I just learned that Jeromy Hooper, my science teacher from high school in San Antonio, TX, died unexpectedly of a heart attack last night. Mr. Hooper was a very popular teacher whose loss will cut deep. We didn’t keep in touch after high school, but I enjoyed being his friend on Facebook, reading his witty observations on Texas living and watching his two young daughters grow.
Two months ago, we spoke for the first time in ten years. It was at the height of Islamophobia in this country in the days and weeks after the Paris Attacks, the San Bernardino shooting, and Donald Trump’s xenophobic statements about Muslims. As a Muslim American, I was feeling especially sensitive.
The occasion for our interaction was a post Mr. Hooper wrote on Facebook that said: “People used to think that Sikhs and Muslims were the same thing but that was just a Turban legend.” A number of his friends, family and former students commented on the post, adding their own puns:
“Yes! They are getting “sikh” of being called Muslim.”
“No Shiite, man.”
“It had to be said, Sunni or later.”
“Allah I’m sayin’ is people need to pay attention.”
“No need for a low hijab, just burkase we are having fun.”
“ISIS in agreement with you.”
“Iraq my brain about this. It’s dis-turban my sleep.”
“I’m just now seeing all these comments; my mom, jihad my phone in her pocket.”
Et cetera et cetera. I like to think that I have a good sense of humor about this sort of stuff, but when I read the post, I felt hurt and angry. It was hard not to recall the bigotry I experienced as a Muslim American growing up in post 9/11 Texas, those days of being called a “sand nigger” and “towel head” and “terrorist” as my peers laughed, that sick powerless feeling of nobody having your back and no one feeling like they were saying anything wrong.
I added a sarcastic comment to the thread: “omg this is SUCH a funny thread! Super appreciate y’all keeping bigotry alive in 2015.” The backlash from his friends was swift, the denials many, but Mr. Hooper responded earnestly to my comment:
“What’s bigoted? It’s just a bunch of puns. I think anyone who knows me knows that I would never post something bigoted. I certainly wasn’t meaning to disparage anyone. Sincerely, educate me.”
I debated whether or not to respond that evening, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth my time. In these polarized times my baseline assumption is that getting someone hip to your point of view isn’t feasible, especially on Facebook. He sent a few more direct messages asking for clarity, but I didn’t reply to them.
The next day I remembered Mr. Hooper’s kindness and had a change of heart. I sent him a Facebook message, and he got back to me a few minutes later. The exchange was the last time he and I communicated. I’ve reproduced it below because it speaks to the kind of person Jeromy Hooper was.
My apologies for taking a little longer than I’d like to get back to you. I really appreciate you reaching out and wanting to understand why I took issue with that post, which I see has since been deleted.
You’ve always been one of my all-time favorite teachers, and I’ve known you as nothing but tolerant for as long as you’ve been in my life. I in no way believe you harbor ill will towards Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs and the like, and I’ve been happy to see you take stands and share posts that appeal for understanding and compassion in the past year. I also don’t think any of the folks in that comment thread meant any harm by what they posted.
But these are crazy times. Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs are experiencing some of the most hurtful bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance this country has seen in decades. Some of us are immigrants. The vast majority of us are Americans. And we are not being treated like it right now.
They’re clever puns, and everyone should be able to take a joke, but the sad fact is the groups y’all allude to in that post are finding very little funny these days, least of all jokes made relating to their identity. In a sense, no one post by any one person on that thread was all that bad. The cumulative effect though, is of a group of people poking fun at the very groups that need a helping hand right now, that need tolerance, that need compassion. A post like that doesn’t help. A post like that hurts.
Of course, that post was intended for and directed to your friend group and not like, the wider world population. And I also totally vibe on how sometimes when stuff gets hard to talk about, it can be helpful to process it with humor, especially with those you’re closest to and feel you can be real with and all that. But I’ve never been able to think of you outside your role as a teacher, and so I can’t help but hold you to a different standard as an educator. I can’t help but feel that you’re someone who should know better.
Maybe that’s unfair of me. But I think of myself in your classes, you know? I took a couple with you between 2001–03. I was a total trainwreck in those years. Post 9/11, I was ashamed of being Arab, ashamed of being Muslim, ashamed that my name was Ahmed. I’d get drunk before class with total fuckups because I thought that they’d accept me and I’d be considered one of the cool kids.
Whether you know it or not, your compassion helped me a lot through those years. When I saw that post last night, I was totally gonna let it slide without comment, because I’d like to think I know you and your intentions as being sincere and not meaning any harm. But I couldn’t help thinking about a Muslim, Sikh or Arab student of yours coming upon that thread after what was probably a really, really hard week for them, and that post making it hurt just a little bit more, making it feel like their teacher didn’t have their back.
I know that that’s not true. I know you have their backs. That’s why I was compelled to say something.
I hope you accept my comment and this explanation in the spirit of fostering understanding with which it was intended. It’s a testament to your character that the first thing you did after seeing my comment was not lash out defensively, but earnestly seek to understand why I was hurt.
It’s that kind of compassion that will help us transcend the intolerance and fear of these troubled times.
Thanks for fighting the good fight, Mr. Hooper.
Mr. Hooper’s response:
Man, I am so glad you got back to me. As I have been thinking, I came to a similar conclusion of what you just described. I can now see, that although there was no ill will, in times like these it was too flippant in tone. Because folks are targeted/maligned/etc for their identity I can see where the emotions created by such a series of posts could be negative regardless of intent. I’m a “do no harm” kind of guy, so I am grateful that you pointed it out to me.
Only way all this works is if those of us who want more love in the world reach out to each other and call each other on our bs:) Feel free to educate me any time I need it. I appreciate the kind words as well. I’ve been enjoying following your story. Seems like you’re doing well. Keep it up! Thanks again man, love to you and your family!
Thank you Mr. Hooper. Rest in Peace.