She wanted to correct the teacher, but could not, because it would be impolite, and they already held her at arm’s length, because she had an American mom, actually a step-mom, which was even worse.

When she was about the take the exam, she asked me, “What should I answer if the teacher asks for the definition of planets?” Reluctantly, I advised her to answer as she had been taught. We’d keep the secret.



About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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8 Responses to Of Plants and Planets

  1. Solace says:

    And I bet that was just simple example of their “wrong” teachings, there are probably loads of other bigger things.

  2. saudiwoman says:

    I had a similar incident happen to me when I was at school here in Riyadh at Al Tarbia Al Namothajia private school. I was in the 8th or 9th grade and the English teacher taught the class that the Earth is the center of the universe and the sun and all the other planets revolved around it. The teacher is Eygptian and as far as I know she is still teaching at that very same school!

  3. What an all-around shame! A shame for the condition of the school. A shame that your daughters could not correct the teachers or defend their mother. A shame that you did not feel welcomed in your children’s school. A shame that the teachers speak so spitefully about Americans and give out incorrect information. No one is the winner here…

  4. Shahrzad says:

    LOL, imagine? Planet and plant!! How that teacher was being an “English” teacher at first place?

    Anyway, it’s what you get in Iran too. Teachers are so arroagnt in the ME. And as a student, I could not stop my tongue not to point the wrong things in class. And i used to be punished.

    At primary school, We had a teacher who used to sew her socks inside the class while we were doing excercises. I used to hate it.

    So at the teacher day, i bought her 10 pairs of socks as gift. And she got angry and at final, she gave me 13 out of 20, didnt give me the 7 scores of class activity. And my other scores were 20/20 BTW..

    These happened to me many times too. Even in university..
    Now being a teacher, i let my students be free to critisize if they dont like something or they think i am making mistakes. I feel there is a freindship among us that i’ve never experienced before with my own teachers…

  5. coolred38 says:

    Oh you take me back. When my daughter started school she routinely came home with bits of misinformation that was being taught as fact…the most disgusting one being that Hitler was some sort of Saint and the Holocaust was either a fictitious account drummed up by the Jews…or if it was true…they deserved it. I was appalled when I learned that is a commonly taught bit of “historical fact”.

    My daughter also corrected the teachers who taught very bad english for the most part. Usually they took it in stride…but occassionally sent her home crying for having the nerve to correct them when they are the teachers and she is the student.

    And yes…the schools are always in a terrible state. The classrooms are like prison cells…without color or decoration other than what students might put up there. The only areas that are usually clean and presentable are where guests are received…Ministers etc….that area is plush with plantings and decor….ugh!

    Ive returned to the states this past week and put my son in school here in Texas…the differences can not be stressed enough. As hard as this move has been on us….the way my children have taken to school here is amazing…they are interested and excited…something I have rarely seen in the 14 years since my first daughter started out.

  6. Marahm says:

    I don’t know why I am surprised at all of your comments. I hoped someone would tell me, “Your memory has failed you; things aren’t that bad,” but the opposite has occurred! My experience seems to have been shared by most of you.

    Shahrzad, you are not only a jewel of a teacher, but in a position to influence other teachers as well as students.

    saudiwoman, the claim of the earth being the center of the universe sounds familiar. I’ve heard that one, too.

    coolred, your description of the schools fit perfectly with what I saw that day. And you are now back in the States! How exciting! I must go to your blog right now and catch up with you.

  7. Nader says:

    Good topic, Marahm.

    I don’t know what the situation’s like right now, but I do sure hope that its better than what you experienced.

    English teachers, ohh, english teachers! One of the maintenance guys at work decided to continue his education, so he goes now to a night school.. high school level.. He’s smart.. but he’s always struggling with his English homeworks and exams. One day he asked me for help… he showed me the piece of paper which had the homework question. I looked at it, and i was shocked. The homework question had soo many grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes, sentence structure mistakes… you name it!

    Hahaha Coolred… you reminded me of something…
    When i was studying English in the states, “some” years back, we were asked who our heroes are. One guy (from the ME) said “Hitler”. As soon as he said that, you could see how spontaneously the teacher’s face turned red! She even screamed, WHAT??? Then he said it again.. hitler.. at this point she thought (or maybe hoped?) that she might have misunderstood the guy.. so she asked where this hero comes from. The guy was quick in saying… Germany! The teacher looked at me in a state of shock and asked.. do you also believe hitler is a hero? Lil young me, coming from Saudi Arabia where the history we studied was only Islamic history then Saudi history, did not know who hitler was. So I said it… I dont know who hitler is! and I was off the hook!

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