Dorothy Day’s Rule of Life:
See the face of Christ in the poor.
And: journal every day.
THE FIRST TIME I saw the buildings, they buzzed. In my evangelical fever I didn’t know if it was electricity, demons, or just the sounds of thousands of souls put in close proximity together. This is where I want to live, I told my husband, shading my eyes to see the tops of the high rises. This low-income housing in the sky, one of the last few remaining, a testament to the enduring imagination of how to contain the poor in America. In the end, we didn’t move in, cautioned by well-meaning friends. You would burn out like a beautiful flame, they told me, and I didn’t know how to tell them that this was exactly what I wanted.
I started volunteering at the English school there, large and chaotic classes held in the community center. The walls inside were painted a claustrophobic electric orange; I imagined the hallways caving in on me. In the beginning, it was fascinating, and a little terrifying; it was easy to believe I was a little flame for God, walking through the underpasses of the world. The students rolled into class whenever they felt like it; they shouted and laughed at one another; they showed up even as their lives fell apart, phone call by phone call. They came even though they had never been in a class before.
There were so many of them. They were learning how to arrive, sit down, store their papers in a binder, wait their turn to speak, look from left to right on the page, understand that the scratches on the board corresponded to sounds, words, and concepts. The rooms filled up, students spilling into the hallways. I told the bosses to hire me, that they needed someone to teach the ABCs to all those who had never learned the skills before, the learning curves steep and debilitating. They said sure, you can start next week. The fire within me flamed up, fed by the intoxicating feeling of being needed.
We are going over the alphabet, again, just as we have for months now. A few students know the names of the letters, can match the sounds, pick out a few token sight words. But the majority are lost; I am dragging them with me on a trail littered with reminders of how the world has not done right by them. These women, denied access to education due to their gender, their poverty, their birthplace being choked with war and the all-consuming quest for survival—I just need them to write their own names. Or at least recognize which letter of the alphabet they start with.
After several months, there are still few who can do this. But the ones who catch on, building tenuous connections, little spider webs of understanding, they do not escape our collective notice. Samia, I say, noticing one woman’s careful and neat handwriting. Did you ever go to school in Ethiopia? She looks at me, surprised. No, she says. I thought for a moment she would say yes—she is my miracle, the student I cling to, the only one who makes me feel like I might be doing something of value. I will have to move her up a level soon, but I don’t want to let her go.
Before I know what is happening, everyone is trying to tell me, in their very limited conversational English, why they didn’t go to school. They communicate in words, not sentences; hand motions and pantomimes, exaggerated faces. I do it, too. I am a children’s TV show host around them, utterly abandoned to my attempts at communication. I will play the fool, if only to see them smile.
One woman shows me how her husband held her hands down, her wrists crossed in front of her. Another tells me that her father said no, no, no school for you. Another scorns the others, pities them and tells me, oh no, my family was very good. My family was not like this. In my family, she said, two girls got to go to school. But one girl needed to stay and watch the goats. She does not need to say it: it just happened that she was that girl.
At first I am pleased, thinking we are creating a safe space here for this kind of dialogue. Mining the depths of poverty, oppression, war, disruption. They tell me the stories that got them to this point today, staring at senseless pieces of paper, but they do not feel better. Their growing awareness of the difficulties they have with memory retention, the way their life is not the same as others—it is not a sweet pill to swallow. Women are looking down, their faces settling into grave and quiet lines that they rarely let me see. Up front, limp and helpless, stupid with my English-only words, I realize that this is not a safe space at all. It is a place where our deficits are shoved in our faces, time and time again.
Johara picks up her pencil and leans back in her chair. But we are here, she says loudly, hitting her binder for emphasis. We are here! Now! English class! And so they go back to squinting at a page of ABCs, the same one they have looked at four times a week for the past eight weeks, the words still appearing as minnows swimming across a lily-white pond. Point to the letter that your name starts with, I ask Amina and Habiba and Maryan and Fadumo. They stare at me, then down at the paper. They know these specific scratches mean so much to me, the teacher. They know, but they do not understand, why that nice girl so badly needs them to do this.
You are not supposed to have favorites, but Amina is mine. She wears the same clothes four days a week, her hijab always clean. Her spoken English is the best in the class; she is my guide and translator. Everything is Alhamdulillah, all praise be to God. You can’t keep her down. She will not let you.
