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Non-Muslim teacher brings insights to job

Rick Booth (above) teaching English to seventh-grade girls at Al-Noor Academy in Mansfield (below).

Janan Robin Zaitoun for the Boston Globe

Rick Booth (above) teaching English to seventh-grade girls at Al-Noor Academy in Mansfield.

MANSFIELD — When you walk into Al-Noor Academy, you will see a main hallway and typically hear voices behind classroom doors. The deepest, most distinct one is a 60-year-old male’s, and if you follow it you will be led to a classroom where, if it happens to be his free period, you will find a large, tall man wearing reading glasses, seated on an armchair behind a desk, drinking coffee while singing a cheerful tune to himself as he works on his laptop.

That is Rick Booth — “Mr. Booth” to his students.

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A former newsman for more than 30 years at the Westerly Sun newspaper in Rhode Island, Booth knew he would be on a cultural journey when he accepted a job as an English teacher at Al-Noor Academy, a private middle and high school established in September 2000 to serve the Muslim community in Greater Boston and northern Rhode Island.

Because Booth, who lives in Norwood, is not a Muslim, many things in the school were unfamiliar to him when he joined the staff in May 2011. Muslims pray five times a day, for example, and the rituals are part and parcel of the school day.

At 1 p.m., there is a 10-minute break for students to perform the second prayer in the mosque above the classrooms. On the days when it is his turn to accompany the students upstairs, Booth makes sure they walk in an orderly line. After students enter the mosque and the group prayer begins, he stands on the side with his head bowed in respect.

Fatma Abdelwahab, the school’s registrar, said Booth has been a model of decorum. Muslims typically start public events with a recitation of portions of the Koran, and during a recent workshop organized by the school, she looked at Booth and “he brought to my attention how I should react when the Koran is recited,” she said. “He showed all respect.”

“He doesn’t know everything [about our culture], but he’s learning,” said Firas Al-Shaar, a sophomore. “He always finds a way to relate to it.”

Al-Noor Academy’s curriculum includes all subjects taught in public schools in Massachusetts plus the religion of Islam and the Arabic language. There are 70 students and eight teachers; one other teacher, who teaches social studies and Spanish, is non-Muslim.

Al-Shaar said he appreciates how Booth, who usually assigns plenty of homework, makes exceptions during Islamic holidays. “If we have a special holiday, he won’t give us a lot of homework,” he said.

In the academy, boys and girls sit separately, and Booth has been very sensitive about the boundaries between genders. “They can come together for class projects,” but “they don’t date,” said the father of two sons, acknowledging the importance Muslims place on preserving individual reputations and protecting morals.

Besides teaching English, Booth is the adviser to the academy’s Lighthouse newsletter and photographer of the nonprofit institution’s events. “Whenever he has to take a picture of a girl,” said senior Nour Tabidi, “he’ll be like, ‘OK, one of you girls come with us.’ He’s really respectful and sensitive toward that situation.”

The academy’s school uniform for girls consists of the hijab (head scarf) and jilbab (a long, loose-fitting garment). Malak El-Sayad, a junior student, said she was surprised to learn that Booth sees the hijab the way the Koran presents it: as a protection for women that also illuminates their faces.

“Muslim females in this school present themselves as ladies in the American/English sense of the term,” said Booth. “They’re modest. They’re the way I think the girls in America used to be like 60 years ago.”

El-Sayad, as well as other females at the academy, expressed appreciation for Booth’s view of Muslim females’ modest way of dressing, which they said they found refreshing.

“He really brings in new insights to Islam,” said El-Sayad. “Through his eyes, we see things that we never saw before.”

Respect is a two-way street, and Booth says the central factor keeping him in a place that is culturally foreign to him is the level of respect he gets from students. He said even though he has never been to a Muslim country, “certainly at the academy we get enormous respect. And it’s just priceless.”

Sharif Abdelal, a senior, sees Booth’s presence as a learning experience on both sides.

“We’re learning from him as a teacher, but he’s also learning about us as a people,” Abdelal said.

Booth said one insight he has gained is to withhold judgment about other people.

He praises the students at the academy for being motivated, self-confident, and persevering. He said he believes Muslims take for granted that their children do not drop out of school.

“At least the ones I know,” he said.

Booth said he’s also noticed a common high ambition among the students: Many want to be doctors.

“The fact of the matter is half of them will,” he said. “And they can do it, and they know they can do it.”

He said he believes if more non-Muslim teachers knew about how motivated Muslim students are, “They’d come a flockin’ to teach at a Muslim school, because it’s a dream come true.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that even with all the differences and the limited resources of a small private school, Booth comes to work most days before everyone else, sings happy tunes to himself, and plans to return next year.

“The moral rewards are just spectacular,” he said. “I tried to resist, but I fell in love with the place. I found a home here.”

Janan Robin Zaitoun can be reached at janan3000@yahoo.com.
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