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Goodbye with Lemonade 26 June 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education, Spirituality.

There is consensus about Jannah among the children. Everyday we’ll have lemonade. “In rivers?” Hamza wants to be sure. Sister Isra nods her head. “In rivers. In Jannah,” she holds the room with her eyes, “you can have any drink that you want.”

The class is abuzz at this. “In Jannah, I will be able to fly,” Aly announces to his table. He holds his hands in the air, zooming. Ammar and Ahmad consider, while Marwa puts tape on her hands. I lean across my desk, and pat her on the shoulder. “I told you to stop it with the tape, right?” I ask. “We need to save the tape on my desk for the class to use, insha’Allah.”

“I made you a whistle,” she says, rolling a markered strip up off the back of her hand. She creates a tight cylinder and passes it to me. “See? You can blow.” She indicates one end. I try not to sigh outloud. “Thank you for thinking of me, Marwa,” I reply. I stand the whistle on its end next to the homework box. “But right now, you are having your religion class. You need to pay attention. And please do not take any tape more without asking.” She nods. I do not threaten to write her name on the board this time, or worse yet, to make her write it on the board in Arabic. The First Graders abhor this. Finally, at the end of the year, I have discovered the perfect punishment. Too bad it involves the language which they are meant to be learning to love.

Marwa turns around, and the question period begins. “In Jannah, will you wear hijab?” Muhammad asks. Isra shakes her head. “Well, only if you want to. But in Jannah, you won’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.” “I will play PS2,” says Ahmad. Sana bounces, lisping. “I will play my DS, too!” From a table near the calendar, Raad tips his chair back on two legs. “Sister Isra?” he speaks without asking. “In Jannah, will we have to pray?”

“No,” the religion teacher replies. “We won’t pray in paradise.” What? I look up from the papers that I am grading to be sure that I’ve understood. It is a moment of dissonance. In the heaven I grew up with, we pray, we praise, we sing.

Isra can feel my eyes. “You didn’t know that, Sister Anna?” she asks. I shake my head. “No. I thought we always prayed.” I think of how I feel now, during times when I am not praying. There is a disconnection to those days. What shape does our connection to Allah take in the akhira? What would I do if not pray?

I am still wondering if Sister Isra is wrong as she collects her things to leave. Back in front of my class, I switch my smile around. “Please go sit on the rug,” I tell the children. “It is guided reading time.” They rush up from their tables, forgetting to push in their chairs, and kick off their shoes.

Walee is discussing heaven’s rivers as I settle into place. He stops speaking when I make the quiet sign, but his face continues to shine. The class has been infected with joy at heaven’s possibilities. For the rest of the day, they are happy. They see Jannah more clearly than I can. They love it more than I do.

A month passes. Each day a little more sunshine creeps in through our south facing windows, until the fish tank is resplendent with algae. A convoy of snails is born, and goes to work at once, eating. “Love for Jannah is one of the gifts that Allah put into the companions’ hearts,” the shaikh explains to me. “It is beyond our understanding. To the extent that it is described in the Qur’an, this is to help us to imagine. We do not have the minds to know what paradise really is.”

He drinks slowly from a clear glass of water. “We are taught about paradise for the same reason that we are taught about Naar,” he says. “We don’t have a choice to be here. We didn’t have a choice to be born; none of us did. The choice that we have is where we will spend the akhira. Allah teaches us in the Qur’an about Jannah so that we may understand our choice.”

I watch the children as the year wanes. The testing season comes and goes, until at last, my days are more babysitting than teaching. We plant marigolds. We trace our forms on huge sheets of paper, and we guess where our internal organs lie. We discuss the location of the soul. We get ready in shades for our coming goodbye.

At the start of the day, on the rug, Ali raises his hand. “My heart breaks a little bit each morning in the van,” he says. His cheeks are full, Lebanese, and his hair a gold-brown mushroom. “Why is that, ya Ali?” I ask him. His mouth knots up, and so I interrupt, to save him from having to answer. “My heart breaks a little every morning, too. When I am driving to school, and I think about being without you guys, then I get tears in my eyes.” Ali nods. “That is why,” he agrees. “Because I’m going to miss you.”

From the orange row, Ayat and Ahmad take up a chant. “You’re going to cry on the last day! You’re going to cry on the last day!” Ahmad is seized with vigor. He stands up, all 40 pounds of him, and aims a finger at my face. “You’re going to be looking like a baby!” He is back on the rug, criss-cross, before I can say “Ahmad, go write your name on the board bil ‘araby.”

