“Get out! Get out! Everybody get out of this classroom now!”. Mr. Kumar*, our gentle and ever-patient Mathematics teacher, was enfuriated. The generous laughter that, just a couple of moments ago, rang through the packed classroom stupefied in a disturbing calmness. If looks could kill, my 23 classmates and I would have dropped dead that instant. But we remained alive that morning.
Mr. Kumar unmistakably spoke with an Indian accent. He was made well aware of it as some students imitated his accent in a way that was meant to be funny. Although these students never dared to imitate his accent in his presence, he sometimes overheard them doing so in the corridors. And never had he made a point out of it, until that day.
During one of his Maths classes, Mr. Kumar tried to explain that he needed one ‘year’ to accomplish a difficult task. In his accent, some could argue that he pronounced the word ‘year’ phonetically in the word ‘ear’. My classmate Karim*, whether intentionally or not, asked Mr. Kumar why he needed one ‘ear’ to finish the task. The uninhibited laughter of all the classmates shattered something deep in Mr. Kumar.
Mr. Kumar was in his late fifties and was a respectable American High School Mathematics teacher. With his didactic finesse, he absolutely knew how to reach out to all of his students and make them understand the logic, the beauty and the urgency of mathematics in everyday life. He left his Indian kin and Indian soil behind to teach mathematics at the American High School in Morocco and did so for more than thirty years. In many ways, he was accustomed to the manners and ways of the local Moroccan community as well as of the manners of the expat/exchange students that populated the American High School. Yet, this one incident rocked and shook his fundaments so hard that it disoriented all of his senses.
The class was dismissed and all the students left the classroom. The gossip about the dismissal from Mr. Kumar’s class spread like wildfire. Karim received high-fives from some of his classmates for his ‘coolness’ and he was encouraged to narrate the event in an Indian accent. Other classmates scoffed him and told him to be deeply ashamed of himself. Karim covered himself with a thin film of confidence; however, my gaze saw something else. Underneath that varnish of confidence was a certain frailty, a fear of what was to come.
Bells rang. Pencilcases closed. Chairs and tables shuffled. The corridors filled. Students maneuvred themselves to their next classrooms. Teachers lectured. But the only thought that I could concentrate on was that of the humiliation of Mr. Kumar. I felt sorry for him. I needed to do something that could mend that part of him that was broken. And so I started writing.
It took me about an hour to write and edit a letter on behalf of the whole class. In this letter, we sincerely apologized for our disrespectful behavior for we meant no intentional harm. We expressed our utmost gratitude for having him as a teacher and we promised him that we would hence behave how serious students ought to behave. The letter ended with a sincere plea to accept our apologies. During gym class, I asked all of my classmates to endorse the letter by writing their names. I should have used a larger sheet of paper as there was barely space for all 24 names.
There he was, Mr. Kumar. In an empty classroom. He sat at his desk and seemed to stare at the wall at the other end of the classroom. I stood at the door and hoped to prolong that moment in the hope that I could grab hold of one of his thoughts. Yet, Mr. Kumar quickly noticed my presence and alternated his gaze between my face and the letter I held in my hands. While I uttered words of forgiveness, he stood up and walked in my direction. I automatically stretched my arm and reached out to give him the letter. After reading the letter meticulously, he thanked me and walked back to his desk. The next day, Mr. Kumar began Maths class and addressed the class by mentioning that he read our letter and that he accepted our apologies. His honor was restored and the classroom was once more a safe environment where he could do what he could do best: teach maths in an uplifting manner.
This story took place 22 years ago. Who knows, this story might have stimulated me to become what I am today, namely a community mediator and a professional certified court-mediator. What I do know is that it takes courage to accept one’s own share in a conflict. On the other hand, it takes courage to accept apologies and make it possible for all parties to move on with their own lives.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.