You Can Learn Everything You Need to Know by Teaching 4th Graders in Iraqi Kurdistan - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Boys and girls in uniform on the playground.
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It takes a lot of small lessons to make some big ones.

By Eric Czuleger

I was teaching fourth grade in Iraq, and in 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan was voting on its independence from federal Iraq. I wanted to be there to see what it was like to live in a country that was voting itself into existence. Countries, we sometimes believe, are monolithic and unchanging, when it’s quite the opposite. Since 1990, 34 new countries have appeared on the map, rendering whole inventories of globes utterly useless.

I started looking for a job in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. As it turns out, very few people wanted to teach verbs to 8-year-olds 45 minutes away from where the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Mosul. So, two quick interviews and a 27-hour journey from Los Angeles later, there I was, in front of a classroom of fourth-grade Iraqi children armed with nothing but a whiteboard marker.

During my first two months of bloody noses, pooped pants and suspicious moments of calm, I realized that being a teacher is a good deal like being the leader of a small, internally divided and potentially violent country. A leader must create rules that everyone can follow. They must reward those who abide by the rules and punish those who break them. A leader must instill a sense of galvanizing identity and, above all else, maintain the illusion that they are a leader.

I’m the tallest person in the room so it’s an easy illusion to maintain.

Children know what adults claim to have tamed in themselves: They know that violence is an antidote to fear.

Outside my classroom, there is an uneasy optimism on the streets of Erbil. After generations of warfare and heartbreak between Erbil and Baghdad, there seems to be a glimmering end in sight. Saddam Hussein waged his attempted extinction of the Kurdish population in the ’90s, then civil war tore the region in half.

In the early 2000s investment poured into Iraqi Kurdistan as it emerged an island of relative calm between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. But then the Islamic State sprinted across the border between Syria and Iraq to fight for their own nation. The Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers fought back alongside the alphabet soup of regional and international forces, and the world’s eyes were on Iraqi Kurdistan for a brief moment. It took that moment to declare its independence.


I enter my classroom. The kids say hello to me in sing-song unison. It is three days before the vote on independence, and my fourth-graders can’t sit still. School is canceled for the vote. It’s going to be a long weekend, so the kids are excited and therefore a heartbeat away from total chaos, but I’m the tallest one in the room, so I have to maintain the illusion of order. But that’s all it is at the end of the day: an illusion.

My kids fight. They form alliances, they make deals, they break truces, they stab each other in the back and save one another from ruin. Ibrahim weeps every day because he’s forced to sit next to his sworn enemy, Mahmoud. Soon, Ibrahim realizes that Mahmoud can draw Dragon Ball Z characters really well, and Mahmoud discovers that Ibrahim loves Minecraft as much as he does. A new alliance is formed from a common goal: ignoring their teacher entirely.

Fourth grade is the United Nations without suits and salaries.

I tell my kids to take out their books. The bell rings. I check outside the classroom for any remaining students. Siva comes storming down the hall. He is red-faced, with rageful tears spilling out of his eyes. I stop him before he gets into the classroom because one angry student can turn into 30 angry students.

The boys point fingers. They say, “He did it. He did it.” They demand a restoration of the honor they both threw away by pummeling each other.

Mohammed runs up behind Siva to get in front of the lies that Siva is probably telling me. Mohammed’s face is bruised and streaked with tears. The boys begin yelling in a mix of Arabic and Kurdish at each other. I separate them: Mohammed, please go stand on that side of the hallway. Siva, stay here and talk to me.

Mohammed allegedly told the class that Siva liked a girl. Siva reportedly said “fuck you” to Mohammed. Mohammed and Siva came to blows because their burgeoning egos were too damaged to discount words as just words. The allegation that Siva liked a girl and the fuck you in response were a rubicon crossed by both of the boys. Violence was the only logical conclusion.

Children know what adults claim to have tamed in themselves: They know that violence is an antidote to fear. It is not a good antidote, but often, it is the only antidote. So the boys swung fists and lunch boxes. They kicked and bloodied each other. They fought under the stairs while some students watched, some went to tell teachers and others were too absorbed in the bright sunny day to care.

This is how conflict works in the world. This is how conflict really works, and it is no illusion. Between these two boys, honor had to be preserved, and it had to be done through violence. The boys, crying, scraped and bleeding, have learned a lesson that nation-states learn only to forget, time and time again: Violence humiliates us all eventually, and while it is not a good option, it often is the only option.

The boys point fingers. They say, “He did it. He did it.” They demand a restoration of the honor they both threw away by pummeling each other.

I’ve got 30 other students who haven’t beaten the snot out of one another. I have to be the tallest person in the class for them too. I punish both of the boys for fighting. Lunch detention on Sunday. The rules are the same for everyone. I tell them to wash their faces and come back to class when they are ready. I return to my classroom, which has become a roaring mob of 8-year-olds too keyed up on the fighting to focus on spelling and sentence structure.

But we have to move on. The class has to move on because the class is more important than any one student. Kurdistan is voting on its independence in three days. There has been talk of economic sanctions and civil war. Turkish forces bombed northern Kurdistan for the first time in two years. The Iraqi army is beginning to crack down on border checkpoints. Iran has shuttered its border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia has just cut a deal for Kurdish oil. The United States is sitting back and watching it all play out.

We will soon find out who the tallest person in the room is.

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