Amina cannot remember what letters make what sounds. She guesses, wildly and incorrectly. She laughs, crinkling her nose. When she is very lost in class, she starts singing Somali wedding songs. Her voice is high-pitched and lonely and beautiful. When she does not smile, my stomach falls into a pit, dark and wide as her eyes. She is too young to have ten children, but she does. She is too lovely to have a sick husband, a country that will never hold a place for her again, a job cleaning hotel rooms near the airport, a mind that refuses to remember printed words.
Sofia, the veteran of the group—the sharp-tongued grandmother, enrobed in several thick woolen sweaters—makes a comment about Amina, in class. She says it in English, so I will hear it. We are all reading from the board, and Amina is guessing, laughing after each quiet correction. Sofia says: Amina is crazy. She makes the universal motions associated with this: a pointer finger aimed at her temple, going around in slow circles. Sofia, encouraged by the chuckles of a few other students, says it again. Amina is crazy. No English. No reading.
No, I tell Sofia, trying to be firm without being sharp, conscious of the gap in age and culture and life experience. No, we don’t say that. Amina is not crazy. Amina is number one. Sofia turns to the side and laughs with her companion. Amina is not smiling and she is older and more tired than I can possibly imagine. But then she does, the familiar crinkles appearing. She too points her finger at her temple, laughing at herself. Crazy, crazy, she says, mining it all for a laugh. It is becomingly increasingly clear to us all that she might never learn to read or write. Amina is crazy, she says again. She claps her hands together and raises them to the sky. Alhamdulillah.
Rukia does not walk in late. She arrives as a hurricane, picking up her skirts with one hand, her backpack falling across a shoulder, shouting jokes to somebody across the other side of the room. The train, teacher, she tells me. Late. Okay, okay, Rukia. Can you find this paper for me? She takes the crumpled pages out of her backpack, scatters them around the table. They are upside-down. She doesn’t notice. She shakes my hand, and her fingers are freezing. Where are your gloves? I ask, and she shakes her head no. It is the coldest winter we have had in thirty years. In thirty minutes, Rukia holds up her hands to me again. They still feel cold, but she is telling me that they are hurting. I am relieved. Pain is good. Pain means you are alive. The next day I bring gloves for her, and she wears them on the train ride home. But the next time I see her, her hands are bare and cracked. The weather is below freezing. The wind makes me hate the world. I am frustrated, disappointed, sighing as I shake her hand good morning. Teacher, teacher, she laughs as she comes in late again. She is the one who likes to tell the other students to be quiet, unaware that she is the loudest, most disruptive student of them all. She is the one who has a very sick child in the hospital, his ventricles filled with fluid. She is the one who can now spell her own name, slow and scattered. She is the one whose fingers ache, all winter long. She is the one who moved here for a better life. She is the one who is living in a shelter downtown. She is the one who gave the gloves to her daughter.
Turn Phones Off, I repeat, pantomiming the process. Yes, yes, teacher, they say, but they do not turn them off. The phones ring throughout class, our one true constant. They have no numeracy skills, no way of recognizing who is calling. It could be a family member from Africa, asking for a money order. It could be a caseworker, calling with a housing appointment. It could be the government, canceling medical benefits or food stamps. It could be a telemarketer, a wrong number. It could be anyone at all.
Okay, okay, students. They answer the phones, but they must step into the hallway. They clutch the black compact flip-phones to their hijabs, they whisper and shout. I go on with class, pretending I cannot hear.
Nadifa answers the phone in class. She turns away, twisting her torso in her seat, thinking maybe I will not notice. But I do, and tell her to please get up and walk to the hallway. She ignores me, concentrating on the call. Suddenly she hangs up, and she is crying. She is standing up suddenly, scraping the chair against the floor. She is shuffling the papers, shoving her worksheets into a bag filled with her refugee identification cards and I-9 forms, the scrap of paper with her address on it, the phone number for her caseworker. Everything she has, in one little bag.
