Just before I hit my tenth birthday, I experienced the tragic loss of my mother, and my father remarried shortly afterward. From that moment, the scene at home – and in my heart – was far from stable. Precariousness and confusion replaced safety and security. I was in desperate need of guidance, nourishment, and support. For my sake, life delivered a kind schoolteacher who believed in me and helped me find refuge in school.
On a hot September day,the first day at my new UNRWA school, at least 40 girls were crammed into one classroom. We were all ready to begin middle school. Our English language teacher walked into class. A big smile and contagious uplifting energy filled the classroom. “Hello girls, I am Mrs. Susan Musleh, your English language teacher,” she said, unknowingly declaring the start of a momentous milestone in my life.
The English language club
What made Mrs. Susan special is that she broke the pattern of traditional teaching. She made it fun, welcoming, and safe, just like she was herself. Learning was not limited to class. In fact, the English language club that she organized opened the door to further enjoyable learning. It was through education beyond the classroom that she encouraged us to practice English by introducing us to theater, poetry, and music.
The club’s motto was “Live and love English.” Beyond the in-house activities, she took us on field trips to historical places and encouraged us to speak about them in English. We were introduced to social work as we visited and learned about local marginalized communities. We also were given the space and support to plan and execute English events and contests. As I reflect back on this time, I am almost stunned that all of this occurred at a middle school in a refugee camp in Gaza.
In addition to Mrs. Susan’s imaginative and inspiring teaching style, I think a fundamental characteristic she possessed that made a big difference is that she was invested in us individually and personally. She saw how I could use a little push to unleash my potential from the strains of uncertainty. She urged me to lead, to speak up, and to be unapologetically myself. She encouraged me and believed in me. What kept me motivated was that I wanted to live up to her opinion of me, especially as her words constantly made it clear that “you are capable and you can do so much more than you think you can.” She helped me believe I was competent enough to achieve whatever I want to do or be. It was almost as if my reflection in her eyes was better than how I saw myself.
The visiting delegation
A special memory resonates with me, one that I consider deeply formative to my development into an adult. It was when a delegation from the United Kingdom visited the English club. This was the coolest thing that had happened to us! Mrs. Susan called me from class and told me that I would be the host of the welcoming event. “Farah, you’ve got this! You’ll be a star,” she assured me. I think she sensed the racing heartbeats of the nervous teen who was doubting herself.
A humble room at school was dedicated to the English club. We decorated it with handmade and colorful paper decorations, giving it a feeling of love and belonging. We did our best to make it look welcoming to the visitors. We prepared a Palestinian-themed event with lots of traditional foods we were proud to talk about. I stood there to welcome our guests, overpowering my stage fright with the strength I gathered from Mrs. Susan’s affirming attitude towards me. Sure enough, she was right. I felt heard, validated, and capable; at that moment, I could conquer the world.
Mrs. Susan’s legacy
Before Mrs. Susan became my teacher, I was not the best student in my English class. She helped me grow to have English as my favorite subject. I started living, loving English, just like our club’s motto. Fast forward to my university studies, when I chose, without hesitation, to study English literature. Today, I teach English for a living and frankly, I don’t think that would have happened if it weren’t for my middle school English teacher who recognized my potential and supported it.
I often remember Mrs. Susan’s positive attitude, one that was constant for each of her students despite all of the challenges she faced, from overloaded classrooms, underfunded plans, and the personal struggles that each of us faces. She continues to inspire me to love what I do and do what I love. Her dedication encourages me to be a person who wants to be the difference I want to see. Mrs. Susan set a solid foundation for me to establish myself to be confident in my own skin, skills, and potential.