The School in the Sand

By: Jenna Griffith

The Courtyard
The Courtyard
The dull orange sand dunes surrounded us everywhere as we drove into the desert silence on the main highway leading to Nahel Town. It was the first day of school and my first day as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates. I was carpooling with a fellow teacher and I was terrified – but why?

Wasn’t I the teacher who was able to get inner city kids to love writing? Hadn’t I taught students who were involved in gangs, drug deals, and bloody fights? I had driven every day for two years into the east side - a place full of concrete, garbage, and abandoned houses. Why did a little all-girls school in a small desert town make my stomach churn?

But the doubt wasn’t even the worst part of my inner dialogue – it was the sharp negativity that really made me want to turn around and disappear. I was laid off a year ago, unable to find work near my hometown. I was worthless, I told myself. After all, if I was a good teacher then why did they lay me off? What if after a year of unemployment I was unable to be a good teacher? Unable to connect with my students? Unable to be successful here? Failing here would mean that I really wasn’t meant to be a teacher. Failing here would mean that after a year of searching for a new job I would once again be tossed aside, drifting in a society that was not my own, and among a culture and a people I did not yet understand. Fear was consuming me.

As we pulled into the school parking lot a bus was docked outside the school entrance. Girls of all ages wrapped in beautiful black abayas (long black dresses covering the arms and legs) with shaylas gently wrapped around their faces, some hiding their eyes, walked passed us and disappeared into the school building. As my carpooling buddy and I walked into the school, a covering of sand trailed behind us. A small atrium and main office area greeted us as well as a group of women also donning black abayas and black shaylas. Some abayas were embroidered or had sequence shinning off the silky black fabric, others were plain, some even had bright colored thread sewed around the wrists and neckline. They were beautiful. As the women and girls entered the school their shaylas became looser and their beautiful black hair gracefully fell framing their faces. Everything was different and beautiful and confusing.

The group of women approached us, but not with smiles. Their brows were furrowed in confusion and the Arabic quickly running away from their lips did not express relief or welcome. Did they even know we were coming? Two women walked over to us. One was wearing loose fitting pants, her hair in a black pony tail. Her uncovered hair and her hazel eyes immediately let me know that she was a foreigner here like me.

“Hi, I’m Ceci. I’m in charge of cycle 3. Welcome to Nahel.” The other women, wearing an abaya and shayla spoke to us in a clear Canadian accent, another telling feature that she too was a foreigner.

“Hello, welcome to our school. My name is Sonia. Are you here to teach?” Both Jennifer, my carpooling buddy, and I looked at each other and then nodded at her.

“I was hired for cycle 1,” Jennifer said.

“And I was hired for cycle 3,” I replied with nerves still spinning in my stomach.

“Ok, well, this is a surprise for all of us. We just got a new principal and thought we would be short two teachers this year. So, while we get things sorted, Mrs. Beverly will give you a tour of the building.”

We followed Beverly through the door and into an open, round, courtyard. Maids were sweeping sand into piles trying to clean the space. A large yellow awning spread itself across the top of the open courtyard. Murals were painted on all the walls depicting Emirati culture. Children were playing, sitting, talking. We saw the classroom areas - thankfully the AC from the classroom provided relief from the oppressive heat - the gymnasium, a small stage with chairs set up in the auditorium, a computer room, and our office. Once finished we headed back towards the atrium and the main entrance.

The vice principal sternly and confidently gave us our assignments. Jennifer was to go and teach the grade 5 class and I was to go and teach the grade 11 class. I was nervous. Thankfully I had prepared a small get-to-know-you game.

As I walked across the courtyard, the sun somehow streaming through the thin yellow awning, I opened the door of the classroom. The heat fell from my face as the cold AC dried the sweat on my skin. A group of 15 girls sat in desks and stared at their new teacher. With their abayas off each girl was wearing a navy blue dress that covered their arms to the wrist and had fabric flowing to the floor. They seemed to be waiting for something and then I realized they were waiting for me. Only one thing seemed important at the time and so I said,

“Okay girls, let’s get to know each other . . .”

And as I called on the first girl I felt a smile pass across my face, a cool calm flow through my fingers, and could sense a glitter in my eyes as I met my first student. The sand dunes stood outside my window along with the blistering heat and finally, after a year of unemployment, I was a teacher again.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJenna Griffith is an American expat living in United Arab Emirates. Blog description: The adventures and travels of a young couple teaching in the United Arab Emirates.
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Lindsey Brown wrote 10 years ago:

I have been following Jenna 's blog since last June when she & Scott relocated, bravely abroad to the United Emirates- I love living vicariously though her stories of travel. When she first arrived I could tell she was nervous & lost in translation but today she blogs happily about her close relationships with her students & her appreciation for the experience. She would humbly say another entry should win over her but I read them all & Jenna is a deserving candidate.

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