The world’s most powerful weapon

Tales of Two Cities

I’m sitting in my game theory class. It’s Tuesday. I have all the color-coded midterm questions our GSIs are frantically passing out. The clock hits 8:10, and a hush falls over 105 Stanley. Twenty minutes into the midterm, an alarm goes off, and white lights start flashing on each side of the room.

Everyone freezes.

A few seconds pass. A prerecorded voice rings throughout the hall, coolly informing us that there is a fire and that we should evacuate the building immediately. All scramble to their feet, grabbing their belongings. A GSI turns to us and yells at the top of her lungs: “Take your midterms with you!” I found it pretty unnecessary; everyone was already clutching those papers as if they were life vests.

Around 8:30, Stanley’s doors suddenly fling open, and hundreds of students stream out. About a third walk straight to the sidewalk, where they promptly plop themselves down and resume their work, ignoring the two fire trucks that have pulled up. Other students lean against walls right outside the building doors, furiously scribbling answers. The rest are sitting cross-legged on the grass, bent over their colorful midterms. The alarm continues ringing.

Now, I had seen the memes when the explosion happened that said something along the lines of, “Explosion on campus … Students worried about library closing.” But those were exaggerations. This fire-alarm incident, however, brings out the truth hiding behind the jokes: These UC Berkeley students were so invested that they actually ignored the threat of fire in the building and sat down to finish their exam. The same investment made by the students who stayed in lecture halls after the blackout a few weeks ago.

These Cal students’ determination to finish an exam or lecture through fire alarms and blackouts reminded me of students I met in a Syrian refugee camp last summer. My attention was drawn to two things the second I stepped out of the Jeep patterned with bullet holes: One was the sweat that immediately started trickling down my back and neck; the second a wooden sign that had two words scrawled on it: Madrasset Al-Awda (the School of Return). A tanned man named Abu Muhammad with a round face and a front tooth missing approached me, greeting me with “Hala hala hala, Ms. Sarah. You actually came!”

Abu Muhammad filled me in: My students had been longing for an English teacher for a long time, and I was the first of many who had promised to show up and actually come through. I was to teach in the biggest tent, smaller than half the size of FSM Cafe, and I had about 25 students.

I took my place at the front, greeted the pupils and introduced myself. Then I asked them how many days a week they wanted me to come. Silence ensued. One student raised his hand.

“Does seven days sound OK?”

I quickly learned to appreciate these 18-year-olds’ dedication. They left their tents at 8 a.m. to go to classes until noon, after which they would show up to my tent and would switch off English classes until about 4 p.m. I would send different groups on break, but most opted to stay inside and listen in on other sections’ lessons, although they were exactly the same as their own. Then they’d go home, back to chores and work until nighttime, where they’d sleep in cramped tents with their big families.

Eight hours of school nonstop sounds awful, but add in the sweltering heat, the depleted water sources, the dusty air and the uncomfortable plastic chairs crammed into a small tent. It sounds unbearable. But these students showed up every day without fail. And by the end of my course I had more than 50 students in my “classroom” who, at the end of each lesson, would ask me to stay and read Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to them, reminding me to write up difficult words on the board for them to memorize.

We all made the conscious decision to attend Cal: We all worked hard before applying, and we celebrated our admission briefly before realizing how quickly we’ve fallen behind. Yet we all continue to power through our classes every day. I don’t think we do this because it’s the way society works: I believe it’s because learning is a beautiful thing, that craving knowledge is entrenched in our being and that tapping into that desire can help us achieve wonders.

So whether you’re a freezing, shivering Berkeley student crouched outside of Stanley, or squinting your eyes to see the blackboard during a blackout, or a sweating Bacaloria refugee on the border of Turkey, I salute you.

Because remember: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on global perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @SarahDadouch.