War is a great teacher

By Marily Sasota Gayeta

Arab Spring. Libyan civil war. NATO airstrikes. Deadly tribal clashes. How does a Filipino expat teach in such a backdrop?

Burdened by  mounting financial woes, I packed up my bags and flew to Libya on October 18, 2009. I was assigned to teach at the College of Arts ( Kuliya A-Dab, in Arabic) in Sebha City, about 640 kilometers from the capital Tripoli. My first year in this North African country  was actually better than I expected. Libyans  are wonderful people. Friendly, hospitable, passionate. Amid the beige-colored terrain, authentic shawarma and  the welcoming locals, I felt at home.  I taught various English subjects to college kids. As a reward,  my comatose bank account started showing some signs of life.

 But then, war came. February 17, 2011 to be exact.  It was a domino effect of the  Arab Spring that started in Tunisia. Authoritarian leaders, well-entrenched in the corridors of power, fell one by one.  Libya was seething in conflict.

Things changed drastically for me and my students.            

           With most foreign teachers gone, many classes had been left teacher-less.  I, with some other teachers, stayed to salvage whatever could be salvaged in the semester. Connected to our students by mobile phones, we would alert each other whenever there was a gunfight or a bombing. When the fighting subsided, teachers would cautiously go back to the college and teach whoever was there. And a handful would always be there.

            As a college teacher, I knew the sentiments of the Libyan youth. I could feel the simmering tension. Classes were polarized by opposing  political beliefs. Friendships had been severed.  Teachers were aware of the raw nerves and cooled down arguments right away before they turned nasty. Or deadly. In a place where guns are as ubiquitous as the sand, the last thing  we wanted   were  heated, emotional  debates.     

            War  dramatically  changed  my students’ lives.  I had witnessed how carefree teenagers became  socially involved  citizens. I had seen how weak  girls turned  into  tough orphans. Before my eyes, timid boys  transformed into fearless warriors, brandishing armalites and guns. Empty  classroom seats, which—before the war I dismissed as bouts of illness or laziness, now worried me no end .  Has  Khalid  gone to the battlefieldOr  has  Mariam  been  caught in thecross-fire?  These young men and women  were a  part of  my decision to stay. A teacher cannot NOT LOVE  her students even if they are not related  by race and religion. They always form a special bond and  hard times make that  bond stronger. Even  now, after almost a decade, my heart still aches  for the boys who went to war and never came back.         

     Sometime in May of 2011, I was conducting an exam in Transformational Generative Grammar ( TGG ). It was a class of about 25 and majority were  teenage girls. About ten minutes into the exam, a gun fight erupted about five kilometers away. We could hear the distant, muffled shots.  After a few more minutes, the shots got louder.  We realized that it was a running gunbattle and it was moving towards us. I made a decision: “ Okay, let’s stop this exam and continue on another day. Let’s all go home. Call your fathers and brothers to fetch you.” But  nobody moved. Not even one student looked away from her paper. I repeated myself, louder: “ Let’s go home. It’s okay not to finish the exam. Call your fathers and brothers.”

   Again, nobody moved, as if they heard nothing. My students all stubbornly continued with the exam. The gun battle was still  raging  on,  and it was getting fiercer and closer. The glass panels of our windows started clattering and  I was worried they would  shatter anytime. The ground beneath our feet trembled. The air reeked with  smoke and gunpowder. A girl looked up to me and flashed a naughty smile: “ You will die with us.”  I gave off a nervous laugh: “ So be it.”  For almost an hour, the class ignored  impending injury and death.

    They only left after completely finishing the test. These young, pampered  Libyan girls — with veiled  heads and henna-tattooed hands — answered each question with laser-like focus and composure. I watched them in awe. It was a privilege of a lifetime to witness such courage.  It was, and still is,  my proudest moment as a teacher.

 I bid goodbye to this beautiful country on August 12, 2012. My stint as an expat teacher in Libya was both inspiring and heartbreaking, challenging and transformative.War is ugly but it taught me beautiful things: courage, resilience, humility, compassion and survival.  Indeed, war is a great teacher. And  the lessons stay with you for a lifetime.


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