When I was in 4th grade my teacher read this famous children’s book to our class: The Witches By Roald Dahl. The book is about a young boy who spends time with his grandmother and learned about real life witches from her. He even learned how to spot a real witch through a collection of symptoms.
In this list of symptoms, there were a few physical characteristics that really stuck to the memory of my classmates and I. Witches were bald, with large nostrils and hated children.
Two weeks later my teacher had to go on jury duty. We all loved our teacher dearly so not seeing her for a week was saddening for us. What was worse was that the most cruel substitute teacher of the school (at least in our nine year old minds) was assigned to our class. Her name was Miss Macnow.
Miss Macnow was a strict and aggressive old lady. She was not afraid to confront students directly and punish them in front of the class. She had an elaborate table with a list of good and bad students called “happy winners” and “sad sack” which she wrote on the board. I did not have a behavior issue, but I did sit near my friends. With the substitute teacher we hated, we were more wary, restless, and distracted. The list we were all on would change between the two constantly, putting us on edge.
We were miserable and stressed.
In lunchtime of my elementary school, each class would have its own assigned table. In Miss Macnow’s second day with us we had a class discussion among peers in our lunch break. We realized that Miss Macnow fit the exact description of the witches in the book our teacher had read to us two weeks ago.
Well… Maybe not exact. She only fit the description as much as we remembered from the book. All we remembered about the witches from the book were that they had wigs on, sharp noses, and were mean to children. Miss Macnow had an obvious blonde wig, big nostrils, and was very mean to us. We made the connection instantly.
In our eyes, she went from a figurative witch (for being mean) to a very literal real one. Boy were we frightened.
Throughout the rest of the lunch period we were trying to remember how the boy in the story addressed the witches. Unfortunately we had tuned out for that part of the book reading because there was construction work outside the class.
Throughout my childhood I had various Islamic teachers that would come to my home (or I would go to theirs) and I would learn how to read Quranic Arabic, memorize Quranic chapters (called Surahs), learn about Islam etc. It was a form of Sunday school for me that didn’t necessarily happen on Sundays.
After that entire week of being frightened around Miss Macnow and having no solutions of our own, my peers and I decided we were going to do our own “research”. This was before internet access was normalized, so to this day I have no idea how my peers wanted to research. Maybe they wanted to go to the library and check out a book on battling witches? Who knows.
In my case I decided to consult my Islamic teacher. He knows a lot of prayers and spells, I thought. He must know how to confront witches!
When I had told him about my teacher being a witch, he was initially alarmed at the sound of it. He had assumed I meant “real” black magic case. But when he realized I got the idea from a children’s novel, he laughed it off and told me if it isn’t Allah’s word, it’s false.
The following week our sensationalism had died down because of time, and we had gotten used to Miss Macnow’s menacing presence. By this point we realized we were being overly dramatic and laughed off the notion of her being a witch.
Eventually my teacher came back and we were glad to be reunited with our beloved teacher. Life went on.
Later that week I had seen my “Sunday school” teacher again. He asked me if I was still worried about the teacher. I said no and that our teacher had returned. The old man looked at me and chuckled. He then told me a story from the Quran about Moses having a mean person of his own to deal with: the Pharoah. Allah helped him escape the evil Pharaoh by splitting open a large body of water. His lesson from the story for was if I pray and believe in Allah, all mean people in my future won’t be so bad anymore because they aren’t superior to Allah, who had my back.
I then asked him if the Quran was just another story book like The Witches by Roald Dahl, and how we know these stories aren’t just stories like Robin Hood or other stories I read. I told him the Quran could be a story book he was taking seriously the way my classmates and I had.
He told me to shut up, threatened to hit me next time I ask this same question, and concluded with “these are Allah’s unchanged words delivered to Muhammed (PBUH). They are beautiful. More beautiful than any story book you read.”
I shut my mouth and continued reading. The fact that this grown man could not tell the difference between fantasy stories was amazing to me. But he knows better because he’s a grown up and I’m a kid, I thought.
And life went on.
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