Saturday, May 6, 2017

Turn Me Around

"I've heard bad things about Ms. Long at school."  Raaidah said firmly, her often powerful gaze fixed on me.
"What did you hear?"
"People say she is gay."
"What's wrong with that?" I asked innocently, like I really wanted an answer.
"Is it true?"
"I don't know."  I responded.
"I guess it's okay.  But there is a student in that class that's an atheist."
"Does that bother you, Raaidah?"
"YES.  Yes it does."
I was actually so relieved that she had given the gay thing a pass that I didn't care as much about the atheist part.  It almost seemed respectful, like not telling her in one sitting that ALL of her beliefs were wrong. 

"Can I go to the bathroom?"  Mahmo asked.
"Yes, but make it quick.  I've noticed that some of you take some enormous bathroom breaks whenever I make you read something."
Everyone looked at Badri, who looked back mischievously, a large chunk of hair poking out of the side of her hijab.
"She comes here to poop."  Abshir volunteered.
"READ."  I instructed.

Some of my students at school have realized that I see the kids in my group not just at school, but after school.  When I first started working in the program, I referred to it as "tutoring".  The kids in my group looked at me incredulously as if they had no idea what I was talking about.  Everyone in the program, teachers and students included, just call the situation "The Center", because what we do takes place in a community center located on the grounds of the Housing Authority's apartments.  But at school, the kids in my group have described our after-school relationship in various ways.  I have taken Ladaan's lead and now describe it her way:  I work at the after-care program that Ladaan attends.  "After-care"  a nice, middle-class description of programs that often center around art classes, rock climbing or exploring the outdoors while the students' high-earning parents finish their workdays.  A situation even many middle class parents can't afford.  I like it.  My students attend "after-care" and I work there for extra money.

"Why is Raaidah still wearing that huge winter coat?"  a fellow Center teacher asked.
"I know.  A bunch of the Muslim girls at school are still wearing them too.  It must be a thing."

It worries me.  There has been a hollowness in Raaidah's eyes for a while now, mainly after I overreacted to her misbehavior and she got in a lot of trouble.  We made up, but the hollowness just seems to intensify.  She is a regal child and it is often difficult to remember that she is only ten.  The coat she wears is heavily padded and hooded, with a faux fur lined hood.  It is like her armor, her shield, an additional layer of comfort to protect her from the outside.  It has been in the eighties and will only get hotter through the summer.

We sat on the rug together and I noticed that her coat was tied around her waist, exposing an infantile, long sleeved, second hand t-shirt that in no way looked appropriate for a wise soul like her. 
"It's hot, right?"  I asked.
"Yeah.  My mom wants me to wear sweaters, not this coat."
"And....?"
"The sweater doesn't have pockets.  And, it's itchy.  My sister has a nice, soft sweater....."
"Do you think she'll let you use it?"
"NO!" she responded as we both started laughing. 

I dug through my sweaters at home.  I pulled out a pretty blue one, it had pockets and was soft, but it was still a little heavy for spring-time.  I pulled out a thin soft one, but it didn't have pockets and it was an ugly, business-beige.  I realized I didn't want to give the sweaters away, especially the blue one, until I reminded myself how long it had been since I'd worn either and that the joy of seeing Raaidah comfortable would outweigh the overwhelming pleasure of having things I don't use sit in a closet for years. 

"Do you see apartments that look like these from your back window?"  Raaidah asked the following day, opening the blinds at the Center and exposing the apartments where my students live.
"No, I don't see apartments from my back window, it is mainly houses....." I said softly.
"But I'm sure, I'm sure," she repeated, "I can see a house like yours from my back window....it's green and has yellow trim.....".
I had shown them a picture of Lola, laying on her outside bed in my backyard.
"I live about five miles from here, Raaidah....".
"Is that far?"
"Yes...but there are a lot of houses that look like mine here in Decatur.....".  Rich people's houses.  Not public housing.  Rich one like the ones she can see from her apartment. 
I pictured her little wise face, poking out from her hijab and heavy winter coat, gazing at a house she thought was mine. 

"Hey Raaidah, I brought you some sweaters...." I mentioned the next day, when no one was around.
"Where are they?"
"In my car, you can check them out later."
After tutoring, I motioned to her to come with me.  She pretended not to notice and wandered around.  The parking lot is right beside the Center and the students often accompany me to my car.  I said my goodbyes and left and walked toward the car, only to see Raaidah slowly hovering around it. 

"Hey,"  I said, "you may not like these, feel free to say so, there is no obligation what so ever...."
"Where are they from?"
"I mean, they are from nice stores, nice brands....."  I checked the labels.  J. Crew.  Banana Republic.
"That, I like..." she said, looking at the blue one.
"Great!"
"This one, so-so..." she mentioned, touching the beige.
"I know...."
I was surprised when she scooped them both up and wandered back to her apartment, folding the sweaters under her arms. 

I suddenly realized how embarrassing this must be for her.  Cast-offs, from an adult, your teacher, with stains and sweater pills all over them.  And you're supposed to wear this stuff.  Her old clothes. I don't know why I was so blind. 
She has never worn those sweaters and I never ask her about them.