I need to do this, I have no choice.
Leaving Franklin Delano Roosevelt School was never a possibility in my mind, how could I leave the first school that I felt an equal in? Well, to a certain extent. The school taught me things I would have never known or experienced. My current school, a special needs school for students living with disability, provides us with comfort and protection, but academically we, the students, are never going to progress. The school teaches students life skills, but we are not deemed capable enough to partake in actual academically recognised exams. This is especially ironic as the school is named after one of the most groundbreaking disabled persons: the president of the USA and the first world leader who was a disabled wheelchair user. I want to be like that person, not necessarily a leader but someone who influences and changes the world, and I know that is only possible through education.
I really believe that education is a powerful tool and a right that every person should have. But sadly education is also a luxury for many and a dream that may not be realised due to finance, cultural and traditional customs, family, or in some cases due to disability. Being a disabled Muslim girl from the Middle East, the path of education was never going to be a smooth journey for me. I had so many obstacles to overcome, but the hardest to overcome was people’s attitude to disability.
I guess I especially value and love education because I witnessed people that were deprived of it, and I myself nearly ended up like them. My paternal grandmother was illiterate because her father did not approve of his daughter going to school. We, her grandchildren, had to read to her and she relied on others for everything that involved literacy. I did not want to be reliant on others any more than I am already. I feared having a similar fate, although my father was very eager for me to learn, but he feared for my safety. The other person that I knew who was illiterate is probably one of the closest people to my heart – my nanny. Her name was Ghareba, meaning “a stranger” in Arabic. She had to leave her family at the age of seven and help support them financially, therefore she never went to school nor learnt to even write her name.
Ghareba did not receive an education due to financial reasons, having to bear the responsibility of her family from a very young age, whereas my grandmother was denied the right to education due to her father’s ultra conservative views. I loved both these women dearly, but I did not want to be like them; in a way, I owed it to them to fight for my education so that one day I can retell their stories and prevent other women from suffering the same fate. That is why I had to leave my school and enter the big bad world of mainstream school. I needed to progress, just as I did when I was only five years old, back in my home country.
Like any child I wanted to interact with other children, and seeing my older siblings go off to school every day made me more eager to join them, although I was never bored and enjoyed my own company. I was always busy with one thing or another; I had a big passion for art and acting and would spend the entire day imagining a story in my head, then acting it out or drawing and colouring it. Yet I longed to be part of that exclusive world of ‘school’. I wanted to wake up early, get dressed, get in the car and go to school like my siblings, but my parents did not share my enthusiasm. They feared that I would not be able to cope or that other children would not accept my disability and hurt my feelings. These fears were never spoken about or addressed, but I understood them later on. At the time, I pleaded with my mother to allow me to go to school. It is worth noting that my parents fear was justified to a certain extent because growing up in my hometown, I hardly ever came across any other disabled children or even adults. I’m not quite sure of the reason for that, but I think it is fair to assume that being a disabled person in the Middle East is something people want to hide out of either protection or embarrassment.
Obviously there were no special needs schools or facilities for the disabled, but all that did not matter to a five-year-old girl who was desperate to experience school life. And so after a lot of persuasion, Mum, who was a teacher, agreed to enrol me at the same school she worked at, and that was the happiest day of my childhood! I was prepared mentally for all that might occur. Finally, everything I had dreamt about and desperately wanted was coming true. I have never walked or even stood but as a child, I never used a wheelchair until I came to live in the UK. Prior to that, I always used a tricycle that ensured I was mobile and constantly on the move. The added advantage of using a tricycle is that people did not realise I was disabled and just assumed I loved my airplane shaped tricycle, which I took to school with me every day.
One day, the curiosity of two boys in another class marked a sign of things to come and an indication that the path I sought to follow will be filled with obstacles and prejudice. I remember when I initially started school I did not want other children knowing I was different to them and could not walk, so whenever they asked why I was always on my airplane shaped tricycle, I said because only I can fly the magical plane and have to stay on it – yes, I was a very imaginative child who was obsessed with film, drama and acting. The two boys on that particular day demanded to try my ‘airplane’. When I refused to move, they pushed me off it and I fell to the ground. That was when everyone found out that I am disabled and my magical airplane did not fly. All I could do as I sat on the ground, trying to use all the strength that I had to compose myself, was cry endlessly as I looked at my beloved airplane being taken by those two big boys. I knew then that what I had been hiding so well had been exposed in the most embarrassing and brutal fashion.
To this day I have no idea how my mother found out, but I recall crying in her arms, trying to hide. I was not crying because I was physically hurt, but for the myth that I had created to protect me from reality; I had feared being separated from others and my difference being highlighted. Back then, my mother pushed me to face everyone, telling me, “You are a courageous girl, there will always be people like these boys who will try to stop you, but I know that my daughter is much stronger than any bully and she will always get her way.” I looked at my mum and thought to myself, why won’t mum just take me home and hide me away? Mothers are adults and surely they must deal with such situations. I then turned my eyes to my ‘airplane’ – how could I just leave it there? Will I let these boys ruin what I had wanted for so long: to be an ordinary schoolgirl with no issues or differences to all the other pupils? I decided that mother was right, I can’t go back in my path or be shy and hide away, but I must continue on the road that I had chosen. Education and acceptance was my goal, and I must reach it no matter what the price will be, even if it is the destruction of an image that I had tried to create.
Eventually I went back, the boys apologised and my airplane was reunited with me. I faced everyone at the school with the reality of my disability. That incident taught me to never run away from confrontations and always face the consequences of any decision I make, but I don’t know why I am remembering all this. Is leaving FDR going to be a mistake and will there be other boys that will try to push me and mum won’t be there to protect me? Should I just stay here?
Raya Al-Jadir is an English degree graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, where she also read a Masters degree in Renaissance Studies and is currently researching for a PhD thesis. She is a freelance translator, writer and proofreader. Her main interest is promoting disability awareness, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims. www.accessless.com/