When my son's first-grade teacher asked during "meet the teacher night" if I would talk to the entire first and second grade about Ramadan, the Tricia in me wanted to scream, "You're the teacher. You teach them about Ramadan!"
Tricia, the name my parents shouted whenever I acted up, is the name I've given to my adolescent self. Yes, in that moment, sitting on a chair too small to support my adult thighs, was an insecure teenager too angry to talk to 120 first and second graders. She was angry with a world where Muslims have become synonymous with suicide bombers and where a public school in California is sued for inviting a Muslim family to share its traditions at the school. But the Ali's mom in me, the responsible parent, said, "I'd love to."
The truth was, I was more afraid than angry. My son's father, Ali's "baba," wasn't there. The combination of a sagging US economy and too many "How long have you been in this country?" interview questions (he is Arab-American raised in Los Angeles) had driven him to accept a contract offer to work in Dubai, thousands of miles away.
When Ali was back in preschool and kindergarten, his father and I had done presentations about Ramadan or some other aspect of Muslim culture. My role, thankfully, was limited to handing out cookies. There were good reasons for this. Ali's baba was raised Muslim. He was the one who studied Islamic studies in college. I was the convert. True, for the past 10 or so Ramadans I had fasted, but I still had to think about how many Rakas (ritual units) to pray at the evening prayer. And it was Ali's baba who wrote each child's name in Arabic, the language of the Koran. I could just barely differentiate an Arabic speaker from a French one.
But for better or worse, now the task of explaining Ramadan fell to me alone.
Two co-workers, Susan and Crystal, offered to help me plan the presentation and make 120 bookmarks with the Arabic alphabet on one side and a space for the children to write their birthdays using Arabic numerals on the other side. Susan, also Muslim, and her overworked doctor husband, spent an entire evening punching holes and tying ribbons into cardboard.
Crystal looked at the pages and pages I downloaded from the Internet, smiled, and said, "Keep it simple."
I knew she was right, but I hadn't a clue how to keep anything simple. That's when my friend the atheist, and the most spiritual person I know, came to my rescue.
"So, what is it you want these kids to get?" she asked.
"I want them to know there's more to Ramadan than just no eating and drinking for the month."
"Well, it's a time when we remember all that we have and we give special attention to those who don't have as much."
"OK," she said. "Say that."
Just when I thought I was ready, my son said to me, "Is Baba going to be here to come to my school, too?" And that's when it hit me. My son didn't care what we talked about. He just wanted his friends, his classmates, and his teachers, to meet his family.
And then, a miracle. Ali's baba called and said he was able to get time off; he'd be home the weekend before the presentation.
The kids loved him. When he taught them the Muslim greeting, "Salam Aleikum," (may peace be upon you), they shouted back, "Aleikum Salam," (and upon you be peace). Two boys in unison raised their hands and yelled, "Hey, it's just like Shalom!"
This time I did more than just hand out cookies, I talked to the kids, too. And when one child asked what month of the Islamic calendar did Ramadan fall on and Baba hesitated, I jumped in and said, "Nine." (Score one for the convert!)
As for my wish to teach these children the essence of Ramadan, well, let's just say, they already had it in them.
When the teacher asked if there were any questions, one child talked about the poor family on her grandmother's block who had to move away, and another child talked about a man who pushed his supermarket cart filled with cans and bottles. When the teacher reminded them it was question time, not sharing time, I could see that their faces were asking, "Why?"
It was then that I gained another insight on the reason children aren't expected to fast during Ramadan: They don't need to go without food and water to feel injustice. They get it.
I learned something else that day. It's good for an adult like me to keep sharing who I am with the world, too, even if that means more cookies and bookmarks.
• Patricia Dunn teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a writer and contributing editor for Muslimwakeup.com.