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Field Day 24 April 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Education.

The students queue up in the parking lot like chattering sardines. Sister Nadra makes the quiet sign, with a finger to her lips and her free hand raised to a point above her head. I mimic her, as do the other teachers. Slowly the students follow suit, but for the two year-olds and the fifth graders. I am sorry for these classes. It is hard to be at either end of things.

It takes us ten minutes to sort all 120 of the kids into four equal groups. Each teacher is paired with another. Sadia and I, caretakers of the barely literate, are assigned team Al-Muttaqeen. In quadrants of the parking lot, As-Sabireen, Al-Muhsineen and Al-Mo’mineen form. From our spot near the railing, my heart gives a hiccup. I am proud that my children are of those whom Allah loves. I scan the crowd. Away from our classroom, the first graders are shy. I watch Marwa and Hamza try to stake their ground in the presence of the Big Kids on team Al-Mo’mineen. When Hamza is not looking, I blow them a kiss.

Marwa catches it and comes scrambling across the parking lot in my direction. I bury my heart under my hands, and shake my head at her. “Nahi, meri chiria. Udher jao.” She hops like a baby bird back to place. I nod at her team mother, Sister Joan. The fourth grade teacher, round and warm, calls my beloved’s name. “Mar-waaaa,” she makes the word sound like candy. “Do you want to learn our team cheer?”

Before long, Sadia and I have sorted our children by height and sex into two, wavering lines. There are fifth graders who outweigh me, or nearly; I am unaccustomed to taking care of children whom I cannot pick up. Near the back, the big girls are talking. I stomp my foot hard to get their attention, and they break off in surprise. “Jazakum Allahu khayran,” I say. “We’re going to head over to soccer pitch now, insha’Allah. You are going to find that one of the soccer nets has our name written on it. Look for Al-Muttaqeen when we get over there, okay? That’s going to be our nest for the rest of the day.” Over my shoulder, Sadia counts heads. “Wait.”

“I don’t think we have all of them,” she says. “I can’t find Ayoubi.” My stomach groans. The children in the parking lot are like ball bearings on a table. Given the very slightest inclination, they roll everywhere. “Can you watch them?” she asks. I nod my head. “Sure. I’ll try to learn their names.” Sadia untangles her hand from a toddler’s grip, and winds the little girl to my knees.

Her hand is like a kitten, seeking. The moment that the other teacher pulls her fingers away, Yara holds me in her grip. “Hi mama,” I push back her hair with my thumb. “Can you please stand with me?” I ask. She nods and blinks in the sunshine, tiny in the land of knees. “Do you want to come up?” I ask her. I pat the space above my hip. She shakes her head, and so we stand, our fingers intertwined.

Mayar. Azam. Abdulmuhaimin. I am committing the third graders to memory when Sadia rematerializes. She, like me, has grown a toddler attached to her thumb. She squeezes my shoulders with her free hand. In a culture where physical affection can be so guarded, it is a testament to the warmth and constancy of my sisters and the children that I never feel underloved. By the time that I drive home after school, I always find that I have had enough hugs and kisses to last me another day. “I love you,” Yusur whispers, each morning when she takes my hand. “I love you too,” I tell her, everyday. We press our cheeks together, flesh to niqab. “And I miss you so much.”

When we are in sight of our soccer-net-nest, I release the troops. “Three, two, one… run!” Everyone over the age of four streaks, more or less, to our outdoor home. They jump over the purple yarn stretched across the pitch, marking lanes, and Brother Karim scowls. “Not. Through. The Field,” he speaks through his teeth. I blush. I should tell him that it is my fault, that I told the kids to run. Then a larger worry forms.

Of my thirty-odd charges, perhaps twenty are sitting properly. The other ten are not. Ammar and Ahmad wander at the edge of the woods, in brambles ankle-high. Meanwhile, in the net’s farthest corner, the big boys are taking off their shoes. Sitting alone, near the starting blocks, Ali grips his throat in his hands. I take care of him first. “You know, Ali, that you are such a beautiful boy,” I try. “And that I love you very much.” His skin turns purple with the pressure of blood. “Actually, right now, Ali, you are hurting something that Allah created,” I keep my voice soft. “Actually, we don’t choke ourselves.” He drops his hands in his lap. “That is excellent, Ali,” I thank him. He looks away. Another note for his file. My chest prickles. Why can’t I reach the saddest ones?

When I look up again, Ammar and Ahmad are half into the woods. “Awlad!” I take all the sugar out of my voice. “I am going to count from 4 to 0, and you had better come and sit down on your bottom with the rest of us before I get done.” Ammar blinks widely at me. “But we were just looking for treasure,” he lilts. “The map that me and Abdur-Rahim found last time said that we have to look back here for the gold.” I imagine ticks crawling up his legs, and his mother calling me. “Ammar, we are doing Field Day now,” I tell him. Quietly, he sits.

In the corners of the net, the big boys have progressed to full-on rabble-rousing. Yara’s face crinkles like the middle of my cloak. On the field, Sister Nadra is assembling supplies for our first race. “I need four children on each end of the field from your team,” she calls to me. “Silencio! Ahora!” I get my language filter switched, and my words come out in Spanish. This does the trick; the big boys are confused, and the girls stop to listen.

“Was that Spanish?” Samir asks. I am about to answer him, when the imam’s son speaks up. “No,” he says, with his elbows pulled around his knees. “It was Urdu.” Everything the Arab kids do not understand at school is Urdu, so they think. “It was Spanish, honey,” I correct him. “And it means that you should be quiet, now. We have to choose children for the first race.” I look at Sister Sadia. “Do you want to pick the girls, and I’ll pick the boys?” I ask.

