Friday I met a former student. It’s strange how a few months can change perceptions so much. I stopped by the stores near their home that I went to dozens of times before when I taught there… I saw the homeless man who fixed my tires and slept in the car wash, the old Somali lady buying tens upon tens of lotto tickets, in her niqab, desperately filling out the cards hoping tonight would be the night…The Publix employee who told me to have a nice day and when he smiled, not a tooth to speak of, the kids braiding hairs on their porch steps blasting music from their car… This was once normal. Now it felt strange. I was an outsider looking into what was once understood.
There are some students who remain a part of you. Madiha was such a child. Afghani refugees, her and her brother came to the US last year speaking not a word of English but excited and motivated to learn. I remember when she finally learned the alphabet “Baji if you keep teaching me like this and I keep learning like this… I’ll be a doctor in no time!” I knew that Madiha would probably get up to speed, she was younger and had some prior schooling but her older brother worried me. He grew up wandering the bazaars of Islamabad selling chai. Without any background and so close to middle school how could he learn what he’d missed the past six years?
I never met two children with so much wisdom and self respect. “We’re fine, our house is big. we have a stove and bathroom.” I remember because of a glitch in paperwork the school was not giving her lunch. One day she noticed that though I paid the cashier… I never took any food. I will never forget how her face reddened with shame when she realized I was buying her lunch. In tears, she refused to eat insisting she wasn’t very hungry. I could only make her eat on one condition, once she became a doctor she would give me checkups on the house.
This past Friday after six months, I saw them again. Though they weren’t expecting me their house was immaculate. Nine people in one small apartment and not a stray shoe or toy to be seen. Before I could even take off my shoes one of the sisters about my age rushed to prepare tea while the other arranged snacks despite my protests to the contrary. I showed them a game I brought explaining that it was probably a bit advanced but in time they would read it better. Imagine my shock when Muhammad… with barely a year of schooling under his belt read the back of the box “How many states can you find? With this game learn the capitals, landmarks, and fun trivia of all fifty states. Play now” This boy a former tea vendor with no schooling who did not know the letters a from d just 9 months earlier… Eagerly showed me his report card and read me excerpts from his favorite story explaining why the potato famine intrigued him so much..
He told me his family wanted him to work when he turned 16 but he would only work once he graduated from college. Turning to me he explained “I’m going to be an engineer but I need to get scholarships so I have to do really good in school. Then I’ll make enough to support my family, I heard engineers can make up to 1,000 a month” His eyes widened in sheer disbelief when I told he may make three or four times that.
Selfishness takes many forms. In their success I find joy. In giving, I gain.I walked away on a sheer high. A mixture of pure happiness that they were succeeding, relief that it wasn’t too late, and hope that their future could be what they dreamed. They are brave heroes, embodying the American dream that anything is possible if you work like hell to get it.