Tag Archives: students

Do Justice

I love the old testament adage to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” As someone who used to be a teacher and still consults with international schools, I work hard to model these tenets when I interact with students.

For the most part I work with teachers and students who languish in countries riddled with poverty and corruption. The kids walk to school alongside streets that reek of hopelessness and despair.

I meet local teachers who get paid on average $4 to $6 per day to work at international schools alongside foreign-born teachers who make more than $200 per day for doing the exact same job — and yet the local teachers are gracious and appreciative for anything I can do to help them.

It’s usually that way with the foreign teachers as well.

However, in recent weeks I’ve had occasion to butt heads with a foreign born teacher who has pretty much declared war on her students, colleagues, and administrators. I can’t find any rational reason for her behavior.

And now, she’s apparently declared war on me as well.

Everything I’ve done here has been to help kids. But I’m just passing through. I could let it go easy enough. I probably should let it go.

But the kids, right?

Here’s the thing: most people like the “love mercy” and “walk humbly” but shy away from “do justice.”

I don’t think it’s something you can pick and choose. I think you have to go all in, or find a new mantra. For sure I don’t want to live in a world where people with twisted hearts hold profound influence over our students while good people stand aside and do nothing.

Which is why tonight I read some from The Art of War —

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt … Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

— and why tomorrow I will return the favor, and “do justice.”

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The Rainy Season: “Hello, Sabaidee”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

I got to ride in a becak on the return trip to Jakarta. I made sure Martin went first. No one had been willing to pedal him up the hill, but some extra rupiah convinced an especially brave driver to take the risk on the way down and I didn’t want Martin bowling me over. I doubt a becak had ever traveled so fast, or reckless. Martin’s driver rode his brake hard, and still they weaved in and out of traffic, coasting down the hill at breakneck speed.

I kept waiting for Martin’s carriage to break away from the bike. I imagined him flying solo the rest of the way, with sparks and gravel peppering women and children as they screamed and jumped for safety. Then Martin would reach the bottom of the hill and wipe out a dozen cars or half a village, whichever he hit first. Seismic events are pretty common in Indonesia. The outlying villages around Bogor would feel the world shake and assume that’s what it was. No doubt the imam’s son would be pleased with all the carnage.

Well, all of us arrived safely at the mini-buses.

Chyka and Indira rode down the hill together. Chyka wasn’t going to Jakarta with us, but she rode in the becak to delay saying goodbye for as long as possible. Soukpa rode down the hill with Lucy for the same reason. Soukpa held Lucy in her lap the whole way. She held her tight, the way you hold someone you love when saying goodbye means never seeing her again.

I got on the first mini-bus with Indira, Hang and Thao.

We had to wait another minute for Soukpa. She had knelt in the street beside Lucy. They kissed each other on the cheeks. They hugged. They whispered words I couldn’t hear and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway. Soukpa had been wearing a necklace. She gave it to Lucy, and the orphan’s pride at wearing the necklace was obvious, despite the tears falling from her cheeks.

The conference would end in the morning.

I would be in Indonesia for ten more days, traveling around collecting data and doing research with Wallach. Not exactly a holiday, but presumably better than what Soukpa and the other loners would be doing.

Soukpa finally got on the mini-bus.

I had to look away. Her pain was too much for me.

Three confusing transfers later we arrived outside the bus station. Indira said, “We take pretty way for you, Mr. Strange.” Then to everyone else she said, “We can sit on bus. It will take more time than train, but is better to sit after long day.”

No one said much.

I just nodded. It didn’t make a difference to me.

We boarded the bus a few minutes later. It was nearly full and none of us sat beside an empty seat. I was on the aisle. Indira sat in the window seat next to me. Which was fine. I could have been fighting Martin for elbowroom.

The bus got on a busy highway and rolled out of town. I stared straight ahead, as best I could. Indira was looking sideways though, in my direction. You can only ignore someone for so long when you’re stuck on a bus together.

“You okay?”