She nods. “Sure.” In an instant, a chorus of hands waves up from the children at my feet. The boys do, it seems, know how to be quiet after all. I pick a kindergartener, a first grader, a third grader and a fifth grader. “Line up behind me.” Sadia selects her ladybugs, and leads them away. “Eman, can you take care of Yara?” I ask a second grade girl. Her face brightens, and she opens her hand. She makes space for the toddler. They settle down together, while I, like a mama duck, lead the boys away.

The three legged race is a classic of field days since the beginning of time. It begins on the girls’ side. Sadia loops white twine around the big girls legs. Then Muhammad, our referee, throws his hand down to his side. “Go!” The girls barrel down the lane, half-hopping to my end. I unwind the twine from their knees and tie my little boys together. They have not gone four steps before Amman falls.

For two seconds, he doesn’t move. I remember Abdur-Rahim then, tiny and shattered. “Get up, honey,” I shout. “You can do it, Amman.” I look to where our team sits, assembled in the grass. “Team Al-Muttaqeen! Go team Al-Muttaqeen!” I invite them to cheer. Eman takes up the charge, and Yara claps her hands.

Raad drags Amman to his feet. They wind their elbows together and hop down to the end. There Sadia ties two more girls, who stumble down the lane. Two children left. Awab and Waleed bounce while I bind their legs. I watch the knot slip down to Waleed’s ankle, and pray for nothing to break. “Of all the ill-conceived games….” I hear a whisper in my heart. I blow over my shoulder then, to keep the worry away.

It is over as quickly as it began. We trade our children for others, and the Easter Egg race begins. Boys with clean, fine black hair scatter in the sun. Pastel plastic shells amass in the bucket at Sadia’s side. In a minute, we have won. “Four more kids for each side,” Sister Nadra calls. She unfolds a pile of brown fabric, and carries a rectangle to me. It is warm and rough. Burlap. “Gunny sacks,” she explains. “For the next race.”

This time Sadia chooses Yara. She carries the child down the field, and rests her on her feet. I measure the length of the bag. It is tall, even for first graders. I lay it out on the ground. “Azam, you can go first,” I stand shoulder to shoulder with our tallest boy. “But you have to put your shoes back on.”

He is big enough to manage the bag by himself, so I return my attention to the rest of our team. The first graders know that two things are firmly disallowed in our classroom: guns and chanting. They look at me with trepidation while I try again to begin our cheer. “Go Al-Muttaqeen!” My voice is alone. The boys fold in on themselves. “It’s okay when we’re outside,” I yell to Ammar. “Send them encouragement with your heart or with your tongue,” I nod to the rest of the team. He manages a weak “Go Al-Muttaqeen,” before Yara, in Sadia’s arms, takes my attention away.

The kindergarten teacher has given up on convincing the girl to hold the edges of the bag. While I watch, Sadia fits Yara into the sack, and lifts her up by her underarms. Then she swings the toddler down the aisle, like a red-headed bag of potatoes. Second graders whiz by on both sides. Team As-Saabireen triumphs while I pull the little girl free.

I begin to feel the tightness around my cheeks while we prepare for the last relay. “Don’t burn,” I say to my skin. “Please.” I look across the field, for anyone colored like me. Can the children better stand the sun, because they are darker than I am? I hide my cheeks behind my fingers, and wish for aloe cream. Hopefully, no one else is hurting.

Later, when the race is finished, the older students mill around. “Go find your teachers,” Sadia tells them. Her eyes are serious. “Now.” She collects her kindergartners, while one by one, my first graders return. I am comforted by the sight of them, as if a pin inside of my clothes had been, quickly, removed. No one is crying and no one is bleeding and just at the moment, Zinedine comes by with a box of popsicles in his hand.

This is as happy as first graders get. They form an obedient loop through the grass at my feet. I study the ice-cold box. “Now, if I hand these out to you guys, then there has to be no what?” I ask them. Ayah raises her hand, the sign that she is going to talk. “Choosing!” she says. “We can’t choose what flavors we want.” She waits for my praise. “Very good, mama,” I tell her. “Thank you.” “Sister Anna?” her hand is still up. “Yes?” I ask. She whispers. “But I don’t want green.”

In my heart of hearts, I agree with her. Artificial lime flavor has a taste which reminds me of cleaning floors. I want orange, myself, if there are any left for me. “No picking,” I say again. “Please.” I break the twinned ices in half, and hand a white-wrapped piece to each of my fifteen. The boys set to work peeling theirs, while Marwa nudges my side. She holds out her popsicle to me. It is yellow through its wrapper. “Kolo,” she says. I raise an eyebrow. “Should there be some manners, do you think?” She cocks her head to one side. “Please.”

I am looking through the box, and trying to please the children when Yara wanders back. I scan the field for her teacher; there, Heba waves a hand at me. You can keep her, if you want. I slide off of my knees, and crisscross my legs. Then, I open my arms. Yara settles against me, sticky-orange, with a popsicle in her hand. Even through my skirt and cloak, I can feel the prickle of grass. I am glad to be the young girl’s chair, glad that she feels safe with me. Circling out from us in either direction, the first graders laugh while they eat. Each of them brandishes a melting stick of glowing orange, yellow, or green. I relax then and am glad for them, my sweaty lightning bugs.



1. ABD - 24 April 2008

my favorite lines:

“Her hand is like a kitten, seeking. The moment that the other teacher pulls her fingers away, Yara holds me in her grip. “Hi mama,” I push back her hair with my thumb. “Can you please stand with me?” I ask. She nods and blinks in the sunshine, tiny in the land of knees.”

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