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Student excuses of a different kind

From Julia Droeber in Nablus

Having taught at different universities, in different countries, and different disciplines, one thing has remained surprisingly constant across these differences: students' excuses for being late or not attending at all. I got used to count less grandmothers dying, to buses being late, or to being "unwell". The lack of creativity is actually quite amazing.

I didn't realise that, after many years of teaching, there would still be another excuse students have up their sleeves.

When I moved to Nablus over a year ago and started teaching at the university there, I was initially faced with the same old saga. Because students get expelled from a course for more than six unexcused absences, they usually start panicking at around five absences and come up with the usual stories. A couple of months ago, however, I heard a rather different story.

Large gateway
An Najah National University
Entrance to New Campus

English Language Exam

First of all, there was an English language exam (compulsory for all students of the university). Not having listened to the news in the morning, I went to university, only to find it deserted. It turned out that this had been the day, when an Israeli family had been killed in the Itamar settlement close to Nablus.

As a consequence, all the checkpoints around Nablus had been closed at the crack of dawn, nobody could leave or enter the city. First thing in the morning, the president of the university announced on local radio that the exam was cancelled until further notice. News of that sort spreads fast in Nablus, so none of the 7,000 students who were due to take the exam turned up.

Thursday lecture

A week later, with checkpoints reopened, one of my students came to me and asked for permission to miss the Thursday lecture (that's the last day of the week), because he wanted to check on his folks in Awarta, the village right next to the mentioned settlement, which had been under continuous curfew since the attack (he himself stayed with relatives in Nablus). This was one of the very few times that I actually believed in the genuineness of a student excuse and, of course, I let him go.

Arrests and curfew

The following week, two other students didn't turn up for lectures a couple of days in a row. When they returned to class, they explained that they, too, were from Awarta, where by that time hundreds of people had been arrested, and that they hadn't been able to leave the village because of the curfew. No questions necessary, that was a valid excuse.

Another delay

That same week, another student from Huwara, where the most notorious checkpoint of the Nablus area used to be situated (now only manned during crises such as the Itamar attack), came over half an hour late because the controls at the checkpoint had been tightened to the extent that there had been massive queues and hold-ups.

Long journeys

These days, life is actually fairly quiet in Nablus and such incidents have become the exception rather than the rule. I can only begin to imagine what it was like during the intifadas, when travelling to and from the university across checkpoints (or whatever other paths were open) would take hours and hours.

And yet, nobody would give in, the long journeys were made, and staff and students cooperated to keep education alive. Education against all odds. I'll never forget that photograph of a teacher doing his teaching at a checkpoint, in the open, as he and his students were unable to cross.

Listening to such stories, and experiencing it in my own classroom, has taught me one thing - that education around here is something people value very highly, probably more than in Europe. And while there are of course students, who are lazy and not really interested in their studies, most of them are really keen to learn.

After all, education offers them a window onto a world that most of them will not be able to visit or experience any time soon. University does feel a little bit like a safehaven, where dreams can still be dreamt, hopes nourished, and creativity developed.

Contributed by Julia Droeber

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