The first time Clayton Colliton talked with Iraqi educators he was heavily armed and cautious of his surroundings in Baghdad.
This time he was only armed with drinks and grace for his guests in his Ferris High School classroom.
On Monday afternoon, several Iraqi school administrators in suits walked into the soldier’s classroom with an entourage of translators and guides.
“I prefer it this way,” said Colliton, a boyish-faced man with a close-cropped military-style haircut.
The Iraqis toured a Cheney school last week and will be in the Central Valley School District today and Wednesday. They’re hosted by Eastern Washington University, which landed a U.S. State Department grant to expose Iraqi educators to the American system.
Colliton is a first lieutenant with the Washington National Guard. He did a one-year tour with the 1st Battalion 161st Infantry in Iraq that ended last spring. Then he rejoined his job at Ferris High School.
A class of his Ferris students arrived Monday afternoon to see a line of suited guests, most with graying or thinning hair.
Monday was the first time Colliton had met these men. Versed in Iraqi social expectations, he offered the educators a bottle of water or soda. Had there been more time, he’d have chatted casually about family matters first, as is the Iraqi custom. Instead, the visitors took turns talking about their lives in Iraq, where not every student has the luxury of being assigned an outdated 1968 science text book.
“They’re not worried about their Cheetos and Mountain Dews,” Colliton said after class.
Raad Jawad, a high school administrator from Baghdad, talked about the era of Saddam Hussein and how teachers under his reign had to be very careful what they taught.
“You know what a tyrant is. Yes?” Jawad said.
The point that hit home most for student Courtney Crater was that students who test high enough get a free college education. She was fascinated to hear that students in Iraq have fewer liberties than Americans, like being allowed to bring drinks into class or dress very casually. She was surprised to hear that many schools actually fence in students during the day.
“I couldn’t do that,” Crater said.
Schools in Iraq also divide boys and girls from the early grades. Later, after his talk, Jawad said the mix of boys and girls would be very distracting.
Student Sean Bulger was struck by the formal manner in which the visitors spoke. Yocoub Yousif’s shoes clicked on the floor as he stepped from along the wall to stand before the class. He stood erect and efficiently rattled off facts about the school he runs in Baghdad. Toward the end of the hour, the questions from students started slowing down, which left lulls in the exchange.
Colliton said his students knew more about Iraq then they let on, but didn’t seem eager to pose questions.
“People were kind of scared,” said Bulger, who managed to ask a few questions about the conditions of schools. “It was almost intimidating.”
All the Iraqi men agreed that Americans seemed to know very little about Iraq. Bulger said he had his own perception that Iraq was not exactly a progressive place with professionals in suits. That image was dashed Monday.
Hussain Yousif Ali, an Iraqi English teacher, used his five minutes in front of the class to talk about his home town of Babylon.
“We have such a civilization you can’t imagine,” said Yousif Ali, who pointed out a known history that goes back to 7,500 B.C. He encouraged them all to study other countries to truly become educated.
As the class ended, Colliton presented each guest with a red Ferris Saxon wristband. Then, one of the Iraqis jokingly asked Colliton if he wanted to buy some of the old Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein’s face imprinted on it. Such money is now worthless.
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