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Arabian Autographs: Kindergarten In The Kingdom

“I began to delight in the joys of learning many of the children possessed. To see the looks on their faces at a simple science experiment or the breathless rapture on hearing the same story for the twenty-ninth time was a reminder of how ‘tuned out’ we as adults obviously become…’’ Angela Townsend becomes a kindergarten teacher in Riyadh.

After weeks of completing observation and providing assistance, I am now the proud ‘owner-operator’ of a KG2 class in a downtown Riyadh preschool.

The four and five-year-olds are a lively group of mainly Arab descent, including Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian, Tunisian, Iraqi and those who insist they are Canadian.

After teaching English to adults, kindergarten was a bit of a shock to the system. Before the first week was through, I seriously considered giving up my new career of kindergarten teacher.

I witnessed a Harry Potter look-alike shoving coloured pencils down his pants, much picking of noses and petty squabbling. However, as I am used to seeing such sights on my husband’s favourite political programs, I decided to give it another week.

Once the shock wore off, I began to delight in the joys of learning many of the children possessed. To see the looks on their faces at a simple science experiment or the breathless rapture on hearing the same story for the twenty-ninth time was a reminder of how ‘tuned out’ we as adults obviously become.

I recently accompanied my class and several others on a day trip to ‘Fantasy Land’, one of four amusement parks just outside the city. The children went on kiddy-sized bumper cars, merry-go-round, ferris wheel and other rides before we had lunch on a (rare) shaded grassy area.

We were all eager for the grand finale – the dolphin show. The classes filed into the huge tent and up into the bleachers. A big pool lay before us, complete with hoops dangling from the ceiling. A hush came over the crowd as a man started speaking over the microphone – in Arabic. Once again, I wished I had made the (rather huge) effort to learn Arabic.

Another man came out in a wetsuit and summonsed an enormous sea lion, seemingly from nowhere. The children –and more than a few adults - squealed in delight as the sea lion stood to attention and clapped his flippers together before splashing into the pool. He leapt from the pool at our end, splashing the first row, and caught the rings thrown from the audience over his head. I could hardly believe I was witnessing a sea world-style event in the middle of the desert – hundreds of kilometres from the sea – especially so once the two dolphins put in an appearance.

The dolphins impressed the young –and not so young – audience with their tricks and even posed for photographs afterwards. The management allowed up to ten people to pose with the dolphins - out of water – in order to sell photographs for an affordable $5 Australian.

While the facilities seemed adequate (the vet nurse side of me coming out) I did not like to see the dolphins on the mat surrounded by people all wanting to lay their hands on the vulnerable mammals. It has been a long time since I visited San Diego Sea World but I doubt whether this practice would be allowed there or at other such facilities.

The Arabs, in general, dislike most animals, even those considered domestic in other countries. Stray cats and kittens roam the busy streets, scrounging beneath cars and in rubbish skips for morsels of food. Dogs are less of a problem here than Bahrain but I am starting to worry about the types of animals on the loose around Riyadh.

The pet shops here are less ‘pet’ shop and more like a mini zoo. Exotic animals like snakes and monkeys are freely available to anyone with the money and ‘coloured’ chickens are a popular plaything for children – until the dye poisons them.

One teacher told me of a child who brought a small crocodile to school for the letter ‘c’ show and tell. What happens when it grows too big to be a safe pet? Is it thrown into the street or into one of the few shallow lakes or waterways? I shudder to think of the possibilities. Rare birds, most smuggled into the country, are also for sale.

Muslims I have spoken with say Islam discourages animal ownership, believing they are dirty and unhygienic. Therefore, many Arab children grow up without pets and never come to experience the all-important emotion of empathy. Yet it has been proven that caring for a pet is a beneficial experience for children and adults alike.

Mmmm, I can’t help but wonder how Osama may have turned out with a cat or hamster as his childhood companion….

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