Praying to make the grade

Bang! Bang! Bang! “Miss Elisss, it’s time to wake up. Misssss!” Confused and a tad bit grumpy, I opened my eyes to find myself sprawled across my couch. Peering at my front door, I blurrily made out the shapes of two teachers shivering outside in the pitch-black darkness. Even in Indonesia, it can be somewhat cold at two am. Remembering that I had invited these women to my house, I got up and stumbled to open the front door. As they plopped their tired bodies onto my couch, I heard two other teachers stirring next door in my bedroom. The time had come to perform Shalat Tahajjud, the late night prayer.

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Students praying for the Ujian Nasional at SMA 1 Pankalpinang. (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

The Tahajjud prayer is one of the many voluntary prayers Muslims can perform in addition to the five compulsory prayers. Tahajjud, which is performed during the middle or late hours of the night, is said to purify one’s soul and bring one closer to God. Performing Tahajjud can bring many benefits and rewards from God. Given that the Ujian Nasional was in a few days’ time, my school decided that all students would participate in the prayer to show solidarity with their stressed seniors.

The Ujian Nasional, often abbreviated to UN, is Indonesia’s grueling national exam that tests high school seniors. At my school and many others, students are broken into one of two cohorts throughout their high school careers: science or social. For science students, the UN tests their knowledge of English, Bahasa Indonesia, Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Alternatively, social students are tested in English, Bahasa Indonesia, Math, Economics, Geography, and Sociology. The test is a tortuous exercise lasting three days. A student must pass it to graduate from high school. UN scores are also the determining factor for college acceptance and scholarships. With so much riding on a single test, students and their schools do everything possible to ensure high marks, including prayer.

Given that I teach at an Islamic boarding school, prayer is a central part of life. The adzan (call to prayer) breaks my days into five neat periods. I often join my students at the mosque for Shalat Dzuhur and chat with female students as others fulfill their mid-day prayers. Although I am not Muslim, I find my time at the mosque to be calming and peaceful. It brings me closer to my students and gives me ample opportunities to learn more about their faith. Thus, when my colleagues asked me if I wanted to join the Tahajjud prayer (and sleepover at my house beforehand), I quickly agreed.

Back at my house that morning, my teachers and I sat in silence around my living room floor. After watching each of them brush their teeth and wash their faces, we walked to the female dormitory and broke into teams of two. The Bahasa Indonesia teacher and I then began moving in and out of dorm rooms, gently shaking poor little 15, 16, and 17-year-old girls out of their dreams. Some dutifully slid out of bed and into their prayer clothes, while others had to be cajoled into consciousness with a bit more force.

We made the slow procession to the mosque just before 3 am. As I leaned on a brick column, I watched sleepy boys slowly shuffle in and fill the male side of the mosque. The booming adzan seemed even more commanding in the quiet hours of the night. Beyond the mosque I couldn’t see anything but darkness. As usual, there weren’t any stars to light the night sky. Soon, all 300 or so students and teachers lined up in the mosque and began their rak’ahs to initiate to the prayer. Each prayer sent strength and best wishes to the anxious seniors. Along the sides of the mosque, girls who couldn’t participate formed massive cuddle puddles and slept soundly. Among the sleeping beauties sat seniors peering into test prep books. Even at 4 am, every minute was devoted to study. As I rested my head on a particularly comfortable tenth grader’s shoulder, I watched my students and teachers pray together. I’ve had the chance to witness communal worship many times in Indonesia and it always gives me a tingling sense of great power. This power seemed even more pronounced in the quiet stillness of the early morning. Over the next three hours, I witnessed my friends complete Tahajjud and then the obligatory dawn prayer, Fajr.

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“Each prayer sent strength and best wishes to the anxious seniors.” (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

Soon the sun broke through the night and began filling the mosque with the pale blue light of day. As prayers finished, I joined my female teachers and formed a line in the cordoned-off area where women pray. The tired students made a procession, gently grabbing my right hand and bringing it to their foreheads in a show of respect. After each student bowed down, I brought my hand to my heart in an expression of love. I gave my best wishes to the exhausted seniors, some of whom had tears quietly falling from their bloodshot eyes. I then turned to my coworkers and affectionately hugged each of them as they apologized for their sins and asked for forgiveness.

The morning sky was streaked with orange and pink by the time the procession ended. Feeling the rising heat of the day, I peeled off my sweatshirt and walked to the cafeteria. Once inside, I quietly ate my bowl of salty Mie Goreng while the teachers chatted around me. I didn’t have the will to speak much Bahasa after only two hours of sleep.
Finally, I returned to my home with a few teachers. After watching ten minutes of celebrity gossip on TV, I excused myself and promptly passed out in my bed. Two hours later I woke up to another bang at my door. This time, it was one of my favorite security guards waking me up with a phone call. Filled with fatigue, I threw on a daster and took the call. My friend reminded me of our plans to watch Captain America at the movie theater. I hastily brushed my teeth and downed some Sumatran coffee before beginning my hour-long journey to the city. Sitting on the minibus, my fuzzy brain recounted the events of a few hours earlier. I suddenly felt awash with joy and remembered just how grateful I am to experience life in Indonesia. My nearly sleepless night was a great reminder of the extraordinary opportunities I’ve had here for love, friendship, and understanding.

About the author: Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Parung, Indonesia. She graduated from Occidental College in 2012 with a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs. When Elizabeth is not sitting in traffic or running from a rainstorm, she enjoys dancing with her students and eating rujak.

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2 thoughts on “Praying to make the grade

  1. Pingback: Praying to Make the Grade | Explorations of the Soul

  2. Pingback: Tahajjud Prayer by Night | Explorations of the Soul

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