Seeing Nadifa cry unnerves me. I am flustered, asking, What’s wrong? What happened? Everyone is talking in Somali and I am lost, the forgotten, the background player in an all-encompassing drama. Nadifa is a rock of a woman, slow to smile and slow to speak, getting more pregnant by the day. She is one of the best students in the class, but she is one of the few who does not call me sister, does not engulf me in hugs on the way out. Amina and Sofia speak for her, as she packs up her things. The daycare called, they say. Her son is having a seizure. She needs to go meet them at the hospital.
Oh, Nadifa, I say, aware of how few words I have for this. I am so sorry. She nods at me, sniffing loudly. In the past few months, I have heard many sad stories, but I have never seen a single tear. I try and pat her arm. She shakes her head, says something else in Somali. Amina translates: she says she forgot to give him his medicine today. For once, the class is mostly silent. We are all watching Nadifa walk out the door. She says, my husband just left me and I have five children. What can I do?
I am left up front, a lesson plan clutched in my hand. I am mute and my mind is an empty page until I hear the students mutter Alhamdulillah, ready to get back to class. All praise to God. No use complaining. Everything is the will of God.
I find myself shouting like a heretic: no, no, NO Alhamdulillah! Everything is not okay. The students are staring at me, entranced by the composure melting away, watching as my professional boundaries are splintered. This is not God’s dream for the world, I am saying in English, knowing it will sound like nonsense. Now I am crying, both bitter and embarrassed at my co-opted grief.
Oh, teacher. The students look at me with concern. They stand up and hug me, and I am crying because I am angry. Don’t feel bad for me, I want to tell them. Instead I say, with more fierceness than I intended: pray, salat, for Nadifa. They are still looking at me. Now, I say. Louder: pray for Nadifa’s wiil, Nadifa’s son. They look at one another, and look at my tear-stained face. Okay, teacher, they say, and they lift their palms up and start to recite the words they know by heart.
One day I wear a scarf to work, one I bartered for at the nearby Somali mall. It is gauzy white with beautiful blue and pink swirls. The students compliment me, excited over every little commonality I try for. The few Somali or Arabic words I speak, my avowed hatred for dogs, the fact that my daughter’s name sounds similar to one of their own. Teacher, teacher, they say, when we talk about prayer and wanting to follow God. You are this close to being a Muslim. They hold their thumbs and pointer fingers close together. You are this close.
Ifrah gets up and is humming a song to herself. She shuffles up to me and starts to rearrange my scarf. Before I know what is happening, she is turning it into a head covering. Tight around my face, tucked over my head and back around again. Not a wisp of hair or ears to be seen. The students clap, their faces delighted. I laugh and thank Ifrah, but inside I am nervous at what this means.
At break, I go to the bathroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I immediately want to cry. Not because I am offended by this signifier of difference, or that I feel conflicted with my Christian missionary upbringing. The head scarf brings out the fullness in my face, as round and doughy as a pillow, dark shadows creasing under my eyes. I want to cry because I am vain. I want to cry because I am so different from my students, and there is no way to pretend otherwise. I pull it off my head and go back to class. When I eventually stop wearing scarves to work, my students do not say anything.
In class, they were all talking so loud, with an edge, I thought they were fighting. Please, I say. They remember I am there, and they try to explain. A man died. No, a woman died. No, a man killed his wife. They are slashing their fingers over their throats, over and over again, eager for me to understand. I don’t understand. I run out of the classroom and across the courtyard to the office. I run past the primary-colored playground, surrounded on all sides by buildings tall enough that the sun will never touch down on the children. I stop several men, asking if they can come translate for me. One finally agrees, and comes with me. He is wearing a sweater vest. He tells me a Somali man who was living at the shelter committed suicide on Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many of the students knew him and his wife. He got a letter in the mail saying he had been denied housing benefits, and that due to a previous mishap with an employer, his future wages would be garnished. The man thought he would never rent or work again; perhaps he couldn’t read, and someone explained it wrongly to him. And so he hung himself.
There was no class that day. Instead I made coffee the way we all liked it: strong, thick with cream and sugar. A Somali proverb declares that when you have lived to a ripe old age, you can put as much sugar in your tea as you would like. We surely deserve the sweet to go with the bitterness of outliving so many. Someone tells me an address where Hawo, the widow, is staying, and it is around the corner from my place. I knew I couldn’t help her, and she was just one of many. I am a bed of coals, numbed and gray-edged; but I know I will go visit before I even say the words aloud.
