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Arizona Pie 9 October 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education.

Aisha’s horse wants vegetables after salah. We pause at the playground’s entrance and I pat the front of my abaya, pantomiming pockets. “I have something special today,” I tell her. “For ‘Eid. Today, it’s not carrots.” She scrunches her eyebrows into a bow. “What is it?” I draw an imagined white bulb with my hand. “Today, I have fennel.”

“What’s fennel?” Aisha wants to know. While I am describing the vegetable’s virtues, Faiza joins us. Her hair is curled for ‘Eid. Today, freshly back from holiday, the class is uniform-free. Hands are dyed with henna. From the edge of the slide, turquoise satin shalwar cuffs shine around brown feet.

Faiza’s horse gobbles the fennel from my palm while Aisha makes up her mind. “It’s a crunchy vegetable,” I say. “Like celery. But it has a nice smell, and feathery leaves. I’m sure your horse would like it. Where is he?” I find another fennel in my pocket and hold it before her nose. This one is for you, sweetheart.

“Arizona Pie!” Aisha waves her arm in a circle, like a pitcher preparing. He arrives like lightning. She digs her heels, patent leather, into the mulch. She has changed; she is no longer a first grade girl. She is a jockey now, above her stead. In a snap, her horse swallows my offering.

Hadi and Muhammad come to the edge of our three person circle, to see what the to-do is about. I look across heads at the rest of the playground. The swings are filled already, mostly with girls. Israt pumps her legs ferociously, building up steam for a jump. Hala, my roundest, tries again and again to lift herself into a seat. She is all but too big for me to pick up; my heart turns over, watching.

Next to the swings stands a jungle gym composed of ladders, a bridge, a fireman’s pole and a death-defying slide. A game of Tackle Karim has broken out among its many feet; he emerges, laughing slowly, sniffling. Mashhood does not need English to understand how to play. A black-eyed rocket, tall and lean, shoots out from beneath the bridge. It strikes Karim in the knees. The Egyptian is felled. Boys roll in mulch, giggling.

I have more to attend to than imaginary horses. “Your recess counter has thirteen minutes,” I advise the equestrians around me. “What will you do today?”

I ask the question every day. Answers of varying guessability float around us in time. Today we will race. We will jump. We’ll explore. Today, our horses are sick, Sister Anna. Today, we can’t do nothing. This afternoon, for reasons I cannot pinpoint, the girls have volcanoes on the brain.

“We will race, but you have to watch us jump over the volcanoes,” Aisha proposes. Faiza, Hadi and Muhammad agree. They open their arms, one stretched forward to hold the reigns of their mounts, and one, holding a crop, behind. Noses whinny and hair shakes. In a flash of wet wood chips, they are off, running.

Aisha holds the top of her body still, and her eyes are open wide. She rounds the side of the swings, and finds the lowest platform which crosses the bridge. She has met the volcano at its edge. Behind her, a queue of horses forms. Faster, taller children allow the ringleader to proceed. Clip-clapping heels, Aisha and Arizona Pie trot back to me.

“Sister Anna, did you see?” she asks. “Yes, Aisha,” I agree. “If you guys race again, you should be careful to avoid the quicksand.” For a moment, she is taken aback. Over her shoulder, Faiza’s face shines. “Quicksand!” she says. “Okay!” Aisha is encouraged. “Okay!” She echoes. “We’ll jump over it.”

The horses line up. From the shade of the basketball hoop, Mumin winds his way to me. “Sister Anna,” he whispers, quietly. “I want to play.” “Horses?” I ask, under my breath. “You want to race with these guys?” Before us, Arizona Pie digs furrows in the mulch.

Tinyness agrees. Horses indeed.  I push him gently into place, beside the others in line. “We have a new horse!” I tell the children. “Mumin’s horse! He’s a fast one, from the Sudan.” First graders in October are still too young for cliques. Any new person who wants to join a game is a blessing. “Cmon, Mumin!” Hadi is excited. “Put your arms like this!”

This time, I do not watch my jockeys run. From the end of the swing set comes the sound of a fall. Hala has gone down, tights badly stretched, with the flesh on her arms scratched pink. She is the sort of child who is ashamed when she is hurt; she does not come to me squeezing hangnails, imagining blood. Instead, she is shy.

By the time I have reached her, she is picking herself up. “How are you doing, habibti?” I ask. I do not want to call attention to her fall. “Would you like to swing?” Yesterday, I tried to lift her and failed. Today, I want to do better. She stands next to the swing with her eyes on the ground. “Yes.”

I check the lot and the path to the masjid, to see if anyone is watching. This next part will not be graceful, and I want to do it alone. “Okay honey, I’m going to pick you up,” I whisper. I bend my knees and wrap my arms around her. We are chest to chest. “Put your chin on me,” I instruct the girl. “Lean forward.” I fold the fingers of one hand around the wrist of the other.

My back tightens as I stand, pulling the child up with me. She begins to slide from my grasp as soon I’ve lifted her; I teeter to the left and let her slide into the seat of the swing. There she sits, kicking her feet, and looking up at me. “Okay, Hala?” I ask her. “Do you need a push?” “Okay, Sister Anna,” she replies. “Yes. Two potatoes, please.”

