Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other. They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.
They will take three months off for summer. But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.
Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside. Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.
Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils. Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward. And we read their anonymous wonderings:
Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?
Why is the Young Leaders Program free?
Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?
Why don’t people care about what I feel?
How do I overcome the fear that controls me?
Why is everyone more beautiful than me?
What existed before God created the universe?
How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?
Every week, a goodbye party takes place.
Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so. Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer. A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends. These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps. They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.
Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and “What’s a funny story about ______?”
For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer. Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.
They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization. They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew. We would dishonor him by a refusal. So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.
Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits. She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.
Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little. “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.
The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before. And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”
Stephanie turned slightly pinker. The names had all been given in Arabic. She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.
Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly. “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds. Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds. Lots of nice birds.”
Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly. Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”
When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”
- In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
- In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
- In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.
Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.
I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.
I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.
It is good, and it is hard.
Simplistic answers which satisfy some. But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.
We asked the girls to give one another answers.
Hands shot up around the room. “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.” “Do things even when you are afraid.” “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”
These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.
Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East. Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:
I am about to begin a new story.