I will see it with my own eyes. Other students write down their own addresses on pieces of paper. I put them in my briefcase. Surely, there are other people who are helping them. It cannot possibly just be me. I am comforted by this thought, but there is no way to know if it is true.
At the apartment building, I follow a Somali woman up the steps. I ask her where Hawo is. She does not understand. I think about making the throat slashing gesture, but stop myself. I am here for Mohammed, the man who died, I say, and she nods her head and motions for me to follow her. We go up to the third floor, and there are shoes spilling out into the hallway. I take mine off and watch as everyone adjusts to my presence. I know no one, but I repeat the names of my students, the ones who told me about the death. Hawo, the widow, is not there. Her mother is, sitting on the floor, holding a small and delicate baby in her arms. The baby’s eyes are lined with kohl. They tell me she is Hawo’s child, and she was born twenty-one days ago. They bring me a straight-backed chair to sit in, and objectively I am thinking this is so sad. I turn to the older children in the room, despising myself even as I do it. Do you speak English? I ask. Yes, the boy answers. He looks like he is ten years old. My dad died, he says, and he smiles. I don’t want to use him to translate, but it is all I have.
Someone brings me a can of Coke, warm as blood. I drink it, and nobody says much. Later, a cousin with excellent pronunciation arrives and tells me it is all a mistake. His brother-in-law had a heart attack, he tells me. I push a crumpled bill into the hand of the grandmother, and stoop to look closer at the baby girl. She is one of the prettiest creatures I will ever see in my life.
Later, my students tell me it was all the wife’s fault. They tell me the four-year-old son found the father hanging from the light fixture in the bathroom. They do not tell me it was his time to die. They do not say all praise to God. They do not tell me how unbearably hard life must be if you are willing to forfeit paradise just in order to escape it.
I teach English to women who have been denied access to education, I tell people. They look at me, uninterested or impressed. I float farther away as I try and explain. My family and I, we wanted to live and work among the poor. I am a caricature, a missionary, a do-gooder, a worker, the unattainable, the debbie downer. There were two paths in the wood and I, I took the most self-righteous and lonely one.
I was trying to tell a little bit of it to a friend. She listened, and she told me a parable. She sounded like the prophet who I staked my life on, the one whose coat I hold onto with one hand as I am dragged down into the shallow graves of the city. She told me this story:
Once there was a river. And down that river came bodies—many of them. Bodies upon bodies, stacking up in the cool shallows. On the banks of the river, people panicked. They waded into the water and started grabbing all the bodies they could. Once on shore, these good-hearted people stopped everything and tried to resuscitate the cold, nearly lifeless bodies piling up. Everywhere you looked there were people, eyes searching the water, wading back in to pull out yet another lost one. Until, eventually, one of the people on the shore decided to look up. Where are all of these damned bodies coming from? he wondered. So he left his post on the edge of the river and started to hike upstream. He left behind the urgent work to find the source of the problem.
My friend explained it to me. The people on the shore are the merciful, the ones performing triage in a world where the bodies are piling up faster than we can count them. And then there are the others. Those who look a bit higher. The justice-oriented, my friend says. They look at the systemic roots. They see the big picture. And for a while, they might need to leave their on-the-ground spot in order to get to the roots of the problems.
My friend gently suggested that I might be a justice person living in a place that is thick with the nearly drowned. I heard her, and the tears came to my eyes. As much as I would like to think of myself in that way, I knew better. All I wanted to do was forget about the river. But I had seen Christ there, floating in the shallows. There was no way I could leave.
When Habiba first started coming, she was always smiling. And then, one day, she stopped. She was one of the women who was staying at the shelter. Secondary migrants, they are called. No jobs or prospects but they move here at an astonishing pace with an unshakeable belief that they will be carried by the community. They will all eventually make it, I tell myself, as I hear them discussing their litany of problems. Women whose husbands left them, or whose husbands died. Single mothers with sick children, working at daycare six days a week, struggling to pay the rent. The over five-year wait to get on Section 8, to find affordable, stable housing. Who will watch your kids when the next baby comes? Who will help you find a job when your husband goes away? Who will make sure your blood pressure stays low or your diabetes does not flare up? Someone else, surely.
