I’ve been teaching high school social studies for 18 years, so it’s hard for me to be shocked by the behavior of students. But every once in a while, someone manages to surprise me. One day last year I looked up at the auditorium stage to hear one of my students deliver a speech that changed my idea of what it means to be an American.
As you enter Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, the eyes of history are upon you. The portraits of women stretching back in a line to the 1930s form a gauntlet, the faces staring slightly down at passersby. Each one was named “Miss Hornet” for her class, as the embodiment of virtue and school spirit. The tradition is nearly as old as the school, founded in 1913.
As you walk the main hallway, a culture of inclusion unfolds. Hair styles change to reflect the ideal of glamour for a young black woman of a bygone era. In the 1970s, the afro suddenly asserts itself, loud and proud. In 1979, the first Asian face appears: a young émigré of Vietnam. That’s a good story. A few steps beyond and a white face appears among more black ones. In the last decade, the pattern portrays an explosion of diversity: South Asian, African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic. A reflection of the new America? Perhaps.
Then the last face: a smiling young woman, her hair covered in a resplendent white hijab.
Welcome to Booker T.
The same year the voters of Oklahoma approved a measure banning the practice of Sharia law in the state—a practice I am sure few of us understood and even fewer of us actually witnessed here—the voters of Booker T. Washington high school chose as their Miss Hornet a woman who wore head scarves and practiced a different religion. If you believe in the power of education to promote appreciation for cultural diversity, individual expression, and freedom of choice, then the appearance of Fareedah Shayeb on the Miss Hornet wall is an American success story. But, as is usually the case, a story offers as many angles as a portrait.
To run for Miss Hornet, you have to fulfill certain basic qualifications: GPA, attendance record, other measures of participation. You also have to pass peer review—selection by a number of homeroom classes. The real showdown takes place at an all-school assembly. The young women and men (there is also a Mr. Hornet) appear onstage and each takes a few minutes to leave lasting impressions on the student body.
Maxine Horner, a member of the class of 1951 and one of the first black women to enter the Oklahoma legislature, once said about BTW: “That school put a shine on you. You walked out of there and you didn’t know there was even such a thing as segregation. They put a shine on you and you felt like you could do anything.” Looking at the faces on that wall, you see pride, confidence, poise, and power. In those Baby Boom days, the ceremony was arranged by a teacher everybody called “Mama” Bratton. You did not cross Mama Bratton. The ceremony had all the trappings of a royal coronation.
In 1979, Thu-Hong Tran appeared onstage with a bundle of balloons of different colors. Losing one, she said, “This is what happens when you let one person rise.” Opening her hand, she released the rest of the bouquet. “And this is what happens when you let everyone rise together.” The student body, which had been integrated in 1973, got the message. She still relates with pride her time at Booker T., though she now lives in Boston, where she teaches science.
“Booker T. has a special place in my life,” she told me in a 2009 letter about how she tries to emphasize the value of education and discovery to her own children.
Today, the winner of the Miss Hornet contest is one who can turn unknowns into friends. The candidates usually sweep their peer groups, the people who know them best. The freshmen are the largest bloc of students with no real knowledge of any of the seniors, so they form a key swing constituency. To win their vote, candidates usually dance, sing, or perform something silly and outrageous. Raps and funky moves are common. It can be a fun show, and the September 2010 competition was no exception.
Until Fareedah approached the podium.
She’d been a student in one of my social studies classes every year for four years. You couldn’t miss her: She always sat in front, always asked questions and follow-ups, was happy to give you plenty of sass. And, of course, there was the hijab. Rather, many hijabs—she was no stranger to fashion, and could go a whole month without repeating her choice of scarf. “You will never see my hair,” she told me once, though on occasion I had noticed her scarf slipping a bit.
She was Booker T. through and through. Her mother, an alumnus of the school, teaches in the English department. Fareedah, who is African-American on her mother’s side and Palestinian on her father’s, was active in student organizations and took the most rigorous classes. She loved the pep rallies and the games, and she was always beaming. Her smile lit up any room. She had experienced some challenges as a Muslim girl in a Midwestern state—stares, awkward questions—but in general she had found a happy home for herself in our diverse student body.
But, could she be elected Miss Hornet by a body of 1,250 students?
