Since this past Tuesday, I’ve given the idiom ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ literal meaning in the English classes I help teach at Ana Al-Masry. Well, maybe just the first part; I haven’t gotten any back-scratches myself yet.
Image courtesy of reddiva.wordpress.com
My career as a back-scratcher started with another one of the usual altercations that take place between Hamdy and Asam, two boys who have just recently left their lives on the streets and joined the organization. Asam can be extremely short-tempered, and on Tuesday he landed a hard blow to Hamdy’s back after the latter had said something to him. According to Asam, it was a ‘bad word’, but of course I didn’t understand it, and the caretaker who was with the class didn’t hear it.
I could have disciplined Asam (or Hamdy too, for that matter). Instead, I was reminded of a time when I had caused physical hurt to a classmate, but only after he had repeatedly taunted me, verbally and physically, and how I was made the only responsible party by the teacher. Disciplining children is indeed one of life’s gray areas, and I chose to be lenient that day – I simply sat with Asam, and since he was refusing to continue with his work and laying his head on the table, I started scratching his back to both coax him to sleep and provide a therapeutic avenue for some of his anger.
Since then, I’ve scratched Hamdy’s back as well (there is no way I can provide the service to just one of them without the other child throwing a massive tantrum), and the backs of a number of the other children, to calm them down when they are crying, or get them to fall asleep when they are uncooperative and disruptive to the class. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the joys of having your back scratched, I can sincerely attest to how wonderful back-scratching is; it is one of those things I terribly miss from being a child.)
Some of my colleagues have jokingly questioned if I’m simply taking the easy way out, especially with the objective of getting the children to fall asleep. After Thursday’s conversation with a Brazilian volunteer, Paolo, who helped Ana Al-Masry formulate its current education program, I feel partially vindicated. In the cases of Hamdy and Asam, Paolo advised that the priority should be to make them feel welcomed and wanted, instead of pushing them to complete structured classroom tasks.
I wonder if by virtue of us being educated Duke students, we burden ourselves with this notion that we need to fix problems and change lives. I know I think too highly of myself sometimes, forgetting that a better world should not be based on competition but cooperation. In the case of back-scratching, I see it as a way to cooperate with the needs of the children, for physical and emotional comfort, and not a competition to gain control of the classroom, which is more the strict disciplinary approach that I used to place a lot of faith in. I’m definitely re-thinking my approach to teaching the children, or even what I’m teaching them – love and compassion, versus control and aggression.
On a final and personal note, back-scratching has also reminded me of the changing relationship I’ve had with my father, that while I used to yearn for the back-scratches he would give me before bed, there is now more than a physical distance between us. There are other reasons involved, but we’ve also become increasingly estranged as I become more of a ‘man’. In the male-majority environment of Ana Al-Masry, I’ve noticed that the children face high pressure to measure up to the socialized idea of manhood, in order to have more control and less fear in their lives. Through back-scratching, I hope I can in my own way convey the message that both yearning for and providing physical intimacy is okay, that wanting and desiring love is not weak, it’s natural.