“I wish to say I do not cry…” Indira paused for a quiet beat, and a lone tear streaked mascara across her right cheek. A few more began to chase after it. All week Indira had been a portrait of confidence and composure. She’s such a strong person, dignified and professional, and above all else, good. Indira finally got her words out. “I do not cry because the words you say to the imam’s son make me angry. I cry because I am afraid the words are true. I cry for Islam and my people. That is what I wish to say.”

Maybe it really was the pretty way back to Jakarta. I don’t know. I missed most of it because at some point I had to stick a needle full of migraine meds into my arm. Probably not the most sterile environment to be doing that kind of thing, but I had about a dozen jackhammers hard at work behind my left eye and there was an aura on its way that would add even more searing pain. I took a couple Benadryl for good measure and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I was fast asleep.

I felt the bus lurch and begin to slow. My eyes were so heavy though. I just wanted to sleep. I heard an air brake and then the bus made one last rumble before it’s engine quit and it settled at a complete stop. People began to move about when the door was levered open. The bus tilted a bit to the left, British style.

Indira said, “Sorry I wake you. I need get off.”

I stood in the aisle, oblivious to everything around me.

“Sleep more. We come back.”

I moved to the window seat and rested my head against the glass. It was almost dark outside and the whole world was a blur. I closed my eyes again, but … there was something. Alert now, I sat up and realized I was the only person on the bus. I took a second glance out the window. The only thing I could see was a dirty 7-Eleven … and Soukpa.

Soukpa was at the checkout counter with a can of Pepsi. The store clerk held up a calculator to show her the amount in rupiah. Soukpa nodded and took a few coins from a pocket inside her tote bag. She counted the coins twice and then held out a few and made an offer. The clerk waved a hand and shook his head “no-no-no.”

They began haggling over a can of Pepsi.

I’d paid three thousand rupiah for a Pepsi earlier this week. That’s about twenty-five cents. A gut-wrenching feeling began to worm its way through me.

Oh man.

I usually don’t like to be wrong. Right now I’d never wanted anything more. Maybe she just likes Pepsi. Maybe she’s just really thirsty. Or maybe she’d been even more eager than I’d realized during yesterday’s lecture. I’d made a comment about students giving gifts to teachers. I’d said that everyone wants something and everyone has got the same idea how to get it. Parents buy gifts. Kids give gifts to teachers. Teachers buy candy. Teachers give candy to kids. Maybe some of them aren’t doing it consciously, but everyone’s doing it because it works. I’d said the word for it is “reciprocity,” and it’s a genuine leadership strategy when you’re trying to influence other people. You give someone a small gift and it triggers an internal desire to repay it. Teachers repay gifts by giving more attention to your kid. Kids repay gifts by working harder for the teacher.

I’d even said, “You can trigger it with the smallest of gestures. It’s amazing what you can get people to do just by giving them a can of Pepsi.”

Soukpa had been sitting right in front of the lectern.

She’d had pen and paper in her lap and an eager-to-learn facial expression. Now she stood in 7-Eleven with a can of Pepsi. Soukpa handed over all her coins. She took the Pepsi and walked outside. She stood on the sidewalk for a long moment. Probably questioning her sanity. Or maybe she was wondering where her food would come from after her breakfast coupons expired in the morning. Or maybe those were one and the same. I desperately wanted to see her drink that Pepsi. Soukpa got on the bus. She smiled when she saw I was awake. Soukpa said, “Sabaidee. I buy you Pepsi.”

Soukpa said the bus driver had stopped for evening prayer. All of the passengers had either gone to pray as well or they’d decided to wait somewhere other than the bus.

“What about Martin and Will?”

“They go walk,” she said. Soukpa took a seat on the other side of the aisle. Then her eyes got big, as if she was genuinely inquisitive, and she asked, “You need pray?”

“No.”

“I need thank you for food. Indira say you give me.”

She meant the breakfast coupons. “Sure. You’re welcome. Thanks for the Pepsi.”

Soukpa smiled and nodded, even though I hadn’t opened the Pepsi yet. “How you know sabaidee? You say to me before teach. I really surprise.”

