The state of Oregon has set an ambitious goal to graduate 100 percent of high school students by the year 2025. OPB is following more than two dozen six and seven-year-olds who are in the class of 2025. For the next twelve years, OPB aims to follow these students, in school and at home. These are some of their stories from first grade.
Munira says recess is one of her favorite parts of the school day. On a recent rainy spring morning the outgoing seven-year-old has already made the rounds on the playground: In seven minutes, she’s twisted a jump rope, played tag with three other kids, and gotten in trouble for splashing in a stream of water coming off the gutter.
Now, she’s about to face off on the tetherball court. She raises the orange ball to eye-level, and punches it with a focused expression. Her opponent flings the ball around the pole and back to Munira.
“Guess what? I can beat pretty much anyone in my class,” says Munira, as she lunges to catch the ball.
Munira’s sentences often begin with “Guess what?” even when no guessing is necessary. Her long black hair is twisted into seven braids that flap against her back as she jumps for the ball. Most days, her head is bare. But she sometimes wears a traditional headscarf.
“Like when my hair is messy. And Saturday and Sunday. And for prayer,” she says.
Munira's Favorite Part Of School
Munira is Muslim. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia and Kenya before she was born to escape the violent civil war in Somalia. In some ways, she is glad that her background makes her stand out. She’s proud that she’s the only kid in her class who can speak some Somali. But she’s young enough that she can’t always articulate the particulars of her culture.
Her father owns the African Mini Market in North Portland and sells spices, clothing, and traditional foods. For Muktar Abdow, passing down food traditions and culture to his five children is important. The family lives in a two-story home near Earl Boyles. The three girls share one bedroom, the two boys share another. That leaves one bedroom for Munira’s parents, and one more for her Somali grandmother.
After homework and school activities and play, the family gathers together every evening for dinner. On a recent Thursday, Abdow calls to all five of his kids to the living room for the pre-dinner prayer.
“Munira, you don’t want to pray?” says Abdow, as he lowers to his knees. His tone suggests an invitation rather than obligation. For Munira, participation is optional. When she’s older, she’ll wear a headscarf and pray alongside her father and brothers. For now, she gets to choose.
Munira opts out; she’d rather play. Mumtaz, her five-year-old younger sister, wraps herself in an oversized pink headscarf and sits next to the adults, on her knees. Mumtaz touches her forehead to the carpet and whispers in Somali and Arabic alongside her father.
When dinner is ready, Munira’s mother pops her head out of the kitchen. Fatuma Mohamed is wearing a bright yellow headscarf. Even though she’s exhausted after a long day, she smiles as she calls out to Munira in Somali.
At the sound of her mother’s voice, Munira jumps up. She walks into the kitchen and then reemerges with a platter of Ugali, a starchy porridge. The family gathers in a circle on large rug with Ugali and beef stew in the middle. Today they scoop the Ugali with spoons, but sometimes they use their hands, which is the traditional Somali way to eat.
Munira isn’t very hungry, she says. She loves her mother’s cooking but she only takes four bites.
Dinnertime and evenings offer a chance to tell stories. Oral storytelling is important in Somali culture, says Abdow.
“Mostly this is how we share with our kids, mostly about where they come from and history two, three hundred years back,” says Abdow.
Muktar Abdow likes to tell stories about how hard his parents worked running a business and operating a farm in Somalia. Mom Fatuma Mohamed tells stories about her brothers and sisters, and the many animals that her family cared for in Kenya.
But they don’t talk much about the war back home. Muktar Abdow says he’d rather not expose his kids to the violence in Somalia.
Munira doesn’t know the exact details, but she knows there’s a war going on. “It’s kinda scary. I’m kinda scared to go there,” she says.
For her now, Africa is a dream. She accesses Somali and Kenyan culture through the games and oral stories passed down by her father, the songs her grandmother sings to her in Somali, and the food she helps her mother cook.
One recent day when she thought her hair looked messy she wore her headscarf to school. Most students didn’t notice.
But she says one boy in her class asked her, “Why do you wear that scarf on your head?”
“I told him, ‘I don’t know.’ ” says Munira.
As she recalls the conversation, her brow furrows for a tiny moment. But in almost the same second she’s moving on: “And guess what, my friend Bailey let me ride her scooter. It was the bluish kind. I lost it. I think I left it in the gym.”
In first grade, some kids are already self-conscious about how they look, what kinds of clothes they’re wearing, and whether or not they fit in. But Munira doesn’t seem preoccupied with explaining her background. She’s social and outgoing, and one of the things she likes most about school is being with friends.
Back on the playground, Munira stretches for the tetherball on the next pass. The ball grazes her fingertips. and loops around the pole.
“Oh no, no, no!” she says. “That was a tricky one!” She’s playing against the same boy who questioned her about her headscarf. The ball gains speed as it winds around the pole with each “whap!” from her opponent.
“Awww,” says Munira, dropping her head dramatically to her knees as she realizes she’s lost. But she’s quickly on to the next thing. One of her friends calls out to her to join jump rope. “Yes!” says Munira, and she picks up the end of the rope and begins to turn it for her friends.
This project is part of American Graduate — Let’s Make It Happen! — a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.