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Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as Excerpt: The Student Exile

Excerpt: The Student Exile

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"It was as an American businessman's son who hadn't the slightest feeling of being American that I entered the Cairo School for American Children in the fall of 1946," writes Edward Said in his recent memoir, Out of Place. Said, a professor of English at Columbia University and a well-known spokesman for the Palestinian cause, grew up with shifting identities: Born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a Palestinian father who had briefly emigrated to the United States and obtained American citizenship, Said spent most of his childhood as an exile in Cairo. Said's schooling, however, was entirely English and American. He first attended Gezira Preparatory School, an English primary school, and then transferred to the Cairo School. The following excerpt details Said's difficult transition, as a minority among minorities, from the English way of education to the American.

I was assigned to the 6th grade in a second-floor classroom whose plants and window flower boxes gave it the atmosphere of a family room. The class was ruled by the first great martinet and sadist of my life, a Miss Clark, whose single-minded persecution of me crippled my already uncertain sense of self. Miss Clark's demeanor was extremely restrained, quiet, and composed to the point of unpleasantness. She was in her mid- 30s and seemed, as I thought about her over the years, to be a WASP from the Northeast, very much a creature of that world's fully paid-up citizens--morally righteous, confident, generally patronizing. I never knew what it was about me that so gripped her, but it only took a week or 10 days for her to declare herself my enemy in a class that contained no more than a dozen boys and girls.

After the hierarchical and rigid English system, the American school was informal in every sense. In the classrooms, chairs and tables were scattered about, whereas at the Gezira Preparatory School, we had sat in military rows of cramped little desks and benches. Except for the French, Arabic, and art teachers, the instruction was by American women (heavily made-up in loud, colored dresses, totally different from the scrubbed, plain faces and sensible skirts affected by Mrs. Wilson and her cohorts) and one man, a Mark Wannick, who also doubled as softball and basketball coach. On one occasion, he donned a bright-yellow Ohio State basketball uniform to play with us: In the torrid Cairo afternoon, surrounded by brown fields with brown peasants in galabiyalis leading donkeys and water buffaloes round as they have done for millennia, Mr. Wannick cut a surrealistic sight in his overpoweringly colored uniform, hairy arms and legs, military crew cut, black sneakers, and delicate rimless glasses.

I encountered American education as a regimen designed to be attractive, homey, and tailored down to the level of growing children. Books at GPS were uniformly in small print, without illustrations, unrelentingly dry in tone; history and literature, for instance, were presented as matter-of-fact as possible, making each page a challenging task just to read through. No concessions were made in arithmetic to the world of lived experience: We were given rows of figures to add, subtract, divide, and multiply, plus a large number of rules and tables (multiplication, weights and measures, distances, meters, yards, and inches) to memorize. The goal of all this was to do "sums," a task whose difficulty for us was commensurate with its programmatic dullness. At the Cairo School for American Children, we were all given "workbooks," in marked contrast to GPS's "copybooks," which were lined exercise books as anonymous as bus tickets; workbooks had charming, chatty questions, illustrations, and pictures to be appreciated, enjoyed, and, when relevant, filled in. To write in one of our GPS textbooks was a serious misdemeanor; in American workbooks, the idea was to write in them.

More attractive still were the textbooks handed out by Miss Clark at the beginning of each day. At the core of each subject there seemed to be a family to whom one was introduced at the outset: There was always a Sis, a Mom, and a Dad, plus assorted family and household members, including a large black woman housekeeper with an extremely exaggerated expression of either sadness or delight on her face. Through the family, one learned about adding and subtracting, or civics, or American history (literature was treated separately). The idea seemed to be to make learning a painless process, on a par with getting through the day on a farm or in a suburb of St. Louis or Los Angeles. References to the drugstore, the hardware or dime stores, mystified me completely but did not need explaining to my classmates, all of whom had actually lived in places like St. Louis or L.A. For me, however, such locations corresponded to nothing in my experience, which was barren of soda fountains and soda jerks, the two items that intrigued me the most.