I’m not making fun, but the way she said it was I eel-lee soo-pies. I only write it that way because it’s important to understand how courageous she was. I can go to any foreign country and it’ll take maybe thirty seconds to find someone who can speak English and assist me. Try doing that if your native tongue is Lao. Try having a conversation with a foreigner in a language that’s foreign to both of you. That’s what she faced by traveling alone to Indonesia.

“I had a student from Laos.”

Soukpa smiled. “She in picture from you teach.”

“How did you know?”

“I see the girl goal in picture and I sure she is Lao.”

“That’s right. The girl goalie was from Laos.”

“I like soccer,” she said, as if that explained how she’d known. “You still say her name?”

I hesitated. Misplaced hope is the most devastatingly painful thing you can give someone. I almost gave back the Pepsi. I almost got off the bus. I said, “It’s actually a funny story.”

“You say it. Please.” Peas.

A lady got on the bus. She wasn’t part of our group. I didn’t know if she was a new passenger or if she had gone to pray. I’d taken a lot of long bus rides in Korea with my student-athletes, but I’d never been on a bus that stopped for evening prayer.

I popped the tab and took a long drink, and Soukpa sported a winning smile. I held my hands about two feet apart and said, “No kidding. Her name was this long. I’d never seen a name with so many consonants.”

Soukpa laughed.

“I could never say it right so she shortened it and told me to call her Manena. Her mom was Lao but her step-dad was American. She had a younger sister who was half-Lao, half-American.”

A couple more people got on the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at them. They weren’t from our group either.

“Keep in mind this was my first year teaching in Korea. I didn’t know anyone and I was trying to make a good impression on the students.”

Soukpa nodded for me to continue.

“One day I was really embarrassed because I messed up her name so bad. Manena said I should practice her sister’s name first and I could try Manena’s name again after I got better at speaking Lao. Of course she was just being funny. But like I said, I was new and really wanted to show the students I cared about them. I asked what her sister’s name was and Manena never even hesitated. She said her sister was Sabaidee.”

Soukpa literally gasped, and made a big O with her mouth. “She really lie her name?”

“She did. Of course I had no idea that sabaidee was really the word for hello. The next time I saw Manena’s sister I said ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ and the kid looked at me like I was crazy. She was only nine or ten years old. I figured I’d said her name wrong, so I tried again. ‘Hello, Sabaidee.’ The kid ran off. I told Manena of course. She laughed so hard. She still didn’t tell me the truth. Instead she helped me practice saying sabaidee correctly. I must have tormented that little girl for two months, saying ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ every time I saw her. I had no idea I was really saying ‘Hello, Hello.’ Manena had told all her friends of course. The whole school was laughing at me but no one bothered to tell me.”

Soukpa was in stitches. “How you find out?”

“I met the mom. First thing she said was sabaidee. I felt like a total moron, but I never forgot how to say sabaidee.”

“Really funny!” Eel-lee un-ny.

The bus filled up again, and our conversation hit a lull. Evening prayer was definitely over. Soukpa tried to speak a few times. Last night Soukpa told us the part of her story that she had rehearsed—her mother’s tragic death, and her desire to reopen the school—and I sensed she wanted to tell me the rest, but for whatever reason she had a difficult time with it. Maybe she couldn’t find the right words. Maybe it was nerves.

I saw Indira approaching the bus. “Our group is coming back now.”

Soukpa was pensive. Like she was almost out of time.

The thing is, no one travels to Jakarta as a loner just to help a few students back home. Maybe I’m cynical, but no teacher is that good. You don’t literally risk your life for a few kids in your village by traveling to a foreign country with no support, no food or shelter, and no money. If Soukpa could return home fully versed with the collective wisdom of every speaker at the conference, even then, it still wouldn’t have warranted the risks she’d undertaken … and yet she believed there was something in Jakarta that was worth everything she’d done.

I had an idea what it might be. “Can I ask you something?”

Soukpa nodded fast. Like, please hurry.

