Where we stand

Atop the ridge

The fishing boats in the village below swoon. At rest, for now. Their bright flags stand taut, and ready. 

The boy begins to climb.

He expertly navigates the swarm of boulders piled hundreds deep. Barefoot, agile, he ascends to greet. He’s done this before.

Clearly, so too have his friends.

Word is out that he’s heading up. And in the truest nature of unspoken agreements between children, naturally, so must they.

Two more, then five, then another group of three, and on. They make their way to the top of the ridge to investigate and assess the interlopers.

A standoff with what must be twenty sets of smiling eyes, steadily emerging from behind the stones. Most, under the age of seven, their curious stares not unfamiliar.

But he’s clearly the leader. Tallest and therefore most important, he is the first to speak.

Hallo

he offers with a smile.

Hi, how are you?

A nod. And you too?

One of the younger girls, no more than four, shouts with a smile

Obroni!

He scolds, warning her to be polite. We have business.

Please. A ball.

Say again?

Can you give us money for a ball?

You need a ball?

We need a ball. Look there! We have a pitch but no ball.

What happened to your ball?

Burst!

And so I remember that where we stand is often an uneasy place. Living where we live, coming from where we do. When we talk, we speak to each other of needs, when what we’re really talking about are wants, comforts, pleasures, distractions.

Where they stand, these children are problem solvers, behaving with perfect logic in how they’ve seen the world. And how the world has seen them.

They spend their days near the sea, in a school just meters from the water. They have the beach, shelter, friendship.

And today, all they really need is a ball.

Satisfaction

There’s a moment in The Good Place where our protagonist Eleanor chooses from a limitless array of frozen yogurt flavours, finally landing on Fully Charged Cell Phone Battery. “This really is satisfying.” she proclaims with a nod.

It’s an incredible bit of social commentary, pointing directly at where we are in place and time. Of course, as with all humor, the joke’s only funny if you’re in on it.

Sadly, most of us are.

In the paragraphs that follow I’ll outline why our rampant addiction to devices is a problem but first I need to go plug in my

On the Ground

We’ve made a terrible mistake.

The bags quietly hit the floor and we remove our shoes. She gently pulls open the curtains and we peer through the accordion bars at a yellowish-gray wall, neatly crowned with spiraling barbed wire. Light filters in, but it’s a musty, flaccid light, with little soul, or flare.

We exchange a silent glance and survey the room. The boys run up and down the endless hallway, a burst of nervous energy as shouts of “look at this room!” and “this place is so big!” reverb.

There’s an inevitable moment in every transition, a prerequisite to finding peace with the move. Sometimes it’s subtle and understated, others it’s a hammer, knocking you for a loop, taking your reason and sapping your spirit. It usually visits once you’ve grabbed a sense for shocks and cultures, once you’ve encountered the realization that your life is now here. On average, about two weeks in.

This time, it happened in two hours.

I’m not great with transitions.

To wit: I arrive home after weekly football a sweaty mess. I pull open the front door and step inside, and need a couple minutes to stand, survey the room, process what was and what now is. Gentle coaxing from my family reminds me that I’ve done this before and know what to do. With concerted effort I manage to pull off my socks and make my way into the shower.

So, now. Imagine this same guy, but instead of getting home from football it’s arriving in West Africa after ten hours onboard a restless overnight, plus two hours navigating immigration at Kotoka. A surprising and unnerving transit to our new apartment (“do all the street merchants walk right up to the car?”), and we’re not quite right. Jet lagged, overloaded, shaky.

But together.

With the ones who matter most.

And slowly, steadily. It gets better.

We sleep. We unpack, sock by sock. We meet our colleagues, destined to become our friends. We explore our new neighborhood, encountering locals with the warmest, brightest smiles. They greet, tell us “you are welcome”, and it feels true. The boys adjust, twice as quickly as we do, and their happiness fuels our own.

We lean on each other, we open our eyes to what is, we fight through the less frequent tears. And as we grow into home, we understand.