I take my tightened back around to the other side of the swings. Hands flat against her shoulders, I give her my best push. “One potato!” I call out. She flies away from me. A second later she is back. I give another shove. “Two potatoes!” I back away from the swing to the chain link fence, to shake out my wrists and my arms.

Before me, Hala has begun pumping. “All set, habibti?” I call to her. She is too busy swinging to hear. All set, I say to myself. I think of last year, when the number of potatoes would reach the twenties. What has changed? Am I less willing to give? Are they less willing to take? Is this year’s class simply composed of very different people? Israt soars from the seat of her swing in a long arc to the ground. One of these days, I worry to myself. Time to check in with the horses and the boys.

Tackle Karim proceeds normally. A knot of five boys runs between steel poles, after their quarry, Karim. What he lacks in quickness, he makes up for in bulk; the slimmer children, should they catch him, cannot bring him to the ground. It takes the experienced, the older ones, the ones who know to go for the knees.

Tiny white thobes are mulch streaked, and suit jackets are hung over railings. Karim and Mashhood roll in the dirt, breathing too lightly for crying. Shall I call things off? I wonder to myself. No one is hurt, and no one is climbing. Their potential energy remains too low for them to break anything. None of them has complained. I should watch out, I decide, but I should I let them play.

The balance beam on the far side of the swings whispers to me of a rest. Discontented third grade girls sit there, bickering. “She threw my hijab on the floor, and stomped on it!” Maryam is saying, as I sit on the end nearest them. I look at Eman to see if it is true. “I was just joking,” she says.

“Maryam, the angels on our shoulders are writing everything down,” I say. “So you don’t really need to worry about telling me. Of course, if you don’t want Eman to throw your hijab on the floor, then one thing you can do is keep it on.” For these girls, the scarf is an accessory, like a bracelet, which comes on and off with their changes in taste. Beside us, Eman screws up her eyes. “Sister Anna,” she repeats, “I said I was just joking.”

“It seems like Maryam didn’t think it was funny,” I try to keep my voice light. Where is your teacher? I wonder. I’d rather feed imaginary horses than be your referee. “Eman, please leave other people’s things alone. Maryam, please put your hijab in your bag if you are done wearing it for the day. And tell Eman if you don’t like her behavior.” The girls stare off into space. They are bored already. Sorry you complained to me?

Sister Lina calls for her class to line up, and the big girls wind away from me. Two more minutes on the recess counter, I think. Aisha and the horses, now numbering thirteen, pull up in front of me. “Sister Anna! My horse is in danger!” Aisha screeches.

I open my mouth to ask her why, but she is off again. What does your horse have to do with you, Aisha, I wonder. I know that when you are sick, your horse is too. I know that when you are angry, your horse will not race. But danger? Habibti, as long as I’m here to watch out for your horse, I do not want you to worry.

I watch the children race. They move as cloud, as a flock of geese, in something like a V. What was it Jinevra said last night? “All of our acts contain the seeds of their own destruction,” I imagine her, eyes aquamarine, sitting on her bed with me. Does creating an imaginary horse mean that someday you will let him die?

On their next lap, I raise my voice. “First Graders! Line up, please.” A mountain of sugar awaits us inside, courtesy of their parents, in honor of ‘Eid. Teaching sugar-high children is an exercise in futility; Hayam and I have elected to save the treats for the end of the day. If the children are going to be wired, may it be on your watch, mommy.

“It’s party time!” I try to rally the stragglers who cling to the sides of the slide. This card, playable just this once, does the trick. Within thirty seconds, nineteen students have formed two lines just inside of the gate. From the side of the jungle gym, my last two racers are finishing.

“Aisha! Faiza! Let’s go, ladybugs!” I drag myself to my feet. All in all, coming back to school from ‘Eid break was easier than I feared it would be. Aisha skids to a stop before me. “Sister Anna,” her voice is low. “My horse is doomed.”

“Doomed?” I didn’t realize that she knew this word. “Arizona Pie? Why, Aisha?” But the six year old is out of time for me. She smiles over her shoulder. Then holding her crop snugly in her hand, she takes off for the line, galloping.



1. ABD - 9 October 2008

as-salam alaykum, ANNA

my favorite passage:

I check the lot and the path to the masjid, to see if anyone is watching. This next part will not be graceful, and I want to do it alone. […]

Before me, Hala has begun pumping. “All set, habibti?” I call to her. She is too busy swinging to hear. All set, I say to myself. I think of last year, when the number of potatoes would reach the twenties. What has changed? Am I less willing to give? Are they less willing to take?

no two years are the same. you wouldn’t want them to be. looking in your children’s eyes and knowing you’ve done well by them (without comparison to other children or other years)—that’s success, eh?

2. johnathon - 14 October 2008

you will be a wonderful mother anna and sound like the best teacher. my teacher never feed my imaginary horses…

i forget how fun swing sets are too but your story does wonders to remind one. lovely all around

and Aisha sounds like a young story teller in the making with that imagination. film might be her calling (like moi) :).

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