“What did your father say when you told him about your trip to Jakarta?”

Indira climbed aboard the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at her. Martin and Will were close behind along with everyone else.

I turned back to Soukpa.

The laughter from earlier was gone. Only sadness remained.

Soukpa shook her head. “I not tell him.”

I nodded, and gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I thought, we aren’t so different. My dad had no idea I was going to Vietnam.

Indira said we were already in Jakarta but the hotel was still half-an-hour away. She also said she felt better after evening prayer. I felt better after sleeping for the last hour-plus.

Indira asked, “What is a short-timer?”

“It means Will is moving. He’s leaving Jakarta.”

“Where will he go?”

“I don’t know. I found out when he told Chyka, same as you. He didn’t say where he’s going.”

“You could ask him.”

“I’m a guy, so I don’t care. He’s a guy, so he’s cool that I don’t care.”

“But he is your friend.”

“I’m still a guy.”

“Oh come on, Mr. Strange.” Indira thought for a moment and then she said, “Do people in London all say short-timer? He should just say he is moving. Is more easy, I think.”

“It’s not a British thing. It’s a military thing. If I had wanted to confuse you, then I would have said a short-timer is someone that’s PCS’ing.”

“What does it mean?”

“It also means he’s moving.”

“Oh come on,” she laughed. “Why does no one say plain English?”

“People that work with the military have funny ways to say things.”

“But he is a teacher, not a soldier.”

“Well, he’s a teacher now.”

“He used to be soldier?”

“Not exactly a soldier.”

Indira gave it some thought but didn’t comment. A short moment later she spoke Bahasa to our driver. I felt the bus lurch, slow, and then finally we came to a stop.

Indira said, “We get off here.”

Nothing in the area resembled a bus station. Or a bus stop. I hadn’t expected the bus to take us to the hotel, but I also hadn’t expected … this. If anything, we were beyond the third ring and in an area of Jakarta that was more forlorn than I could have imagined. The buildings were low, flat structures with sheet metal and padlocks guarding windows and doorways—and it was impossible to tell if they were commercial or residential.

Indira said, “This way.”

No one asked any questions. We followed Indira.

We had a lot of company on the sidewalk. Plenty of people were staring. A lot of small fires were burning. A lot of kids were running around and chasing each other. Some even wore clothes. People were cooking food under tarpaulins. Maybe they were selling it. Hard to tell. We had to walk around a pile of trash. It moved.

I thought a dog, surely.

Only it wasn’t.

A few meters more and we reached an intersection. Halfway up the cross street to our right was an area glowing brilliant orange against the night sky. It must be this way in the desert when you see a mirage. There was a single tall post in the middle of a small courtyard. Chinese lanterns and multicolored lighted balls were strung from the top of the post in every direction. There was pleasant music, tables, chairs, a crowd of fully clothed people, and best of all, the smell of really good food.

Indira’s face was glowing, too.

She led us to the courtyard entrance where she was greeted by a swarm of kids. They gave her hugs and kisses and ran circles around her. Indira lifted a small girl and spun her until they were both dizzy. “Here is my niece. The other kids belong my cousins. We will have dinner here. It is gift from my family to all of you for the kindness to Chyka and her students.”

Indira’s joy was infectious. It had been an incredibly long day, but we gathered around to listen as she told us about her family.

“See mosque across street? My father is imam. He and my uncle also make this restaurant many years ago. My cousins all work here. My family home is above restaurant and I stay with my sister, niece, and my parents. My aunt and uncle and cousins also stay above us.”

Will said, “This is really marvelous.” He didn’t even have to lie.

“Thank you.” Indira was positively beaming.

The idea that Indira could be one of the people living in the shadow of Central Jakarta had never occurred to me. It should have. The way she’d talked at the train station this morning. The way she’d been so passionate about helping Indonesian teachers. Maybe Wallach isn’t the only one who can be clueless from time to time. People who had given up hope and blamed their own misery on the influence of Christianity and western cultures surrounded Indira … and yet, literally in the midst of squalor, her family had created a place of real beauty.

