The classroom could not be more humble. Its walls are barren aside from the inked scrawls of students and a cardboard teaching clock with both hands broken off.
But this room, measuring just three strides by six and overflowing with second-grade boys, is where a teacher's act of compassion turned into a national phenomenon. The story traveled from this remote Kurdish town on Iran's western border, over the mountains and rolling green hills that isolate the region from Tehran, and even caught the attention of President Hassan Rouhani, who asked the provincial governor to pass on his praise.
Eight-year-old Mahan Rahimi had lost all his hair to an immune system disorder, and was targeted at Sheikh Shaltoot elementary school by bullies who would take off his cap and laugh, or worse. He was depressed and hated school.
Then his teacher, Ali Mohammadian, stepped into the classroom one day last January, suddenly bald.
The 24 students gasped. Mahan recognized the message immediately.
“He looked at me for a second and I saw joy in his eyes in that first instant,” recalls Mr. Mohammadian.
The other students "laughed at me for two days, but I did not react,” says the veteran teacher with a quick smile, wearing traditional Kurdish dress. “I would tell them that many scientists, many intellectuals had no hair on their heads, and that having no hair is no problem.”
Soon, every student in the class had also shaved his head. The bullying stopped. Today Mahan looks at ease and happy, and appears to be friends with all.
Mohammadian, who has a small limp today, says he faced similar bullying as a child.
“When I was a kid, my leg had a problem; the unkindness of the students and even the teacher stayed in my mind,” he recalls. Mohammadian “didn’t want this tragedy to repeat” for Mahan.
In the US, such an example might make local headlines, and even catch brief national attention. But Mohammadian had no reason to believe that his action would resonate. Here, senior clerics, war martyrs, and veterans are turned into heroes, their images painted large on buildings and streets named after them. But ordinary Iranians rarely reach that status.
Iran has issued a special postage stamp with a photo of both Mohammadian and Mahan, hairless, above the inscription: “A Marivani teacher’s sympathy with his pupil is exemplary.” There is a Facebook campaign to add Mahan’s story to the official curriculum.
It was all set in motion when Mohammadian posted a photo of himself sitting in class next to Mahan, both bald, on his Facebook page. Although the social media site is officially banned in Iran, the post went viral. Messages of support poured in from as far afield as Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia, some of the respondents had freshly shaved heads, he says. One Facebook page with a photo of the pair got 7 million “likes.”
For the students “it has been a very good lesson,” says Mohammadian.
When asked, 9-year-old Mobin Rezaei admits that he often bullied Mahan. “I learned that I should not bother Mahan anymore,” he says.
“It taught them to have sympathy for other people, to love one’s [human] kind, and now this kind of humanitarian action has grown roots in their souls,” says Mohammadian of his students. “It doesn’t matter if you are Sunni or Shiite, Catholic or Buddhist, we are all the same as humans and will help each other.”
It is also a lesson in the power of social media networks like Facebook, without which the impact of Mohammadian’s head shaving might have stopped at the edge of Marivan’s Basij [militia] Boulevard.
When the students are asked how the message spread so quickly – turning their modest school with 126 students into a source of national pride – they say almost in unison: “In-ter-net.”
“Today’s world is a small world – it’s a global village,” says Mohammadian about how his first Facebook photo post in January “exploded and made a big noise.”
Within days the governor of Kurdistan province called Mahan's family. The governor had been asked by President Rouhani to thank them, and to follow up. The teacher and student traveled to Tehran for medical tests and met the minister of education, who kissed Mohammadian’s hands, a sign of highest respect.
That meeting coincided with “unity week,” which highlights the similarities of the two branches of Islam, Shiite and Sunni. Kurds are Sunnis and an ethnic minority in Iran, where Persian Shiites dominate. The minister told the bald teacher that “you made the Prophet Mohammad happy.”
The event gave voice to those living in a small town, from a “less-advantaged family and community, members of ethnic and religious minorities [who are] less able-bodied or different,” says a researcher in Tehran who asked not to be named. “It is indeed inspiring [and] a great example for a deeply divided society."
Remarking on the phenomenon, Mohammadian says, "My intent was not to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
"Our best teaching is indirect [and] this will last in the minds of my students all their lives.”