From Mogadishu to Portland, Maine

Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed is co-principal of Deering High School. This is the second of a series to be published in Amjambo Africa describing his journey from life in military-ruled Mogadishu, Somalia, to the first African-born leader of a school in Maine. Dr. Ahmed is married and has four children.

The five minutes between classes were not enough. I needed to check different websites for news from my hometown of Mogadishu, Somalia. The previous night, I had been able to talk to my mother on the phone, and she had told me that the fighting was getting closer and that she had to get out of the city by dawn. I felt helpless, and emotionally paralyzed. I was not able to be there for my mother to get her out of the war zone. I could only wait for her calls. So I left my phone on during classes, and told the students that I was expecting an important call.

The bell rang. My block four students were arriving. As usual, I was at the door, greeting students. One of my students, who is also from Somalia, asked me if I was aware of the renewed fighting in Somalia. Controlling my emotions, I answered “yes” and continued greeting students. I am sure my Somali student was also worried about relatives back home. But our job at school is not to worry about what is happening outside of the class: I have to teach, and he has to learn.

But tears filled my eyes as I explained the learning objective and expectations of the lesson to the students. I don’t know which students realized what I was feeling, if any. I know I did not want to cry in front of my students. Soon after, I made sure everyone was engaged in their small group activities, and went back to my desk to check the Somali language websites. For me, checking the news was both important and urgent that day. I wanted to know what was going on in my homeland, thousands of miles away.

I did not see any new stories titled “deg deg,”’ which means “breaking news” in Somali. So I closed my school-issued Apple laptop and headed toward the students’ work stations to make sure they were engaged in schoolwork, and not using their iPads for other purposes. Ironically, and perhaps hypocritically, I did not want them to do like me – to attend to other things that were important to them.

Other than the Somali student, I did not know if they also carried around secrets – every one of them had replied to my doorway greetings with “good.” As teachers do, I assumed they felt no urgent need to check the news or their phone messages. I wonder if I should have shared the emotional pain I was going through with my students. Maybe then they also would have shared their own challenges with me as well, instead of just saying “good.”

As educators, I think we should humanize teaching and teachers, and move towards more community building. Then maybe our students would open up to us. But I wanted to cover the Earth and space science curriculum, and I was focusing on using the classroom management techniques I had acquired from teacher education courses, and my own experiences, to prevent students from being distracted by their devices. Yet, as a teacher, I was distracted!

Finally, later in the day, during a class, my phone rang. It was my mother. In a short conversation she told me, “I am out of the city, and I am fine.” My students must have seen the sudden change of my mood from low and depressed to so much better. They matched my happiness with their own happiness. I wish I had told my students what I was going through that day, and what that telephone call meant to me.

The events in this essay took place in 2007 and were recorded by Dr. Ahmed in his journal.