Read, Learn, and Protest

I begin handing out copies of the 167-page book we will be reading together in class. On the cover is a portrait of a young girl wearing a black headscarf and smiling like an old woman with a broken heart. The students take a minute to look at her photograph as each gets a copy.

“Is that her?” they ask.

“But she’s just a little kid.”

“How old was the husband again?”

“What an asshole.”

For a moment, there is silence. Then:

“But do we really have to read the whole thing or are we just gonna read parts of it?”

“We will read the whole book.” I say, holding my own copy close to my chest and leaning against the desk in the back of the room.

“Yo, I ain’t never read a book in my life.”

“Word, bro.”

“We’re going to read it together in class.” I say, afraid that they will protest a read-aloud on account of being too old. But they don’t object to reading together so much as to the idea of reading itself.

“Oh, my God, I hate reading,” says Emily, while she applies Wite-Out to her pinky nail. I walk up to her, take the Wite-Out away, and say, “Seriously?” She giggles when I make a face to say, hello, we’re in high school, and says she’s sorry.

“So boring. I’m not reading this thing.”

“This shit is stupid.”

“No, but, like, seriously: Isn’t there, like, a movie we can watch instead?”

“Yeah, like Twilight.”

“That’s really a book, you know. I mean it was a book before it became a movie.”

“Yo, that shit is dope.”

“Yo, she be throwing mad shade. Look at her face! Why you making that face, Maryam? ‘Cause he said shit again or ‘cause you don’t like Twilight?”

“It’s just not my kind of thing. But I haven’t read it, so I probably shouldn’t really say anything about it,” I say.

“But you seen the movie, right?”

“I would never,” I say, shaking my head and grimacing, inviting booing and oh-ing from almost everyone in the room.

“What? How? How do you not like Twilight? It’s, like, the best book ever.”

“You read the book?” I ask.

“No, I saw the movie, but it was a book, so.”

“Hey, Maryam, can we use that on the Regents?”

I tell them I think they will love Nujood’s story. As part of an online learning component of the class, the students have already viewed a brief documentary about Nujood Ali, the ten-year-old Yemeni girl who became the first girl in the country to win a divorce case, and has since become a spokesperson against child marriage. Someone asks why I can’t just tell them what happens in the book. I say, “Because reading is good for you.” They roll their eyes and I tell them the author has a purpose for every line and scene, and all the meaning of the story would be lost if I condensed it all into a few lines. I tell them the story would sound trite, and Gina asks what that means. Joshua says it means stupid, so small it don’t matter. Chris says, “Ooh, there go the professor,” and I smile and say, “Nice job, Josh; it’s something that’s unimportant and petty.”

I ask them to make a connection between what they have learned about Nujood from the documentary, and everything else we have learned in class so far. I jot down the links they find between Nujood Ali and Malala Yousafzai, whose UN speech we have studied as an example of protest literature. They also discover similarities between Nujood and the girls and young women profiled in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky. They say what all of them have in common is that they went from being victims to being fighters.

Over the next few weeks, we read aloud, stop to ask questions, discuss the author’s purpose for juxtaposing Sana’a and Khardji, for using Nujood’s voice instead of a third person point of view, and for repeating over and over again that Nujood was “small, too small,” “young, too young,” and that the thirty-year-old man who married and raped her when she was eight years old was a “monster” and a “beast.” Everyone follows along and takes notes; almost everyone volunteers to read. Some of the readings are so dramatic that they either make us laugh or send shivers down our spines. We read sitting in a circle, and take turns without going in any given direction or raising hands. They shake their heads, kiss their teeth, say, “Yo, this shit is crazy.” Not a single kid asks why we’re reading this book. No one asks that we stop.

“But, like, can he really do that to her?”

“Yo, why would you wanna sleep with a little girl? What kinda man does that?”

“What the hell is wrong with her parents? Are they crazy? How you not gonna help your own child? Uh-uh, no.”

“Wow, this girl is mad strong. She did something a grown-ass woman would be scared to do.”

“This shit makes me wanna go do something. You know, like, fight for something.”

“Yo, go get a job first.”

“No, but for real. Can you imagine living in a place where you got no say in what happens in your life? Like, shit is just gonna happen to you, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it?”

“That’s so sad.”

“It’s crazy. Why nobody not doing nothing about it?”

We talk about tradition, religion, poverty, illiteracy, and power. Our words of the day include oppression, marginalize, activist, resistance, solidarity. We write responses to scenes, hold seminars to talk about the meaning and implications of this story. When we finish the book, too many kids say this was the first book they ever read. We ask why it is that some stories leave us yawning, while others hold us in a tight grip. We ask what, if anything, makes Nujood’s memoir an effective work of protest literature.

“I think it’s effective.”

“Why?”

“Because it makes us wanna do something.”

“Yeah, and it makes you feel their pain.”

“And, like, I never knew this stuff was happening, but now because of this story, I do. Who was that guy that said good protest literature don’t always have to make people wanna do something. You know? The one who said that protest literature is something that, like, opens people’s eyes to something they don’t know about?”

“Good memory, Daisy,” I say. “That was Howard Zinn.”

“But so what’s the point of protesting if nothing ever gonna change? Like, Nujood and Malala and those girls in Half the Sky, they all got out, but, like, there’s still millions of girls getting raped out there. Ain’t nobody doing nothing to stop it. That movie said how selling girls is a business. So who cares if they make these movies and write speeches and books when they be doing this shit to girls all over the world?”

We are in the middle of this conversation when Boko Haram kidnaps two hundred Chibok girls from their classrooms.

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