5-The first day of school


As the summer months drug on, the sweltering heat proved to be unyielding. The a/c chug and thud signaled the end to electricity and a day ahead with no relief, no t.v. or cooking. The children added Grama’s box to their pad house which served as a car, train and boat. Obstacles were to be avoided by launching onto a pad, skipping past pitfalls, lava and water. Quick trips to a nearby park during evening prayer time were a nice break in our mundane routine. See See and Foof played on the swings and little Abude crawled through patches of grass and dirt. He took the big boys to prayer and then returned to sit for a few minutes before carting us back to the apartment.This occurred twice a week until  we were approached by children who stood, staring and chanting ABC, 123 Abc”  They gawked, taunted and pointed, while their mothers sat sipping tea, glancing our way. I smiled, reminding myself that they were children, but one group was replaced by the next until there was a constant barrage of onlookers. When he came back he shooed them away, sputtering harsh words in Arabic, and with a wave of his hands they were gone. From that time forward I declined these little excursions giving a list of excuses. It was the beginning of years feeling displaced, branded as outsiders and misfits.

The first day of school had finally arrived and although we were nervous, it became a long over due break from the stagnant heat and days that stretched on without basic essentials. The previous year had been a disheartening experience, no supervision, children throwing rocks, and teachers hitting students. I was sure that this was not an accurate representation of the Saudi school system. This must have been an exception, nothing at all like the school that stood next to our apartment. I packed the boys lunches, kissed them, and reassured them that I would be at home cooking their favorite meal, waiting for their return. My oldest reeled off his ritualistic goodbye, “I love you, you won’t leave the apartment, you promise? I love you,  goodbye” and then they followed their father out the door.  This routine pledge began the year before when he was left repeatedly outside the rusty metal gates of the villa. They suspected he had chicken pox and so they put him on the bus, dropped him at our gate and left. He had no idea why he was leaving school, where he was going or his whereabouts. A 6 year old boy standing outside of the gate in a city of five million people, buzzing frantically, hoping this was his home. In an attempt to control this situation he insisted that I never leave home and I readily complied.

He had been told that this new school was well organized, did not allow corporal punishment, was famous for it’s kindly religious atmosphere and in general, a reputable institution. I ran through the apartment cleaning and cooking in an attempt to finish my routine before power was cut. Nervous anticipation filled the air as I stirred sauces, whipped up cookie dough and made my way through the first day of school. I knew that this year would be different, teachers would see the inner beauty of my special little boys, they would help them learn Arabic, be patient and embrace them, providing security and warmth.

The door swung open and he sauntered in, followed by two glum faces and a look, reminiscent of the year before. I smiled, hugged the boys and started to ask how their day had been, this was met with a standard warning glance, one that was well known and understood. I carried on about the food, their favorites and the special cookies, complete with forbidden ingredients from the list.  One day at a neighborhood Bukala (mini mart) I had nervously shoved m and m’s up to the cashier, a  last minute purchase when I saw his watchful eyes were not in sync with mine. These were mixed in with peanut butter and chocolate chips, to make large, warm cookies, waiting on a swap meet plate. The boys drug their backpacks into the empty bedroom and dropped them onto the floor. I served  lunch and watched them pick at their meal, exchanging small stories of their first day.

He eventually wandered to the bedroom to take his afternoon nap and at that time I sat next to the boys hoping to extract any small details about their treatment at school. I put my arm around them and told them about my day, how See See and Foof made a pad fort, how little Abude pushed it down and how the box had now become an airplane. They laughed and sighed snuggling in for hugs, devouring warm cookies and milk. My oldest son then pronounced that in the first class a teacher asked every student to place their hand palm upward in front of them. He then hit them with a ruler several times and followed it with a lecture. Their Arabic was not fluent but they got the message that this would be the result for any lessons missed, incorrect answers or bad behavior.