(Story by Peter DeMarco)
They swapped Snapchat handles, frolicked on playground equipment, and wrapped arms around each other’s shoulders as they marched down the Lower School’s halls. When pizza arrived for lunch, everyone cheered; when it came time to leave, there were pictures and hugs.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said sixth-grader Kate Constan to her newest friend, a smiley, freckled girl named Yumnah Elshaar. “I wish you were at our school!”
For eight weeks, Constan, her BB&N classmates, and 17 students from the Al-Noor Academy of Mansfield had been old-fashioned pen pals, writing letters to each other as part of a school project. Finally, in late May, they got to meet face to face.
Al-Noor is a religious school for Muslim children, so in addition to standard courses such as math and English, students study Islamic history, pray, and girls, even sixth-graders, wear traditional Muslim hijabs -- long, black cloaks from their heads to their ankles.
One of the goals of the pen-pal project was to introduce BB&N students to the differences in their counterparts’ lives. Many of Al-Noor’s students, likewise, had never set foot inside a secular school. But what became clear, as the day went on, was just how much they all had in common.
Boys from both schools chatted about their favorite sports, YouTube clips and video games; girls exchanged social media contacts and fashion picks, complained about annoying brothers, and hung out on the playground’s “supernova” spinning wheel.
Within an hour of meeting, Al-Noor student Rayan Tabidi was giving her BB&N pen pal, Zoey Liu, a French braid in her hair.
“Everyone just does each other’s hair here,” piped in sixth-grader Lily Sidman, who shared Tabidi as a pen pal.
BB&N’s sixth graders are no strangers to pen pal writing, having written to children in Rwanda for the past five years under the direction of teacher Berhane Zerom. But with Al-Noor, students knew they’d eventually be hosting their pen pals at the Lower School, and taking a field trip to Al-Noor Academy as well. That heightened interest from the start.
“I would say in class that we’re going to read one of the letters as an example of something, and they were so excited they would say, ‘Can you read all of them!’” Zerom said. “They wanted me to read every child’s name and their pen pal every time.”
Students even embraced the idea of writing their letters in longhand.
“It’s kinda cool how you can put in all your stuff without interruptions. It’s a lot different than texting or social media, where responses are almost instant,” said student Shane Hanafin, whose pen pal was Al-Noor sixth-grader Mohid Nazir. “You put it down on paper, they take time to read it, it’s kind of more personal. You can hold onto it.”
Students from both schools were a bit nervous when the pen pals arrived around 10 a.m. But sixth-grade teachers Zerom, Leila Huff, and Stevie Olson, who spearheaded the project with Al-Noor teacher Hamzah Henshaw, threw them into games to break the ice.
Soon, BB&N students were traipsing around the school with their new best friends, showing off their lockers, the Thinker Lab’s neat 3D printer, art rooms and more.
As part of their letter writing, students from both schools were told to exchange their personal ideas about what makes a healthy society. During the visit, they wrote poems together based on their thoughts, and painted large canvasses in the school’s Community Room with images of peace, acceptance, and unity -- or salaam, tafaham, and tajamua in Arabic.
BB&N student Lea Newport, with the help of others, wrote in large, symbol-style letters the word “COEXIST.”
“Children seem to be more open than we are at times to embrace somebody who’s different,” said I'man Soloman, BB&N’s Lower School art teacher, who is Muslim, as students painted away.
Indeed, as Tabidi twisted strands of Liu’s hair, they weren’t the least concerned about religion or politics. Liu said she’d barely thought about Tabidi’s black hijab. But their mutual love of pizza and donuts -- that was worth discussing.
“I messed up!” Tabidi, braid in hand, cried suddenly.
“It’s OK,” Liu said.
“No, that looks really good,” a classmate, Michelle Barrocas, offered.
Tabidi relaxed and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.