I think she remembered the story of Thu-Hong Tran when she prepared her speech. When she reached the podium, she smiled broadly and said:
“Hi, my name is Fareedah Shayeb, also known as the girl in the scarf or as Ms. Asad-Pratt’s daughter, and I just want to start out by saying thank you so much for nominating me for Miss Hornet! I am going to start by explaining what I think Miss Hornet represents, then the good stuff will come later…
“So, basically, Miss Hornet is the girl in the senior class that embodies everything that is Booker T. So I am here to tell you why I think I could be that girl:
“Number 1, I love Booker T. so much. I know everyone on this stage does, too, and I am honored to be up here with all of them. I also think I represent how diverse BTDub really is. My name is Arabic and it just so happens to mean ‘unique.’
“So how many Muslim Miss Hornets have you heard about? Well, I am about 100 percent sure that I would be the first. And, honestly, how many Muslims do you know to begin with? All right, well, how many black, Arab, Native-American Muslims do you know? I know some of you wanted me to rap but I’m not sure that would have worked out very well so I am going to do something else. Because we all have to work with what we are given in life.
“You know some people wonder whether or not I could even fit a crown on my scarf and let me assure you that I can. And I am sure that every single person in here has, at least at one point or another thought: What does her hair look like?”
And then, before a hushed student body, she began unfastening the scarf. Hair tumbled out. She did not sing, or dance, or perform a rap. But she held that audience in her hand.
I was as transfixed as anyone else. It was a beautiful moment. The students voted over lunch and she won, of course. But then something else developed. Fareedah had been wearing a wig! She hadn’t actually revealed her natural hair.
The rumor mill had already been turning, of course. Some students had wondered whether her unveiling had meant she was no longer a Muslim. A few were upset, feeling that they had voted under misleading conditions. It’s hard for a teacher to sample student opinion on a point like this, so I’m sure I don’t understand the public mood completely. But I do know that Fareedah bore the questions with her usual character and courage. She wore the scarf again every day and went about her business.
Talking to Fareedah, I knew that she had given the matter a great deal of thought. Growing up in Tulsa, she had endured the looks and questions for a long time. Her scarf was an endless source of speculation. Coming of age after 9/11 didn’t help, of course. And while she is classified as black or African-American, she didn’t always fit in with black culture here in Tulsa. She had grown up living in multiple worlds. Maybe this is what had prepared her for the event. When you consider the row of Miss Hornets from the last decade, it becomes clear that the winners are the ones who can cross cultural lines. I think Fareedah was having a bit of fun at the expense of anyone who had ever questioned her: If you think there is something magical about my scarf, or that it defines me as a person, then you deserve to be fooled.
It was as though Andy Kaufman had been elected prom queen.
That was in September. The year wore on and Fareedah was crowned in a beautiful ceremony and her picture was added to the wall. She busied herself with her studies and high-school life. She wrote papers, took exams, applied to schools and hung out with her friends. She was very much the ordinary, if over-programmed, modern American teenager. Life continued, and it turned out that most people didn’t really care about the scarf. It’s a diverse school after all: We select students on a geographic basis and there is no racial majority on the campus. Since there is no one dominant group, students have traditionally felt freer to express themselves as individuals. They learn to make choices about themselves. In general, the students accept and move on. In many ways, I think they are better than adults at accepting change.
Finals came with a rush, and the year raced to an end. Then, in May, during the Senior Farewell Assembly, Fareedah closed the story. Amid the testimonials and the farewell performances, Miss Hornet 2010 appeared on the stage to say goodbye—in curls. No scarf this time, no wig, and no gimmick, just a bright teenager with a gleaming smile. As she said later, “Why should something as insignificant as a scarf matter? The Qur’an doesn’t say that women must cover their heads. It just says to be modest.
“Plus, it’s not that great for my hair.”
In her own terms, Fareedah revealed herself to a school she had grown to love over four years. She had grown from a precocious freshman into a more mature young woman, capable of making her own decisions about her identity. She was happy and ready to take on the world. Last month, Fareedah wrote to me reflecting on the event.
“People fear what they don’t understand and I live amongst people that are chronically misinformed. And that not only does that make my life more difficult because of cultural misperceptions, but it adds another strike against me in a male dominated society.”
Ironically, I barely noticed the event. Like most teachers, I was standing in the back of the auditorium talking about schedules or some other minutiae when she appeared on stage. It took me a minute to realize what was going on. Maybe that was because of the student reaction. Some of them already knew what was going on, and some of them didn’t particularly care. In the end, the story was not that a Muslim girl was elected Miss Hornet, or that this proved that the school was culturally tolerant. Students don’t think like educators, and teenagers don’t think like their parents. For them, the scarf was ultimately no big deal.
That’s the lesson.
Note: This article was originally published September 26, 2011.