Habiba is tall, and her face is round. It takes me months to realize she is pregnant; I am sick, she says, when I ask her how she is. She does not contribute in class. She pushes her chair back from the table and hunches forward, talking quietly to her neighbors, a running commentary on a life I don’t know anything about. Habiba, I say, trying to be gentle. Listen please. She nods her head, never smiling anymore.
One day, after everyone has left class, I shove the papers into my bag. I lock up the classroom and walk towards the office. I run into Habiba, who looks distraught. Class is finished, I tell her, for some reason pointing to an imaginary watch on my wrist. Her face unchanged, a look of physical pain on it, she tells me she took the bus. She got on near the shelter, and it took her to another town. She got on the bus three hours ago, and she just now found her way back. I’m so sorry, Habiba, I say, but class is finished. She nods, and turns around with me to walk back to the office. She sits in a chair for a while, gathering the strength to get started on the long trek home. She cannot read. She does not know where she is. She let her thoughts drift for a moment, and she ended up in another town.
The next day, the students tell me Habiba had to call the police. That she was so lost, so confused in the strange city. That she cried and cried, and that they drove her back to school. It is only later, after I have already turned in the attendance, that I realize I should have marked her present. She was as present as she could have been.
I stare at my class roster in dismay. The list of names keeps getting longer and longer. The progress gets slower and slower. The chairs scrape and fill up. The buzz of our souls and our troubles is a constant presence. I am hopeless. For the rest of my life I will be asking people to be quiet every five minutes. When it snows, at the end of April, a small part of me is pleased. Maybe fewer people will come to class today, I think to myself. I am changing.
I draw little stars next to the names of the visibly pregnant women in my class. They make up almost a third of my students. They come and they sit down and they close their eyes. I see them from up by the whiteboard, and I am pierced with compassion. Let those blessed little lambs sleep. Later, when they wake up and will not stop talking, I count the days until I think they will give birth.
Maryan comes to class. I again hint that perhaps it would be better for her to sleep instead of taking two busses four mornings a week to us. She smiles but says nothing. The other students tell me that today, in fact, is the day that the doctor said her baby would come. May 8. The day she has her sixth child. They are making jokes about the baby coming and teacher catching it. They know this will elicit a reaction from me, and I play it up. Oh my gosh! I say, clapping both hands to my cheeks. Teacher will call 911! Everybody is laughing. We do not stop for a good long while. Maryan gets up every now and again, pacing the back of the classroom. She takes off her sandals. Her feet are swollen. I am nervous, keeping her always in my periphery.
As soon as I tell the students class is finished (see you on Monday, Insha’Allah) they gather around Maryan. They are blessing her. They run their hands down her, from the top of her head down past her belly. They gather around and lift up their palms. Salat, salat. I don’t know exactly what they are saying, but I know enough. I am blessing her too. My heart is aflame for her, for everyone gathered around her. I am so tired of pretending otherwise, of acting like making and understanding these tiny marks on the page are of any importance at all. I just want to touch her arm and say be blessed. I just want to see her be okay. I just want to know that there is someone watching over her, a love and a presence who is much more able than I am to see it all. I will pray, I tell my students. That the baby will be okay. That Maryan will be okay.
Where are all these bodies coming from? She is a single mother, one of the other students tells me. I know. I know only the tiniest bit of her story. If I were a person of justice, I would send half of my students home. We would get down to the business of learning how to read, of learning how to navigate a western, literacy-centric world. We would find stable housing. We would apply for jobs. We would talk about bedbugs and cockroaches and slumlords. We would advocate for our rights as women and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
If I were a person of mercy, I would treat each student like a prophet, reverent and grateful. I would not be so hopeless; I would not write this all out. I would hide the beautiful flame which flares up and then hovers, nearly extinguished. It would not feel like the world is an endless river, that all I can do is sit on the shore and touch the bodies as they float on past.
I put my hand on Maryan’s shoulder and I pray for her, surrounded in the crush of the group. There is no way I can ever know how she is feeling in this exact moment. There is no way to know if this is of any use at all. So I say goodbye to her, and I bless her, and I hope that she does not come back on Monday.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.