It really makes you stop and think.

Uncle Google should be spitting out eight hundred million things American schools have done right. The fact things are so screwed up makes no sense. If you believe Uncle Google, then we’ve done the exact opposite from Indira’s family—in the land of hope and plenty we’ve created a place that’s ugly.

We have so much. Can things really be so bad?

Maybe we can’t fix our schools because as individuals we’ve never truly been broken. Or maybe Chinese lanterns make everyone wax philosophical.

For sure the lanterns created a great atmosphere. We sat outside and Indira’s cousins served us fish, rice, bread, fruits and vegetables. It was an unbelievable amount of food. It smelled great. Most of it looked great. Some of it just looked back at me.

Indira said, “What is wrong? You do not like fish?”

“I do. I just wish it’d stop staring at me.”

Soukpa reached over and plucked the eyeball right out of the fish and ate it. Then she covered her mouth and shyly said, “Sorry. I really like.” Eel-lee.

“I don’t mind. Promise.”

Indira’s parents and sister joined us. Indira told them about my sambel challenge with Lucy. Of course she told them in Bahasa. It took a minute for me to catch on. The first clues were pointing and laughing. The final giveaway was Indira imitating me dying from sambel.

At one point I excused myself to use the restroom. Everyone greeted me with a chorus of “Hello, Sabaidee” when I got back.

I thought, good for you Soukpa. It can’t be easy, being a loner. It took a relentless act of courage for Soukpa to travel to Jakarta … unfortunately, I also knew it didn’t matter. It would be impossible for her story to have a happy ending.

I’m not a social guy. I generally don’t have a lot to say to my friends, let alone strangers. The only time I enjoy loud music is when I’ve got the top down on my Jeep. For sure I don’t like parties. But that night under the Jakarta sky and Chinese lanterns was different. We were sixteen teachers from five different countries, and though our time together was short, it had been meaningful. We used it to share experiences that most people never get in a lifetime. You really can’t ask for more than that.

On Teaching

A few quotes on teaching from You Look Like A Teacher, The Day Before 9/11, and The Rainy Season. You can read more Tucker Elliot quotes on Goodreads.


“In large part, we are teachers precisely because we remember what it was like to be a student. Someone inspired us. Someone influenced us. Or someone hurt us. And we’ve channeled that joy (or pain) into our own unique philosophies on life and learning and we’re always looking for an opportunity to share them—with each other, our students, parents, or in our communities.”

The_Day_Before_9-11_FINAL-RGB-72dpi“The only thing worse than losing hope is to be the reason someone else loses hope.”

“The reality for teachers is we don’t know if we’ve been successful or not. It takes years to see how a kid turns out, and it’s impossible to know what role we’ve played, for better or worse. It’s why so many teachers burn out—our successes are limited and rarely celebrated, but our failures are always out there for everyone to see and judge.”

“The task of teaching has never been more complex and the expectations that burden teachers are carried out in antiquated systems that offer little support—and yet, teachers are finding success every day.”

“Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s about being engaged, listening, paying attention. Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t need to talk a lot to teach well. You do need to care, though. Not so much about what people think of you or whether or not they like you, but about the kids and doing what’s best for them.”

“It’d be easy to blame everything on 9/11 or the wars that came after. It’s really about the choices we made. By necessity we adapt to the realities of the world we live in, but if we forget that how we live shapes and influences the world around us, then we’ve already lost.”

“It felt like we were reliving the first day of the school year, when students and teachers do the get-to-know-you dance—teachers tell students something about who they are, students pretend to care, and then vice-versa.”

“The look of a smug teacher is priceless.”

“Educators are in the news, too. Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell us, ‘If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”

The Rainy Season: “like toughened, battle-tested men”

I was a teacher, athletic director and varsity soccer coach on an overseas military base on 9/11. The Rainy Season is my second memoir on the subject. This excerpt is set in Korea nearly eight months after 9/11.

The Rainy Season

EXCERPT

The picture.

