Searching for Normal

On the last day of school before the holidays, a bell sounds at Clements High and students spill from classrooms into the hallways. Most hurry excitedly toward the vast parking lot at this Sugar Land campus, but a few head the other way -- trickling into the small temporary building where Amy Lenord teaches Spanish.

They throw down books and start gossiping. As the room begins to fill, students stack desks along the walls, making space on the floor for three large patterned sheets.

From their backpacks, the girls pull crumpled scarves and drape them over their hair. Silence follows as students plop down onto the sheets in segregated rows, the boys in front of the girls. Kneeling over, a female pulls her shirt down to cover the love handles peeking from her low-rider jeans, while a male seems unbothered by the four inches of boxer shorts he's showing as he bends toward Mecca.

"Don't be embarrassed of who you are," senior Zaid Amin says as he begins the prayer. "Y'all are pure in the heart, and y'all are good people."

While Christian fundamentalists seem to claim exclusive rights to the push for prayer in schools, the Muslim Student Association quietly meets every Friday to pay homage to Allah.

Origins of the student Muslim club in 1996 reflect some of the earlier ignorance about Islam. While Clements closed for some Christian-related holidays, Muslim students had to convince administrators to allow them time off to observe their own special days.

"Back then," says Sammy Samad, a former Muslim Student Association president who now attends the University of Houston, "to get off for the holidays wasn't so easy." The club would prepare notes to teachers and officials to explain students' absences.

"But the biggest thing was the prayer," Samad says. "Being in school, we missed the prayer. It's tough in the American system. We do what we can."

Members say the club got a boost in 2000 when Lenord, a favorite among students, took over the sponsorship. "Before now," Lenord says, "I've never been friends with or known a Muslim person ever."

Lenord initially experienced culture shock at Clements, which she says has a sizable Muslim enrollment. Now she's an old hand, referring to the prayer as a khutbah and then saying, "Oh, I'm getting good."

In a way, Lenord is a perfect match for the students. Being married to an African-American man, she's felt discrimination before, especially in her hometown of Lamesa (population 11,000) in West Texas. "Small-town people still don't know what planet I'm from," she says.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took Lenord and the members into more difficult, emotion-fueled situations.

Junior Naureen Sadaruddin, a native Houstonian whose parents are from Pakistan heard about the attacks from her ROTC instructor, a captain in the U.S. Navy. "We were like, 'Whoa,' " she says. "That's so scary…I was like, 'Who is this Osama bin Laden guy?' By the end of the day I found out."

"That one period after September 11," she says, "put everyone on the spot…Everyone was like, 'Y'all are Muslim, and this is your fault.' We were scared to go to school, afraid of what people would do and how we would act when people started calling us names. That kind of stuff happened…That's the only time being a Muslim has been scary to me."

In the days following the tragedy, Sadaruddin learned that the words "Damn You Muslims" had been scrawled on the walls of the boys' bathroom. Similar epithets, "Damn You Terrorists" and "Go to Hell Muslims," appeared on students' lockers. One Muslim club member was called Osama bin Laden's sister. The students heard about a kid getting cursed by a lady at the H-E-B, and another being told to watch her back.

But what bothered the members most was that, at least for a while, other students perceived them as different -- in high school, a veritable crime. Freshman Sarah Samad complains that "close friends started looking at us differently."

Several members echo the feeling. Says Sadaruddin, "We're normal people; we're not different. We don't want people thinking we're, like, related to Osama bin Laden…We all believe in the same God."

That desire to fit in still surfaces. Club vice president Miriam Samad's parents are from Pakistan. But when the Houston Press asks about her heritage, she says, "just write, 'Houston, Texas.' "

While tension escalated somewhat after 9/11, membership soared for the club, climbing from 25 students last year to 60 in 2003.

When Islamic Awareness Week rolled around last November, members decided to set the student body straight about the religion. Inspired by the tobacco "truth" ads, club officers brainstormed with Lenord to come up with ten bright green flyers, each with its own "misconception" and "truth" about Islam.

After a club meeting, members posted copies of them in classrooms, along hallways, on bulletin boards and in the cafeteria. "They were everywhere," says Sadaruddin.

Members invited students to participate in a scavenger hunt to find all ten misconceptions. Those who did would be entered in a drawing to win gift certificates for movies, pizza or music. For a week, Sadaruddin spent her lunch period passing out flyers.

The handouts aimed to separate Islam from the events of 9/11. One read, "Misconception: Muslims worship a different God. Truth: Muslims, Christians and Jews believe in the same God." Another said, "Misconception: Muslims are violent, are terrorists and/or extremist. Truth: Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and understanding."

The same day the flyers went up, they were torn down.

"We just wanted people to know the truth," says Sadaruddin. "We have a lot of strong people in MSA. And it was like, 'If you rip them down, we'll put them back up again until you get the point.' "

Throughout the week, Sadaruddin and other members taped up ripped flyers and reposted them.

Principal Mike McKie says administrators fielded some calls from residents about the flyers and got one complaint from the parent of a student disciplined for ripping down a flyer. Some were upset about what they viewed as a double standard. One parent told the Fort Bend Southwest Sun, "If one of the other students put something up about God or the Christian religion, I can bet you that it would be taken down."

Like Christian students who rally with prayer at the flagpole, Muslim students can legally pray in schools as long as district employees don't lead them. And the flyers were approved by McKie, the same as all the others posted at Clements.

Sadaruddin says she was heartened by the diversity of the students who participated in the scavenger hunt that the club sponsored. "They were white, Chinese, Mexican, black," she says. "Out of every 20 people who did it, five were Muslim."

The tension from the torn flyers has passed, she says.

"I was kinda mad," she says, "but I was like, 'Okay, I understand where they're coming from.' " And it's obvious where the Muslim club members are coming from. "We just wanted to let everyone know," says Sadaruddin, "that we're just like them."

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