At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.
Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.
And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.
When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.
And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.
And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.
One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:
“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”
“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”
Things like that.
Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”
There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.
Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.
Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.
I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.
I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.
Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.