I was meant to find this "fun," and for a month I did. But I was never left alone by Miss Clark nor by the other children, with whom I quickly became quite antagonistic; after that first pleasurable month, I found myself longing for the GPS, with its clear lines of authority, its cut-and-dried lessons, its very strict rules of deportment. Teachers at CSAC never used or threatened violence, but male students were extremely rough with each other, since the boys were quite big and were willing to use their strength against each other in contests of will and turf. By Christmastime, every day at the school was an ordeal in which I had to make my way through a gauntlet of flailing arms and fists on the bus, followed by the chilly put-downs and severe scoldings I received from Miss Clark in the classroom.

The most humiliating moment in my first year came the day after the class had been on a field trip--for me the concept was an entirely novel one--to a large sugar refinery across the Nile from Maadi. I admit that after the first 20 minutes the excursion was simply too boring to warrant much of my attention, but I had no choice but to stick with the group, steered from boiling vat to storehouse to cutting room, to the accompaniment of our guide's voluble enjoyment--30-minute explanations where only one minute would have been sufficient, an overabundance of technical language, an extraordinary air of self-satisfaction--to make matters even less compelling. He was a middle-aged gentleman wearing a tarbush who was seconded to us from one of the ministries expressly for this trip. Miss Clark was there of course. I paid very little attention to her, a great mistake. When she entered my field of vision, I saw her nodding (was it agreement, or understanding, or satisfaction at the torrent of information about sugar cane, its history and structure, the chemistry of sugar, etc.?) but I gave her no other heed. The whole trip was so bizarrely unlike anything my English colonial schools were likely to mount that I had not even begun to dwell on the differences between the authoritarian Brits and the benevolent Americans, who were so much more eager to give the Egyptians a democratic chance to be themselves.

The next day we convened as usual in the classroom. Miss Clark was already behind her desk and seemed as composed and inscrutable as ever. "Let's spend some time talking about yesterday's field trip," she began, then turned immediately to B.J., a short-haired girl whose clipped tone and businesslike manner quickly established her as the class touchstone. B.J. provided a detailed appreciation of the day's events. "How about you, Ernst?" she asked Ernst Brandt, the class' somewhat inarticulate but biggest and strongest boy. There was little more anyone could add to B.J.'s strenuous recital, and Ernst scarcely made the effort. "It was OK," was all he said. I sat there slowly drifting off into some idle daydream, once again paying Miss Clark's predatory instincts insufficient attention. "You were all very well-behaved yesterday: I'm proud of you," she said, and I thought she would then press on with our English assignment. "All except one person, that is. One person only paid no heed to Ibrahim Effendi's very helpful and fascinating commentary. One person only always lagged behind the rest of the group. One person only fidgeted the entire time. One person only never looked at all the machines and vats. One person only bit his nails. One person alone disgraced the entire class." She paused, even as I wondered who that person might be.

"You, Edward. You behaved abominably. I have never seen anyone so unable to concentrate, so inconsiderate, so careless and sloppy. What you did yesterday made me very angry. I watched you every minute of the time, and there was nothing you did that could possibly redeem you. I am going to speak to Miss Willis [the headmistress] about you, and I shall ask her to call your parents in for a conference." She stopped, looking at me with unconcealed distaste. "Had you been one of the good students in this class," she began again, "I would have perhaps forgiven your conduct. Had you been someone like B.J., for instance. But since you are undoubtedly the worst student in this class, what you did yesterday is simply unforgivable." The emphases were delivered with definitive italicized dispassion.

Miss Clark had purposely, deliberately, even fastidiously, defined me, caught me, as it were, from within, had seen me as I could or would not see myself, and she had made her findings extremely public. I was riveted to my chair, blushing, trying to look both sorry and strong at the same time, hating the by-now-thoroughly-concentrating class, each one of them, I felt, looking at me with justified dislike and curiosity. "Who is this person?" I imagined them saying, "a little Arab boy, and what is he doing in a school for American children? Where did he come from?" Meanwhile, Miss Clark was moving her books and pencils around on her desk. Then we returned to our recitation, as if nothing had happened. Although I glanced at her 10 minutes later to see if there might have been a relenting look for me, she remained as unshaken and as imperviously unforgiving as ever.

From Out Of Place, by Edward Said. Copyright © 1999 Edward Said. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc. All rights reserved.

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 57-58

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