The subject today is homophones: kernel and colonel, boarders and borders, hostel and hostile.
English, with its unreliable vowels and its quirky exceptions to the rules, is Mona Kashani Heern's language now the one whose sly nuances she enthusiastically explains to her students at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan on this January morning.
Heern can't imagine a place she'd rather be than this windowless room full of seventh-graders, even when the subject is just a list of spelling words.
"I was the lucky one who got to come to this country, who got to become a teacher," she explains later. "But in Iran, there are thousands and thousands of Baha'i students who are not allowed to go to school." The religious persecutions of her own life in Iran are the backdrop of a life dedicated now to education.
"I always loved school, and I was always winning scholarships," Heern remembers about her first years in a school near Tehran. "But then the Iranian government said 'If you're Baha'i you can't attend public schools.' My principal, who was Muslim, had tears in her eyes when she told me. She said, 'Who are the Baha'i in this class? Take your backpacks. You can't come to this school anymore.' "
This was 1984, the year also that her father, who owned an auto-parts store and was a member of the local lay Baha'i Assembly, was thrown into prison for his beliefs. Heern was 8 years old.
Intermittent persecution of Iranian Baha'is, including pogroms that killed an estimated 20,000 in the 19th century, continue to the current day, increasing after the Islamic revolution of 1979, according to the Baha'i International Community in its booklet "Closed Doors."
The Baha'i religion was born in 1844, when a young Persian man later known as "The Bab" declared that he was a prophet of God, and his mission was to prepare the world for the appearance of the "Lord of the Age," Baha'u'llah.
Baha'u'llah is the most recent manifestation of God, just as Moses, Jesus, Buddha and the Muslim prophet Mohammed are manifestations, according to Baha'i belief. God, Baha'is believe, is an "unknowable essence," and manifestations of God speak in ways that humanity is ready for at the time.
Such beliefs don't sit well with Muslim fundamentalists in Iran, where the 300,000 Baha'is now living there make up the country's largest minority religion. According to the Baha'i International Community, Iranian courts have denied Baha'is civil rights, the assets of businesses run by Baha'ishave been confiscated, Baha'i holy sites have been razed, and Baha'i teachers have not been allowed to teach.
Heern remembers visiting her father in prison in 1984. Once a month, she and her mother and little sister were allowed a 10-minute conversation, face-to-face but separated by glass. First though, there was always an interminable delay in the prison yard. Heern remembers the snowy wait on their visit in January 1985. After hours of standing in the cold, the family was finally ushered inside, where a guard announced "Oh, didn't they tell you? We killed him a month ago."
So, Heern is especially upset by recent reports that Dhabihu'llah Mahrami died in his prison cell last month. The 59-year-old former civil servant and Baha'i follower had been in prison since 1996, when he was first sentenced to die on charges of apostasy. Later, after protests from several Western governments, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
According to a Baha'i Community statement, Mahrami had received death threats in prison, had been forced to perform arduous physical labor, and "had no known health concerns" at the time of his death. "Mr. Mahrami's death comes amid ominous signs that a new wave of persecution of Baha'is has begun," according to the statement. "This year nearly 60 Baha'is have been arrested, detained or imprisoned, a figure up sharply from recent years."
All this weighs on Heern's mind as she goes about her pleasant life in Utah, where she is one of about 550 Baha'is, including about 150 refugees.
In Iran, Baha'i students still aren't allowed to attend Iranian universities, public or private, although the excuses have become increasingly more subtle. In addition, a private college, the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education which offered classes in private homes or by correspondence (so that teachers' names would remain a secret) was raided by the government in 1998 and in 2002.
After Heern's father was killed and his shop was taken over by the government, Heern's mother pawned her wedding ring and jewelry and bought their escape, on camelback, across Iran into Pakistan. The three-day journey took a week; the smugglers food supply ran out, and when Heern, her mother and sister finally arrived in their new country, they were thrown into jail for being illegal immigrants. Eventually, with the help of the Baha'i community in Pakistan and the United Nations, they were given refugee status.
As a refugee, though, she wasn't allowed to attend school in Pakistan, Heern says. It wasn't until the family was relocated to Germany, when she was 12, that she finally found herself in a classroom again.
"I started junior high immediately and could not speak a word of German," she remembers. She was also enrolled in English and French classes, which meant learning three new languages at the same time. There were no special ESL classes for immigrant children.
But Heern worked hard, eventually moved to the United States, and graduated from the University of California at Northridge. She received her masters at the University of Phoenix in Salt Lake City.
She loves her religion, she says, for its beliefs in equality of rights and opportunities for men and women, the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth and for the importance it places on universal education. "I love the fact that Baha'is do not just talk about the oneness of the world of humanity, but that we have established racially diverse communities in every corner of the globe." There are now an estimated 5 million Baha'is worldwide. She worries about the Baha'is she left behind in Iran.In 2003, Heern and her husband moved to Utah where on a January morning she stands in front of her seventh-graders, enthusiastically teaching a spelling list. Borders. Hostile. Words that Heern understands too well.