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Beginning 19 September 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education.
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Three meters outside the First Grade door, my feet won’t go on. A container full of backyard grapes balances in my hands; a miniature snail, shell fingernail pale, climbs slowly between globes. She is as I feel: in trouble so deep she can’t begin to guess. Hopelessly out of place.

I cross the long way past the class, hoping that the children will not see me. At the end of the hallway, an exit door leads to the field outside. I prop it open with my knee. The breeze across Sharon is wet, as if carrying presents for the sea.

I am careful to separate the snail’s grape from its cluster. My fingers feel clumsy, as if at any moment I might accidentally burst the fruit from its skin and send its passenger flying. I am loathe to let the door close behind me. I imagine the conversation. “Why were you locked out in the field out back, Sister Anna?” I can craft no adequate response. One knee caught on the door, one hand plucking a grape. The rest of me is a means for connecting these two points.

The plant growing closest to the door is a rose bush, with brown-tinged leaves. A tuft of these reaches on a spiny branch almost to the stairs; a covered ballerina pirouettes, arabesque, and lays her burden among the leaves. This is the best I can do for you, I whisper to the snail. I hope
you find something to eat.

I let the door close behind me. The clock on the wall reads a minute to ten. In sixty seconds, I am due. I balance the grapes on a wooden coat rack. The inside of my mouth is dry. Sister Anna, I ask myself, what are you afraid of?

Dear children, I am afraid that I won’t love you the same way that I loved the others, before you. I am afraid that I won’t be gentle enough with you, that I won’t feel tender toward you. I am not sure if I am ready to make a commitment to you. I am afraid that you’ll never be as special to
me as last year’s class was, and in the end, that I’ll spend this school year just being tired.

I peek inside the room. For half a second, no one sees me. The class is finishing their snack. Twenty heads of dark hair, fine and curly, thick and thin, are bent over purple-green place mats. At the table nearest the door, Talibah drains a tube of pink yogurt into her mouth. Next to her, Janan picks cereal squares from a plastic baggie. The room smells of just-peeled oranges.

Then Anan’s eyes rise to find mine, and it’s all over. “Sister Anna!” The room explodes in cries and arms, V-shaped, reaching for me. This year’s assistant, Sister Hayam, loses control from her seat. You should establish order immediately, the teaching manuals say. From the first moment of the first day, you must stand by your rules. You must set the routine.

I am a beanpole in a sea of small hugs. Stay in your seat unless told to get up, I think to myself vainly. A small pale girl from the Baltic rubs her forehead into me. “Hello, Sister Anna,” she says. “I have to smell your sleeves.” “Hello, Elzina.” For a moment, I am stopped by the smallness of the nose touching me. I smooth hair and balance grapes. “Salaamu alaikum, First Graders. Please go back to your seats.”

I unwind arms, and squeeze small hands, and repeat my plea. One by one, the students wander back to their tables to finish eating. I am left to take in the room. A boy I do not recognize sits with his back to me. Over his head, I catch Hayam’s eye. Who is this? “Mashhood,” she mouths. “Saudi. No English.” She touches her hand to her eye and shakes her head. He’s crying.

I like him immediately. So you don’t want to be here either, eh, buddy? I squat down by his side. “Salaamu alaikum.” Black eyes waver at me. “Kayfa halak, habibi?” For a moment he is silent. I begin to wonder if I have been too formal. What’s the colloquialism? Shlonik?

Not a sound has passed my lips before he begins to weep. The white of his eyes, when they meet mine, are bloodshot. “Mashhood,” Sister Hayam’s voice is plaintive. “Come on. It’s okay. This is your teacher, Sister Anna.” Her eyes are tired around the edges. She has been doing this all morning.

From behind us, Hana complains. “He’s crying again?” The class breaks into discussion. It is time for me to stand. “Snack time is over,” I begin. “Table One may put their mats away.” Sister Hayam comforts Mashhood while I walk to the board. Dry erase markers are there in place: red, blue, green.

And so the day begins. Before I know it, I’ve taught math, and read books, and passed out newspapers for spelling. The children have eaten their lunches, and I have looked sideways at mine. Hayam and I have led two quavering lines up the hill to the masjid, and down the hill again to the playground.

We stand against the fence. Janan races invisible horses with Bailey. A fleet of boys climb a dome composed of thin, steel rods. The swings are busy with children two deep: half are sitting, hanging on, while from behind the others push. The dreaded slide is more or less empty, save Anan climbing like a firefighter down its side pole. My stomach turns over, watching.

Mashhood sits by himself on the end of a railroad tie. “Do you want to…?” I point at the swings. He shakes his head. “This one…?” I try the slide. No. Hayam joins us. A flutter of Arabic flows between them. At last, she straightens back to me. “He doesn’t want to play.”

The three of us sit on the tie and watch everyone else. “I talked to his mom when she dropped him off this morning, and she said that he is a quiet person,” Hayam says. “He likes to be by himself. He might not ever like to do recess.” I look at Mashhood and rumple his hair. “What do you like?” I ask.

He ignores me. Our fifteen minutes pass quickly. Inside again, the minute hand edges slowly past quarter to three. We have just enough time before dismissal for one more activity. Stories? Hangman? The Weather Report? Nothing jumps out at me. Isn’t there anything I can do to include everybody?

Suddenly my heart misses last year, when we would read Qur’an. “Mashhood!” I catch his eye and smile. “Iqra!” For an instant, he smiles at me. Then he shakes his head, and studies the floor. Still, we are tear-free.

From the back of the room, comes Hamoudi’s voice. “I wanna iqra!” A tall, spacey boy with bangs in his eyes, he raises himself on his knees. “I wanna iqra, Sister Anna. I know a sura that I want to read.”

For a moment, I am surprised. Which sura, Hamoudi? Will it be one of the short three which we read together after prayer? I am grateful to him for speaking up. “Come up here, habibi.”

The child falls over himself with gladness, coming to my side. He smiles at the rest of the class as he begins. “Bismillahi r-rahmani r-rahim. Al hamdu lillahi rabbi l-‘alamin, ar-rahmani r-rahim…” It is Sura Al-Fatiha. The Mother of the Book. The Opening. The first chapter of the Qur’an. The perfect, as I listen, beginning.

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Comments»

1. johnathon - 19 September 2008

this is adorable. memories from my own childhood seemed to fill in the visual landscape that you’ve left bare. i love the children’s greeting.

and aren’t we all the snail?

2. Anna - 19 September 2008

alhamdulillah, johnathon. thank you for writing.

3. Aaminah - 20 September 2008

Asalaamu alaikum Anna,

Everything you write touches my heart, mashaAllah. Sometimes I can’t even explain why it means something, but it does. :)

4. ABD - 22 September 2008

as-salam alaykum,

my favorite lines:

The breeze across Sharon is wet, as if carrying presents for the sea.

and

A tuft of these reaches on a spiny branch almost to the stairs; a covered ballerina pirouettes, arabesque, and lays her burden among the leaves.

may your every beginning be beautiful.


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