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Ali and His Gedda (Why We Love) 22 May 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education, Spirituality.

Gedda wears a thin black scarf above her broad, striped shirt. She rocks while I finish math. “Ali, the number I’m thinking of can’t be sixteen,” I try again. “Sixteen is an even number.” I write the numbers from fifteen to twenty on the board, and together we cross out the even ones. “I am thinking of an odd number,” I remind the class. Over their heads, I watch Gedda unpack her bag. She stacks styrofoam plates on the floor, and tops them with a sack of bright foam flowers. At last, we are both ready.

“Look, children,” I incline my head toward Gedda. “There is a guest in our room.” “As-sal-aam-uuuuu a-laik-um wa rah-ma-tu-lla-hi wa-ba-ra-ka-tu-uu,” they chorus, rhythmic and slow. Gedda beams. “Wa alaikum as-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.” She holds a white circle behind her back, as she walks to the front of the room. “First graders, what do you love?”

They look up at her expectantly, none answering. “I love my home,” she says. Carefully, she reveals her hand. In it, she holds a styrofoam plate, transformed to a wondrous thing. A marker-drawn picture of a house occupies it’s center; away from its foundation, a green garden spreads. It sprouts technicolor flowers, made of foam, glued still. Birds fly across the sky in profile. This, in the abstract, is Egypt.

She has drawn a banner across the sky. On it, she has written the answer to her question. I Love My Home. “You can make one too,” she says, “For anything you love.”

Hamza is the first to speak. “You mean like what?” he asks. Gedda looks at me. “Like your teacher,” she says. “Your school, your family.” She passes out the plates. “Sister Anna,” she catches me against the door as I go to pass out glue. “Go drink something with sugar in it. Wajhik asfar shwaya.” You’re pale. “Do you care for tea or coffee?” I ask her. I cannot drink caffeine at this hour of the day, but perhaps she can. She shakes her head. “No, not me. You. Go.”

Zinedine and Sana are sitting in the kitchen, finishing plates of kishiri. Does chamomile have iron? I pour hot water and take the long way back to class. First to the back door, to look out over the field. There are Canadian geese eating grass by the soccer posts. Beyond them, trees guard a turtle pond. It is part of a chain of water which runs in cranberry bogs and swamps all through Sharon. My heart thuds against my sternum. I wish I could pray.

I walk through the library-musalla. It is odd to be here alone. I can sense the end already, the day in one month’s time when the year will suddenly stop. Our time together will be over. Hassan will not ask me if he can be the muezzin, and Ahmad will not cry. The sound of elephants crashing to the floor to prostrate will cease. We will take down all our signs, and the computers will come unplugged.

The first time I led other people in prayer it was here. “You cannot pray behind them,” Hafsah instructed me. “They are too little. If you’re going to pray with them, then you lead it.” My heart is shy, remembering. The first time, they laughed. The second time, they laughed. The third time, they didn’t. Slowly the tea seeps gold in my hand. It has been a good year.

The door to First Grade is a paper sea. Above a school of colored fish, green curls of seaweed droop toward the floor. I hold the cup close to my face for a moment outside of the room. Ya Allah, warm me up. Give me nice pink cheeks. All day, I have felt too light. Carefully, I turn the handle. Inside, my students are working.

There is no better group to surprise than they. They get up from their seats without asking, and streak across the room. “Sister Anna, you are back!” Marwa speaks into my ribs. “Do you want to know what I love?” I loosen her grip on my back. “What?”

“Flowers,” she says. Her eyes are solemn. “I love the flowers, because they are the creation of Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala.” She skips back to her table. Beads of marker ink collect along her plate’s edge. She runs her hands along its rim. Brown skin turns purple-green, as though bruised instantly. She balances herself on the edge of the table, palms down.

Everyone seems to be more or less done. Ali and Ammar are undertaking a project to mix all the different colors of markers together, in order to form gold. Their sleeves and hands are resplendent. I put a stop to things. “Children, in two minutes, we are going to sit down on the rug. Please put away your markers and glue.”

It takes us three minutes before everyone has retired to the floor. Gedda forces me to take the rocker, while she settles onto a small blue chair. “If you can hear me, please touch your nose,” I tell the class. In groups, they freeze. “Please be sure that you are sitting on just one square,” I begin. “Please put your plate on the square in front of you, and do not touch it with your hands.” Perhaps 9 out of 15 follow suit. In the third row, Omar breaks his edges away.

“Who is going to go first?” I ask. It is a rhetorical question, and the children understand. They form perfect quiet signs, and straighten their spines. “Of course, I am going to pick someone based on adab,” I say. “Let me see.” It takes five seconds to decide. “Ayat.”

The girl tumbles up to the front. She wears pearl earrings with a grey sweatsuit; it is gym day. She stands on Gedda’s side, and turns to the class. “What is the first thing you should say when you introduce yourself?” I ask.

“As-salaamu alaikum,” the girl begins. “I am Ayat.” She holds her plate behind her back. “Can we see what you love, Ayat?” I ask. She pokes her tongue through a hole in her teeth. Her plate, spun around, shows a crowd of crayon people. They mingle around tables, where they work with tiny hands. “I Love First Grade” is emblazoned at the top of the plate in yellow and pink. “I love Walee and Ali and Ali and Ali and Ahmad and Muhammad,” she stops. I catch her eye and pray that she won’t leave anyone out. “I love the whole First Grade.”

“Why do you love the First Grade, Ayat?” I ask. She shrugs. “Because all of us are in it.” On the rug, Hamza shifts. “Say recess!” Ayat smiles. “And we get to have recess.” She hands me the plate and sits.

Walee is next. “Okay, um,” he begins. “I love Islam, and I also love animals.” His plate shows a jungle scene, or what is left of one. Gravity and rubbing have served to blur the lines. “Why do you love animals, Walee?” I am surprised that he has written this. “And why do you love Islam?”

For a long moment, he looks at me. “Because we are Muslims!” His eyes tell me I have been slow. Then he explains to the class about animals, and leopards and tigers and lions. While he speaks, I let myself drift. Ayat loves class because we are in it. Walee loves Islam because we are Muslims. The children, in their reasons for love, are immediate. We love because we are here.

Sara raises her hand. I beckon her forward. Her plate shows two ladies, one stout and one tall. “I love Sister Anna and Gedda,” she says. For a moment, I feel like I am talking into a balloon. My voice disappears.

Next to me, Gedda laughs. Walee rolls on his back. Muhammad speaks. “We love you because you laugh and are happy all the time.” Sara nods, “Yeah, we love you because you smile at us.” Fingers the colors of roses and coffee wave hopefully at me. On the rug, twelve more people wait to tell me what and why they love. They do not negotiate. They cannot be still.



1. Ibrahim A. - 22 May 2008

Nice narrative, Anna, and thanks for keeping the “lesson learned” subtle at the end. These children are not only reacting “for their age,” but are telling us, the jaded adults, that the truths kids hold to are actually immutable: smiles, gentleness, and simple art.


2. ABD - 24 May 2008

Slowly the tea seeps gold in my hand. It has been a good year.

paragraphs seven and eight are perfect: measured and soulful. thank you for sharing this.

3. Psychologist - 20 June 2008

Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Psychologist!!

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