Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

`What are you doing, Miss Abouelfadel?'

AT noon, at the end of the fourth run-through of the cornucopia some students, with their usual curiosity, gathered around my desk, looking and laughing at the various foods and containers. ``Please, mister,'' said one boy, ``give me an orange.'' I had joined the Peace Corps and wound up teaching high school English in the small dusty town of Ouled Teima in southern Morocco. In training we had learned that to present vocabulary the teacher does not simply translate the word (which in any case would have severely strained my French and my fledgling Arabic), but rather explains it in context, or draws a picture, or shows the thing itself -- realia. So, on the day that I taught my four first-year classes kinds of food, I simply brought in my ``realia cornucopia'': some oranges, a can of milk, a yogurt cup, a bar of chocolate, assorted vegetables, and a box of La Vache Qui Rit cheese.

Now here was a student wanting one of my oranges. ``Why?'' I asked him.

About these ads

He thought about this and came up with, ``Because I am poor.'' I didn't believe it for an instant (besides, oranges are a dirham a dozen in Morocco), but his English was perfect and his quick thinking tickled me, so I tossed him an orange.

Immediately, everyone wanted an orange. Up rose a chorus of ``Mister! Please, mister!'' The circle of students pressed closer. ``Smart move,'' I thought. To clear them out I threw the remaining oranges to students on the far edge of the circle. With fruit and attention now moving in that direction, I gently herded them toward the door. ``Sorry, no more oranges. Fini. Finished.''

I got most of them out and returned to my desk to pack up. Remaining was one of the girls. She indicated the bar of chocolate and asked if she could have it. I looked at it, all wobbly and worn after four hours of being waved about. Not very appetizing. It was cooking chocolate at that. Then I looked at her with raised eyebrows. ``You want that?'' (Not until several months later did I discover that cooking chocolate in Morocco is not at all bitter and inedible as it is in America.)

She nodded. Figuring I would never do anything with it, I shrugged my shoulders and asked, ``Do you like chocolate?'' She nodded again, so I gave it to her. Off she went. I didn't give it much thought; I finished packing up and went home for lunch.

The next afternoon as I was leaving the classroom, this girl who had won the chocolate bar, Miss Chamsdine, followed me. She wanted to give me a pen. As a new teacher, I did not know if it would be proper to accept gifts from the students. Besides, this was a nice ``click'' pen, a step above the simple, clear plastic pens that most students used. Perhaps she was being too generous. Thanking her profusely, I declined. She implored me to take it and left in a sulk when she realized that I would not.

I did not take the pen, but inside I could not keep from smiling. After five long, often lonely months of trying to fit in and be a part of this Muslim society, this gift, the first kind deed that anyone in my town had done me, touched me and showed acceptance. Not immediately making the connection between the chocolate bar and the pen, I even imagined that it meant they thought I was a good teacher.

After that, whenever a drill sentence containing the word ``chocolate'' came up, I always let Miss Chamsdine have first crack at it. It became one of the little jokes I had with many members of that class. Whenever ``tree'' or ``kitchen'' was heard, I looked across the room knowingly at Mr. Choukry to kid him about the time he said, ``There is a tree in my kitchen.''

About these ads

And every time I asked the class at large, ``What time is it?'' I couldn't resist calling on Miss Hadari, who used to get so flustered, mixing up the five past's with the quarter to's. Eventually, although her diffident smiles never disappeared, her embarrassment did, and by the end of the year nobody could tell time better than Miss Hadari.

Certainly not Miss Abouelfadel, whom I often caught talking to her neighbor, Miss Koraich. ``What are you doing, Miss Abouelfadel?'' I always asked. Unfailingly and with a sheepish grin came her response, ``I am listening to my teacher.''

Then there were the three Saguers: Naima, Mina, and Brahim, two sisters and a brother who always seemed to be talking about different families when I would ask, ``Where do you live?'' or ``How many brothers have you got?'' One day to even the simple question, ``What does your father do?'' I got three conflicting answers.

``He is a farmer,'' Mina said. Later I asked Brahim, who replied, ``He is a merchant.'' I thought, ``Now, wait a minute.'' So I went to Naima for the tie breaker and got, ``He works in a caf'e.'' Well, it seems that the father was a rich man, which entitled him to have his hand in a number of enterprises.

And, of course, the Bobsey Twins, Miss El Bouhrimi and Miss Banaoui, were always together and always up to something -- like trading one shoe or sitting on the other's copybook. One afternoon as the class was wandering into the room, I was bent over my book, making a note about the day's lesson. All of a sudden I heard a singsong duet of ``Good afternoon, Mr. Williams!'' and I looked up to see them -- the Bobsey Twins -- beaming and bobbing up and down in their front-row seats. Were they up to some high jinks or just in a good mood? I never found out, but it was a very pleasant way to start class all the same. That class -- ``my kids,'' as I called them -- was a delight to teach, all the more so since the other three classes I had that year were terrors. I often walked home with little groups of my kids, bantering with them, finding out about Morocco, and fielding questions like ``Why aren't you a Muslim?'' and ``What is America like?'' Through it all, Miss Chamsdine remained my favorite, not only because of the kindness she had shown me, but also because of her quiet loyalty. She was always first to settle down when things got too noisy, an attribute a teacher notices and appreciates amid the anarchy of over- enthusiastic students.

I never suspected anything more to her silence than a quiet nature. Then one day late in the year, as an exercise I had the students write short autobiographical sketches. In her essay Miss Chamsdine wrote,`` . . . I want to left Ouled teima because, alweys I have got some problemes with my old brother. . . . I like my family but they don't like me. I want to be happy but I have got alweys some dificults with my family.'' It was heartwrenching. How could one of my kids be so miserable?

The next day after school I caught up with Miss Chamsdine as she was walking home. I told her that the piece she had written was very sad. Her brother was ``mean,'' she said. I asked if she really wanted to leave Ouled Teima, and she said that if she were lucky, next year she would be able to study in Agadir, a nearby city. I was stunned. I had assumed I would be teaching this same group of kids the following year; they had become the closest thing to a family I had. I did not want to lose a one of them -- certainly not my favorite.

On the last day of school I taught them a song, which we then listened to on a cassette. In their enthusiasm they sang and sang along, off-key perhaps, but still it ended the year on a very good note. Afterward, of course, they once again pressed up around my desk, this time wanting to borrow the cassette. ``Please, mister!'' they cried, but as it wasn't even mine, I wasn't to be swayed. As I was shooing them out, I asked Miss Chamsdine to stay behind.

When the others had gone, I asked her if it were true that she was leaving. She nodded. ``In that case,'' I said, taking from my book bag a purple Bic Clic, ``I want you to have this.'' It was one of the nicest pens I had with me in Morocco and the most appropriate gift I could think of as thanks for the one I never accepted. ``Now, whenever you use this pen, you have to work hard and be a good student.'' A beautifully big smile spread across her face as she took it. Then I wished her good luck and a lot of happiness.

I'm not sure if Miss Chamsdine said anything the whole time, because I was too concerned with trying to avoid sounding stupid in French. She listened and, unlike me, did not hesitate to accept the gift. She took it and was gone. Now I wish it had gone more slowly or that I had had a camera to capture her face. I don't think she even said thank you, but none was needed, for her smile expressed it far better than mere English, Arabic, or French words.

Brian Williams

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.