I was impossibly young. I look back now and barely recognize the gaunt figure with the hard face. He is a stranger with a clenched jaw, dark, swollen and hollow eyes … until I see that I am flanked on either side by Sami and On-nee.

Then I remember everything.

Will jogged across the field and congratulated me. We shook hands like toughened, battle-tested men. After which Will had cracked a smile, and then he congratulated me a second time with half-a-man-hug, like friends do when they are done pretending to be toughened and battle-tested.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESOur quest for trophies and Far East had begun ingloriously three years earlier with a spectacular thrashing from Will’s team in my first-ever match as varsity soccer coach, but I had promised Ray this moment would come …

Far East. Japan.

… and now Ray sprinted onto the field, bursting with pride and emotion. He shook my shoulders and proclaimed, “We did it! We did it!” For emphasis he tossed in a few colorful expletives. My student-athletes—including Ray’s daughter—were in earshot. But as Ray would say, they’re military kids. They were already familiar with the vernacular.

Our boys and girls teams gathered for a celebratory picture. I can still feel the icy Gatorade. It rained down on Sami and me. It’s one of the few times I can remember hearing On-nee shriek in laughter. Sami had loved it. She thought it was the single, most amazing thing she had ever experienced. I had acted annoyed. But late that night I stood in the middle of the field, alone, long after everyone else had gone home. I thought about my team, and I relished the orange stains on my jacket and jeans. I felt tremendous pride, and so much love, and my whole body began to shake with joy and trepidation. Joy, for our great achievement; trepidation, for adding three weeks to our season.

Far East meant two additional weeks of training followed by a weeklong trip to Japan with more than forty military students—all during a time in which analysts offered daily assessments that mutilating American military families was at the top of al-Qaeda’s wish list.

On a good night, I was sleeping three to four hours. On a bad night, I was taking two to three migraine injections.

On the day before 9/11 I had weighed 165 lbs and ran twenty-five miles a week—but eight months later I weighed 147 lbs and ran thirty-five miles a week.

Only I wasn’t healthier.

In fact, it was the opposite. I rarely ate real food. My diet was Pepsi and Maalox. My health was deteriorating rapidly.

Fatigue.

Stress.

But I didn’t take any sick days. I didn’t complain. I didn’t make excuses. My students’ parents were at war. I got up each morning and worked harder.

The Sunday after we clinched a trip to Far East, I met Sami and her mom outside the Post Exchange. Julie was Sami’s mom, and I think she was the quintessential military spouse—confident, unflappable, and resilient no matter the crisis. In an evening gown she’d be elegant and flawless, but give her a gun and cammies and she could pull that off, too. Julie was tall, blond and athletic, and Aaron—Sami’s dad—had by all accounts won the lottery.

On that Sunday afternoon, Julie bought fifteen kids meals from Burger King and I bought a case of grape soda from the Exchange.

Sami asked me, “Where’s On-nee?”

My phone beeped before I could answer.

“Is that On-nee?”

I checked the incoming text and told Sami, “Someone should really buy you a phone. Yes, it’s On-nee. She’s going to meet us there.”

Julie said, “She’s not getting a phone. You driving or am I?”

“Actually, I was going to walk.”

“Me too, mom.”

Our military community had four posts—one was thirty minutes away, but the main gates for the other three formed a loose triangle. If you used back alleys—and Korea is the world capital, I think, for back alleys—then you could navigate between any two points within that triangle in less than ten minutes. A large apartment complex facetiously referred to as the DoDDS ghetto was inside that triangle. I lived in the ghetto, along with many other teachers. Also inside that triangle was a tiny two-story house with a narrow yard, rusted swing set, and a beat-up ajumma cart.

Julie shrugged. “Easier than finding a place to park.”

Sami raced ahead, toward the pedestrian gate that led off-post.

I told Sami, “Stay close.”

I carried the grape soda and half the Burger King bags. Julie carried the rest. A fast-minute later we reached the pedestrian gate.

I told Sami, “Hold up.”

Sami jogged in place and talked smack. “Hurry, old man.”

“Bench warmer,” I said back.

