She approached me in the middle of the bus. “One of the girls is crying,” she said. “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”
I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl. Teena. Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country. There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.
She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness. What could have happened to bring about those tears?
Mae explained. Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way. He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint. From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.
“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me. “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…” We told the bus driver to slow down. We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do. She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted. We called him, we begged, we reasoned.
She’s with all of her friends. She’s worked hard in this program. She’s already twenty minutes out of town. We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.
I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities. So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.
No more leadership-building activities.
No more mentoring from Miss Mae.
A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well. I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program. But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student. Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister.
Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face. She was thrilled. She knew we were fighting for her. We felt a small measure of hope.
The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm. No one answered. Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today. Our father passed away this morning.”
That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside). Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away. I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.
Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher. My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”
With us in the Young Leaders program. I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.
On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”
Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life. We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development. We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony. We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.
On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”
It made the mom smile briefly. It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.
We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said. “Don’t even try,” he said. “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.” And that was the end of that portion of the story.
We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.
We fought, we visited, we begged.
Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.
What is surrender? Some think of giving up. Of being controlled by someone other. Of passive living. But what if it is active? What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?
What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?
A hasty search of the waiting list. Acceptance into the program of a new student. Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.
Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm. What is your name? we ask.