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Tampa school's Muslim teacher a stark contrast to national debate on Islam

Late last month, on the first day of school, nearly 400 children walked through the main door at MacFarlane Park Elementary, over the mat that welcomed them in English, French and Spanish, and past the flags of countries like Romania, Bolivia and Greece.

Eighteen walked into Room 203. Five girls and 13 boys. Six were Hispanic. Four were black.

They sat on a rug with many colors. The rug bore an image of 12 children, including a boy with crutches, a girl with glasses, a boy wearing a shirt with a globe and a girl wearing a shirt with a peace sign, all in a circle holding hands. The children on the rug looked up at their teacher.

This was her first job. Her first day.

One of the Hispanic boys asked Nour Elmohd, "Ms. Elmohd, why do you wear that on your head?"

• • •

She grew up in Fort Lauderdale and moved to Tampa when she was 10. She's now 22. She's the oldest of four. She's unmarried. She's an American citizen who speaks English and Arabic. Her father is an engineer, her mother a teacher. They are Palestinians who moved to Kuwait and then to America to flee the first Persian Gulf War.

Elmohd started wearing the hijab, the head scarf some Muslim women wear, at 13. The hijab is talked about a lot around the world. Some see it as a symbol of male oppression and female subservience. Others see it as a show of modesty and faith.

As a girl, Elmohd saw how her mother walked with confidence while wearing the hijab, and she wanted to be that way, too. She wears it, she says, because it makes her feel closer to God.

Once, after Sept. 11, when she was still a young teen, a man in a Hollywood Video on State Road 56 called her a terrorist.

That was a tense time. So is this. The Council on American-Islamic Relations last week started a series of public service announcements trying to tamp the growing fear of Islam in this country. Many Americans object to the possibility of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero. A group of evangelical Christians in Gainesville say they're going to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary by burning a bunch of Korans.

Last spring, at the Hillsborough County School District's interview day, 1,400 prospective teachers sought jobs.

MacFarlane Park principal Denyse Riveiro interviewed 18.

She hired two.

Riveiro looked at Elmohd's academic record as an elementary education major at the University of South Florida. She asked about her reading lessons and her use of technology. She asked about her experiences as an intern. She did not ask about her scarf. She saw it, though, and thought it was a plus. Three dozen Muslim children go to her school.

Nobody keeps statistics on how many public school teachers in America choose to wear the hijab. Not teachers' unions. Not Muslim groups. But Elmohd is not the only one in the country. She is not even the only one in the county.

In the interview last spring, Riveiro thought Elmohd was "genuine," "brilliant" and "confident."

Elmohd's interview with Riveiro was her first. She didn't need a second.

"I believe in a higher power," Elmohd said.

• • •

MacFarlane Park is one of two International Baccalaureate elementary schools in the Tampa Bay area. Students get in by lottery. It has a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum with an inclusive, international bent. The main office has no walls. That's on purpose.

Every child takes Spanish. Almost every child takes violin. They raise money for shelters, clothing drives and food banks, and donate to schools in Haiti, Ghana, Uganda, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They plant plants and paint the pots and give them to the people who live in the neighborhood around them. It's an "A" school every year.

The IB mission is to help kids "become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people with their differences can also be right."

On the walls in Ms. Elmohd's Room 203, laminated placards say hello in 25 different languages. Affixed to the wall is a globe.

The signs and the props reinforce the overall emphasis of the curriculum at the school:

The world is bigger than Tampa, bigger than Florida, bigger than America.

Bigger than you.

Under the globe and an American flag hangs what's called the Essential Agreement. Act safely. Be responsible. Care and share.

All the students were asked to sign it, and they did.

Andrew. Aedan. Kevin. Natalya. Robert. Nathan. Nathan H. Django. Raul. Juan. Ana. Felix. Carson. Jonathan. Juvenal. Genesis. Melanie. Destini.

It says: "We agree!"

• • •

One of the first assignments for the children in Room 203 was to make a "me bag."

To show them what she meant, Elmohd brought in her own.

It contained a toy car because she likes to travel, green and purple markers because those are her favorite colors, a snow globe from San Francisco because that's her favorite city. A volleyball because that's her favorite sport. A picture of her family.

And a scarf.

Ms. Elmohd, she told them, dresses differently. The scarf is part of who she is. She's a Muslim. The scarf is part of what she believes.

Everyone believes in different things, she said to them, and that's okay. We all accept each other for who we are, how we are the same, and how we are not.

The children sat quietly and listened.

• • •

Elmohd says no parents have asked about her scarf. One of the other teachers asked about her fasting for Ramadan.

The children in her class put together their "me bags." They started a science experiment to see what exposure to dirt does to different objects. They voted on what to name the class hamster. Chippy edged out Charlie.

The other day, same as every day, they started the morning by standing and facing the American flag. They said the Pledge of Allegiance. They sang the national anthem. One girl in the class is a Jehovah's Witness. She stood but didn't sing.

Later, a new group of students came to Elmohd's classroom for math, and she asked if they had any questions for her.

A hand went up.

"What kind of car do you drive?"


Another hand.

"Is that a gerbil or a guinea pig?"



"Where are you from?"

"I'm from Tampa," Elmohd said.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

Tampa school's Muslim teacher a stark contrast to national debate on Islam 09/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 6, 2010 10:36pm]
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