By Jesse Millner
A student from Palestine writes “theological” instead of “theoretical.” I help her understand the difference. She has no thesis. She arrived in America three years ago having learned to write essays that reference poems and the Koran. She loves her family, misses raising tomatoes outside of the village she grew up in. Her main point is the compassion with which she writes about the world, how the very first creature she wrote about was a rabbit, which she drew a picture of in the top right corner of the page in her notebook. Rabbit, she says, in Arabic, contains the first letter of that alphabet. So it’s logical to associate learning alphabets with drawing rabbits. She comes to see me in my office with her work and I tell her how good it is, how her voice is strong and beautiful, how she paints the world with strokes of kindness, how she’s almost making me believe in God again.
Is that the main point of teaching, of writing? To learn about others, to hear their voices, to see the wonder with which they still view our world? A student from Lebanon writes about living in an apartment building where, after the 1988 civil war, they had to use black garbage bags to replace whole sections of the outer walls of the building. During one attack after air raid sirens went off, her grandmother had to be left under a table in their apartment because she couldn’t walk and she was too heavy to carry to the shelter.
Sitting next to the woman from Lebanon is a former American soldier who had served in Iraq. His first essay is about beauty, and he says beauty for him is being allowed to leave his running shoes on the floor in the middle of his apartment, and to throw his clothes on his bed when he gets home. He writes, “For me, chaos is beauty.”
For me, my students are beauty. My writing classes are filled with a chorus of young voices straining against the walls of the five-paragraph essay. They are amazed that they are allowed to write in first person. They are astounded that they can write about issues that are important to them: My Palestinian student’s fifteen-year-old cousin was beaten by Israeli soldiers because he ran from them. His leg was broken. One soldier picked a fresh lemon from her grandfather’s orchard, cut it in half, and then rubbed the bitter fruit into her cousin’s eyes.
On her way to school each day, she had to pass three IDF checkpoints. She writes that the soldiers were young and afraid, that they asked her about her major in college, what she liked to do in her free time. She feels sorry for them. She wishes, as the young men do themselves, that they could go home.
Her name is Enas. My spellchecker underlines her name in bold red, and I think of the blood spilled in Palestine. Enas writes about the smell of her grandmother’s bread. Enas writes about the beautiful red cheeks of her ripe tomatoes. Enas writes about teaching second grade when she was in college because an Israeli curfew prevented the regular teachers from traveling.
Yesterday after class Enas showed me pictures of her friends and family in Palestine. They lived on a mountain covered with olive trees. Some of the photographs show children playing in snow. Enas tells me she has forty-five cousins. I’m drawn to a particular photograph that shows Enas with her family just before she moved to America. Enas, her aunt, and her mom are all wearing white hijabs. She flips the album and on the next page Enas is wearing a sombrero in Disneyland. I tell her I’m delighted by the juxtaposition. She types “juxtaposition” into her hand-held translating device and I watch the word I know flow into Arabic.
I ask my class to write down their dreams. I tell them not to have coffee or tea when they woke up. I said it was ok to go to the bathroom. Enas writes about a dream where I came to class drinking a beer. Since I’m a recovering alcoholic and haven’t had a drink in twenty-eight years, I was a little bit taken aback. Then she talks about how, in her dream, outside the classroom door she could see images of Palestine: a rope swing that her grandfather had hung from an olive tree branch for her when she was little, a car carrying a bride to her new husband’s home. She could also smell burning wood from an oven where her grandmother baked fresh bread. At the end of the piece she listened to me speaking Arabic. And when she read aloud my words in that other tongue, when I listened to myself speak through her, I heard myself in a different way.
It didn’t matter that I only said, “Enas, pay attention instead of looking out that door.” The words were magic and they still linger like foreign ghosts on my tongue.