Last Wednesday saw the first parent teacher conferences of the year. I didn’t think much of them, seeing as I’d already met most of the fathers, and after school activities (especially on a Wednesday night) are not something that many people here in the Kingdom actively participate in. Only after weaving our way through traffic, arriving 20 minutes late, and seeing the mass of people waiting in the school foyer, did I then realize how much trouble was in store.
Things got off on a bit of a sour note. After trying, and failing, to lighten the mood with a few jokes about it being cold and drizzly back in the States and the distinct tone my Midwestern accent gives certain words, did I realize I needed to stop beating the bush and be brutally honest about how incredibly bleak the current situation really was. Parents were astounded with how honest and forthright I was willing to be when they started asking questions. They couldn't believe I was willing to tell them that I don’t really know why I’m here in this relatively weak excuse for a school without any resources, support, or administration. They were shocked when I showed them the pile of textbooks I have available (it’s about 40 total books for 14 students in 6 separate subjects). One father made me physically show him that the outlets in my room didn’t work, and then pulled out his phone charger to make sure I wasn’t lying to his face. I finally just told them that I meant no disrespect towards my employers, but I couldn’t lie to a roomful of parents who actually care deeply for their sons’ educations just to make everything seem okay. They were not happy campers 20 minutes into our hour long session.
One thing about Saudi culture that I’m still getting accustomed to is their ability to forgive. A sincere apology is worth its weight in gold here, and a grudge isn’t something that most people are willing to keep (religion aside). It’s incredible, at least from this Westerner’s standpoint, how serious issues are resolved with an ‘I’m sorry’ and a handshake. I stood in front of a room full of people who spend more than a fourth of their income on one child’s education and had nothing better to say than to apologize for my employer's mistakes. I was anticipating an ass-chewing, but instead was met with more than a few smiles. They appreciated the honesty. From that point on, we worked towards establishing a type of pseudo-PTA in an attempt to get organized, and I explained to them the different ways in which they could help get things accomplished around the school. For starters, I gave them the name and number of the many Vice Presidents, none of whom decided to show up for the evening.
After the hour meeting was over, I had a chance to meet with many of the parents individually and talk about their sons. It was one of the first times that I have seen that much devotion to the ideals of education, and it made me realize how much westerners like myself can take things for granted. Something as basic as an elementary education can mean the world to certain people, and the sacrifices some parents are willing to make in order to give their children a better chance can sometimes be overwhelming. Most of my students are fairly well-to-do and it’s sometimes hard to empathize with their attitudes considering their standard of living, but taking into account the obstacles put in place by their nationality, their religion, and their society’s views on life in general, it’s still pretty refreshing to see the hope their parent’s have for future.