“Hey, that’s low.”

Korean soldiers and police officers manned the gate, along with a few American MPs. I paused a beat to look around anyway. Inside the perimeter wall was our safety zone, but outside the wall the “buddy system” was in effect—and the reason the “buddy system” was in effect is why I paused. The threat to Americans was very real.

I saw nothing unusual, so I told Sami, “Okay, stay close.”

Sami took off again, like a boisterous puppy freed from its leash.

Julie said, “This works better anyway. It gives us a chance to talk.”

“About what?”

“You know all about Sami’s incentives, of course.”

I nodded. “Sure.” Sami’s parents had made plans to travel to Japan for Far East—and they had also bought tickets for the 2002 World Cup, which was being played in Korea and Japan only a few days after Far East.

“All year we promised to take her to the World Cup. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, right? I mean it’s being played in our own backyard, practically. We told her maybe Far East. If she kept her grades up and did well in school. Well, she’s been spectacular. It’s her best year ever, and not just academically. She’s never fit in or belonged to anything so special. She’s never been this excited about school or anything else for that matter.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Iraq is next. You know?”

“That’s what everyone is saying.”

“I’m not just saying. It’s a fact. Aaron already got orders.”

“Orders? To where?”

“Sami and I are going back to Tampa. Aaron is going to Qatar to plan Persian Gulf The Sequel, coming to a desert near you in about a year’s time. Maybe less. Aaron says next March. It’s really not something I should joke about. It’s important, I know that, and no one needs to explain it to me. But Sami is going to be devastated. She’d be okay if it was only the World Cup, but it’s going to kill her to miss Far East.”

“You can’t stay until the end of the school year? Or go back separately?”

She shook her head, and her voice broke just a little. “Aaron is going to war. He needs us, and we need to be with him every day we can.”

“When do you leave?”

“The same week you go to Japan.”

We caught up to Sami at an intersection and she jogged in place again. “Why are you out of breath, old man?”

I wasn’t out of breath. Or old. I said, “Practice squad bench warmer.”

Sami popped me in the shoulder with a left jab and a right cross, and when the green man lit up she hit the crosswalk at a full-on sprint.

“She’s going to be devastated,” Julie said, again.

“When are you going to tell her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Aaron thinks he can get us orders to Germany.”

“Germany? What for?”

“As we build-up to Iraq he’ll be in and out of Germany. We could see him maybe once a month. If we stay in Tampa then we won’t see him for a year or more. I should be grateful Aaron’s career is fast-tracked. Most spouses don’t have options.”

“I’m sorry.”

Up ahead was the front entrance to the market. Sami held up, but Julie called out, “You’re fine. Go ahead.” Sami raced headlong into the teeming market with its warren of dirty stalls and rancid smells.

I thought, Sami, wait … but Sami and her mom had visited the orphans every week for months. The market was safe enough. I said nothing.

Julie said, “You know about her friend Angel?”

“Sami talks about her all the time. Angel’s mom is pregnant.”

“Angel’s family is in Germany. Maybe God has a hand in all of it.”

Julie and I entered the market just as Sami jetted around a corner and into a narrow alley.

Julie said, “Sami tells you everything, doesn’t she?”

I gave her my best noncommittal shrug.

“Of course she does. So you already know that Angel’s family isn’t the happiest. I’ve been bitter lately to be stuck in Korea with Aaron off God-knows-where half the time—but Angel’s mom is in a worse situation. At least I’m not pregnant.”

Julie and I made it around the corner and into the narrow alley. Sami’s red hoodie was a blur in the distance. She broke left and out of sight into yet another alley.

“Sami tell you Aaron and I had a big fight?”

“No,” I lied.

“He’s already been to Qatar two or three times. I thought he was in Tampa.”

“I know it’s been tough,” I said, wishing she would change the topic, and suddenly feeling anxious about Sami being out of sight.

“Angel’s mom—”

Julie never finished her thought. We heard scuffling and a loud clatter in the next alley, and then a man began to shout angrily in Hangul.


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