Ramadan: The Lessons I’ve Learned from High Schoolers

I am wowed. It is Ramadan, Week 2, and my 90 high school students, all but one of whom are Muslim, are demonstrating that they are faithful, loving, and dedicated youngsters. Ramadan began on May 5 and ends the evening of June 4 in 2019; it falls at different times each year according to the lunar calendar. During Ramadan, my students are required to fast from sunup to sundown; here in Minnesota, that means they don’t eat or drink from approximately 5:30 a.m to 8:30 p.m.! That is fifteen hours, people! And why do these teens do this?

I’ve asked the kids, and Islam directs them to fast for these thirty days as a sign of their faithfulness and dedication to God. During Ramadan, my students tell me that they focus on God by reading the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, more regularly. They worship by praying faithfully five times per day, as well as during moments when they feel tempted to break their fast when they shouldn’t or when they may want to choose to do something unholy. Moreover, they focus on works of charity and on giving money and time to those less fortunate. They also hone in on patience and humility and on how to stand strong in the face of difficulty (read: not eating or drinking for 15 hours daily for 30 days…that, to me, sounds crazy hard!).

So how does this look on a typical day here at Tech High School in Minnesota? I have class in the morning at 8:30, and my students are refreshed and ready to roll. Each night of Ramadan, they awaken (unless they choose to sleep through it, which many do and that means they only eat once per day instead of twice) around 3 or 4:00 a.m. in order to eat before sunrise. They may go back to sleep for a while if they choose before getting up for school. Once at school, they head to class and jump into their day. Period 1 goes along like it has all year; I see no evident stressors at this point in the day amongst my brood. My Period 3 students are also generally feeling pretty good, although there are signs amongst some around 10:30 that they are feeling the effects of the fast insofar as being somewhat lethargic (picture yourself heading to work or school without your morning coffee, tea, or breakfast).

By Period 5, after the lunch period (when everyone else in school who is not fasting takes the time to eat, of course), many students are feeling weary. I have noticed the greatest change, though, in my last two periods of the day: students are exhausted, tired, and often unable to focus. It’s tough, because I have to continue to teach and I still expect them to carry on with their daily load of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I am not stopping the ship for Ramadan, but I do admit that I have been trying to not load as much work on their plates as I normally do just because they are plain worn out by the end of the day. But they continue to learn and to read the novel Ghost Boys (awesome read by Jewell Parker Rhodes; highly recommend). Despite the fact that they haven’t eaten since 4:00 a.m and it’s now 1:30, 2:30, 3:15 p.m., they turn in their work, do what I expect, and demonstrate respect to me and to their fellow humans.

When my students get home, they still have to wait about five more hours before they can break their fast for the day! Many students work from 5-10:00 p.m., too, and so they eat very late, after they get home. Whaaat? Such dedication! At sundown, Muslims around the globe break their fast by eating a traditional date; they then dive in for a delicious, well deserved meal before they’re off to bed for the night before they awaken at 3 or 4 a.m. to prepare and eat the meal before sunrise.

I’ve been asking my students how they’re doing daily, and their responses vary, of course. I am struck that they don’t complain. They tell me that they are tired, hungry,  and exhausted, but they don’t sit and pine or say, “Ugghhh, I wish I didn’t have to do this” or “Man, I can’t wait until Ramadan is over!” They just say, “We’re at Day _, and have this many to go!” or (from the enthusiastic ones in the crowd), “I’m loving this. I’m so focused and relaxed and able to pray the way I should.” What beautiful people. What resilient children. They step up to the plate, these sweethearts. I am amazed at their grace and their desire to continue to show up, to do their work, and to carry on as they move resiliently through their days of fasting.

If you see a Muslim friend or stranger out and about during Ramadan, ask them how they’re doing. Their faces will light up with the joy of sharing their stories with you about what it’s like to dedicate an entire month to fasting, prayer, charity, and worship. Ask questions and be curious. Demonstrate love, compassion, and grace as you step into the world of a person who is committed to furthering those same traits in their own sphere and beyond. You will be happy you did. Then, on June 4, when Ramadan ends and the big celebration called Eid al Fitr to end the fast occurs, if you see folks dressed to the nines around town celebrating, show them some love by saying, “Happy Eid!” Peace be upon you!