On our way to play Shadow Monster on the lawn, I investigate my choices. I remember their love for the hereafter. I see paradise as they have painted it: with flying, and games, and each other. With rivers of lemonade. If I can do nothing to ease the coming of the end, I can at least leave their tongues tasting sweet. When life hands you lemons…. my blood approves. We will make lemonade.

On Wednesday, our last together, I bring in the supplies. Fifteen lemons. A box of sugar. A pint of strawberries. A pitcher. A spoon. Fresh mint. As the class rushes in, I make a show of hiding my things. Slowly, I drop the lemons back into the bag. I hold the strawberries up to the light to admire them. I shake the sugar box near my ear and smile. I crumple a leaf of mint in my hand, and pass it around for the smelling.

It takes two minutes to drive them to the edge. “If you keep your name off of the board, then you will be having Fun Time with Sister Anna,” I inform them. “If you follow directions, we will make lemonade.”

For an hour, until Qur’an time, they paint signs for our lemonade stand. A riotous lemon with eleven arms throws glasses above his head. A long, wavering rainbow makes curlicues beneath a golden sky. Various spellings of “lemonade” stretch along the stand’s front edge. Prices, crossed out, between the clouds, run from five dollars to five cents. The boys from Table 4 design a cash register, a flat thing like a jalopy, sprinkled over with buttons. Orbiting it, they draw nickles and pennies and dimes, quarters and half dollars. Their colors and relative sizes are correct, though they are missing their faces. Something moves in my chest.

Finally, at 1:30, with our lunches eaten, after we have prayed, it is time. I set the children to work making order forms for the other teachers. “I want ________ glasses of lemonade. With _____ strawberries, and ______ mint.” In pairs, they orbit the school’s halls, searching for adults. Meanwhile, I prepare the room.

Almost all of our things been packed up. I clear two tables of their boxes, and push them together, end to end. I line up our ingredients in the center, where their faces join. Then I take my place, at the head of the table, with the bag of lemons and a knife. “Children, go and wash and your hands, please. Then come back here with walking feet, and get yourself a chair.” It is almost too many directions at once, but they’ve grown up enough to handle it.

When they are settled into place, stretching away from my hands in two neat rows, the cutting begins. I give each child a lemon half. Tongues protude experimentally from between gap-toothed mouths. I catch their eyes and shake my head. “The first step is squeezing.”

Lo and behold, a mistake. First grade hands are not strong enough to squeeze lemons. “I can’t do it!” Raad wails. “You have to loosen the lemon first, habibi,” I try. I roll a half between my palms, pressing inward. The flesh gives way to wetness, until it is loose enough to squeeze.

Up and down the table, heads nod. The smell of lemon explodes in the room as juice runs everywhere. Hamza squirts himself in the eye. Nadim drops his half on the floor, and blows it clean before I can suggest washing. Marwa, tired of squeezing, rips her lemon apart with her teeth.

In the end, enough juice is collected. I pour sugar to the count of 23, and slice strawberries. Everyone else at the table breaks mint between his or her fingers. Almost half of this makes its way into the pitcher. Then ice cubes, then water, then the lid. It is time to shake. One by one, the students hold the pitcher in their hands. They balance their palms on its top and its side.

A small waterfall runs under the lid, leaving a streak around the table. I watch through the sides of the pitcher as its contents slowly turn pink. I send the first graders to wash their hands again, while I pass out glasses; I encircle them, pouring. When everyone has been served at last, I take a cup for myself, and fill it up halfway. The sides of the table are motionless; the children are waiting for me. I raise my glass to them. Then, all together, we drink.



1. Anonymous - 27 June 2008

I want to be a first grader in your classroom!! You are so creative mashaAllah!

2. null - 29 June 2008

There’s something about your stories Anna, it always blows me away.

May you have another gorgeous class to love and be loved by next year, inshaAllah.

3. ABD - 29 June 2008

my favorite lines:

“We don’t have a choice to be here. We didn’t have a choice to be born; none of us did. The choice that we have is where we will spend the akhira. Allah teaches us in the Qur’an about Jannah so that we may understand our choice.”

and on the theme of goodbyes, i also came across this poem on the westermuslim.com web site:

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore

We all must have our song of departures

for when the long shadow down the road we’re on
coming from in front of us

catches up with us

[full poem at The Western Muslim]

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