Sunday, April 9, 2017

Beauty Shop, Cannonballs, Prank phone calls, Arabic breakfast......and a chess tournament

"To tell the truth, Miss, I'm most excited for the hotel."   So confessed one of my students a few days before our trip to the state chess tournament, which meant spending one night in a hotel.

I think most middle school kids get excited about a weekend away from their parents, staying in a hotel room with their friends, and going swimming in the hotel pool.

But, if you're a refugee to the country, your family fled a dangerous war, survived getting to another country, finally made it the U.S., and now lives a simple but happy life, this weekend is A REALLY BIG DEAL!


This is my second year chaperoning this group to the state chess tournament and I love that they get this opportunity.  We teach chess to all of our students.  Our paraprofessional and one of our long-time volunteers developed a system for teaching chess and every young refugee/immigrant who comes through our Newcomer Center learns the game.  They play for 20 minutes every day, and I think it's a brilliant part of what we do in our program.

It's an opportunity to learn a complicated and challenging game, and they feel smart at a time when they're struggling to adapt to a new country and culture and learn  English.  A small group of kids who really take to chess and show some potential and motivation get a chance to go to the state chess tournament.


Earlier in the week before the tournament, my teaching partner and I were each working with two students during our prep time.  They're deep into writing their autobiographies right now, a yearly activity we do in the center and turn into a class book.

It can be a tricky process as some students go deep and are really able to get into the tough stuff of their young lives.  We try to spend some time individually with all of the students to give them a chance to reflect and process.

I was working along with my two students, and I glanced over at my partner and realized she was crying.  The two girls she was working with were fussing over her, getting her tissues, and telling her it was okay.  I didn't interrupt because I knew that something big and deep was going on and the best thing to do was let it unfold.

I asked her about it later and she said she just got so overwhelmed by the some of the things they had written.

R. wrote about leaving her bombed out city and walking to the next country.  She said she remembered trying to sleep in the woods on their journey and being so, so cold.  Her father gave her his coat and when she worried that he would be cold, he said, "Don't worry; I'm strong."  And, then she was able to sleep.

S. told about how her father disappeared one day in their country and they still don't know what happened to him.  She said that her mom still holds hope that he may return to them one day.  When her mother brought S. to school on her first day, she was so nervous about leaving her, visibly trembling- no wonder.

My partner said that when she started crying, the two girls comforted her, saying things like, "It's okay, Miss.  We're here now.  We're safe, happy.".

Their strength, beauty, resilience move me to no end.


So, maybe you can see why it brings me a special pleasure and satisfaction to be with R. and S. and the other kids and watch them enjoy themselves at the tournament, but especially all their antics at the hotel.  

They're wild in the swimming pool, but I keep a close eye as they do cannonballs and jump in the water with glee.  

The boys and girls keep making prank phone calls to each other's rooms.  I don't understand anything they're saying to each other in Arabic, but the whole thing is hilarious.  

After swimming, The girls ask me if they can "fix my hair". 

 Ummmm, suuuuure?  I'm not sure what they want to do to it, but I sit down and they all start fussing over me.  First, one straightens it.  Then, they decide it will be better curly.  Then, they bring me into the bathroom and I let them put bright red lipstick on me.  

In the morning, they tell me we will have an Arabic breakfast.  They lay out little dishes of many kinds of food- a combination of things they brought from home and food from the hotel breakfast that they bring back to the room.  They make tea and invite me in.  They show me how to sit on the floor and give me a big piece of delicious pita-like bread that I can use to scoop up little bits of food. 

Sitting on that hotel room floor with those five strong girls-kids who have been through so much, yet still have so much capacity for joy- is a great and special moment.  

They're bummed to leave the hotel that morning and go back to the chess tournament.  I gently remind them this is why we came.   But they're supremely happy several hours later when they win 5th place as a team and a trophy.  


This week the chess group will be recognized at the local school board meeting.  They will be introduced to the superintendent and the board and applauded for their accomplishments at the state tournament.

I am supremely proud of what they did at that tournament.  Not only have they been playing chess for a year or less, but they have also recently learned English.  No way around it- it's a remarkable thing.  

But, "to tell the truth",  I'll  be thinking more about beauty shop, cannonballs, prank phone calls and Arabic breakfast. 

I'll be thinking about how all kids deserve to be kids, to feel safe and protected.  

To have opportunities and challenges, new experiences.  

To have fun and be carefree.  

To feel real joy and happiness.

It's what we all want for our own kids.

And, these kids so richly deserve it too.     

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