We’ve made a glorious mistake.

6pm

A sense of ground, a need for here

I don’t always have it at the end of the day. I’m flustered a sea of distraction maze of ideas that small hint of what was the thing I told myself to remember and take care of who was I supposed to email again oh crap I think the laptop’s still out on the desk.

I pedal and turn the corner.

And on the good days, I look up.

The sky is every shade as the sun expertly hides. Breezes build off the ocean and trees wave goodnight to one another. The call to prayer straddles the wind, serenading these corners, reminding us it’s time to look to Mecca, to take shelter before the oppressive, stifling dark.

But mostly, it’s bats.

Tens. Hundreds. Thousands of bats meander overhead. Effortlessly, with neither sound nor fury, but purpose and destination. Always purpose and destination. Always north.

But, where? Why?

Do bugs travel too?

And if they fly north each day at dusk, when do they return? I never see them in the morning. Do they know when light is coming? What do they do every night? Who do they do it with? Who’s in charge here?

I have questions.

Mainly, though, I pause. And realize the bats will be here, heading north, tomorrow too.

My sense of here, my ground

Returns to me when I look up.

Ghost

This guy, I mean, look.

There was a time when he admitted I was a friend.

Doesn’t help that there’s an extra layer of weight on it all – this feeling that I’ve let him down because of what happened the day I should have been looking out, should have handled things differently. And now it’s all a bit too uneasy.

Mostly though, I’m leaving. So that’s weird. And uncomfortable. For him and for me.

It’s tough to leave in a way that’s graceful, that puts all the feels out there, that keeps his dignity intact. Because at the end of it, we all leave, and we are all left.

It’s not awkward if only one of us is feeling hurt. Is it.

Or maybe one of us is too much of a man to admit that it hurts.

So he leaves, before I get a chance to. Shuts me out, turns me off. But not in a courageous way. It feels cowardly, cold, calculated. I don’t think I should resent it, but I do. I won’t emulate it, I resent it.

I think I’m not being completely fair, though. Because at the end of it, we all leave, and we are all left.

Play Dough

Listen. I don’t care what has happened so far. What I do care about is that this is taken care of at her next school. In my shop if someone says they’re going to take care of something, they do it, or else. It’s just the way things get done and this didn’t get done. And I’ve asked for it 5 times. It’s incompetent.

The early morning meeting was heating. A visibly agitated father raised his voice, somewhat unexpectedly (his wife was a colleague). His irritation stunned us all into silence. A cramped, windowless, stuffy vice principal’s office on the second-last day of school. His daughter a beloved student for whom I’d worked so hard that year, who’d shown steady growth but still had some struggles. And an expectation that I thought had been met, but.

That meeting was six years ago now, but I can still sit myself down in that office, can still hear his words, can recall the pit in my stomach and the series of emails I sent in reply – some in direct response to his concerns, others to try to deflect blame or limit my vulnerability. Resolving it consumed my days (and nights, sadly) as I vacillated between resentment, self-doubt, and pity. My balloon had unmercifully and relentlessly been burst.

This is an unforgiving and thankless profession. We make ourselves vulnerable and the stories we tell ourselves cut to the core. Our persona and our identity as teachers is a tender balloon, and on some days everyone we see is brandishing a shiny pin.

Six years have passed and I’m (mostly) over it. Feelings of doubt that come with having let someone down are persistent and sneaky, resurfacing at the worst possible times (it’s always the worst possible times).

Now, it’s time to rethink the metaphor. Not a balloon, a fragile, disposable piece of rubber that can be poked and discarded. Instead, a lumpy, soft, multi-colored, malleable chunk of play dough – that can be shaped, prodded, molded into something better. It’s not always pretty, but it exists and endures, and it’s still there, even after harsh words, minor quakes, or windowless meetings. The work we do is an uneven, misshapen, playful dumpling, and it’s inevitable that someone will come along and give it a poke. But the dough abides.