Authors: Maria Padian
Over and over I set them up from the corner. Sometimes the kick wasn’t so accurate, but when I did get it into the box, one of the guys could usually make something happen. It was good, even if some of it was a little unorthodox. Like, Jake and Mike tend to
try to take the ball from up high and head it. Saeed and Ismail: no way. Feet, chests, backs, for sure, every which way and some pretty impossible ways, too. But I didn’t see that ball touch their heads. Not once. They definitely had some sort of finesse thing going that didn’t involve jostling brain cells.
Coach switched us up. He put me in the box and Saeed at corner. The guy stood way back. Like, twice as far as I usually stand. He waited. He took his time. His hand went up and he advanced, deliberately, in what almost looked like slow motion. His foot connected neatly with the ball.
Now, I’ve never seen angels. When I was a little boy at St. Cecilia’s, I used to watch for them. We believed, all of us back then, in angels. In the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, leprechauns … God, too. We believed and we waited, because that’s what kids do. We pretty much would not have been surprised if some big winged dude walked into the classroom one day and began handing out crayons. Or at least flew by the windows outside.
Eventually you figure out Dad’s been slipping quarters under your pillow at night and taking your old teeth. Santa Claus brings better toys to the rich kids’ houses. God’s debatable, and there are no angels.
But when Saeed kicked that ball, I swear: someone guided it. Someone who appreciated the beauty and perfection of a white ball rising from the ground in a rainbow arc. A ball that didn’t whiz, didn’t soar, didn’t zip. It floated. It curved gracefully, the perfect distance away from furiously leaping legs and bobbing heads and waving, scrabbling goalie’s hands, until it descended, settling with a soft whoosh, like a waterbird landing on a lake, into a corner of the goal. The net caught it, embraced it.
You couldn’t have done it better.
Ismail screamed something I didn’t understand and ran toward Saeed. Every guy was on him, the whole team. Mike was losing his mind. Even Pete LeBourdais rushed him. I looked toward Coach, half expecting him to join the swarm, but the guy was motionless. He just stared at the ball entangled in the back corner of the goal.
When our eyes met, there was an expression in his I’d never seen before.
Like he’d just seen an angel.
After practice I got a lift to the K Street Center. You’d have thought they weren’t expecting me. I had called, so they knew I was coming, but the crazy-ass chaos that greeted me when I stepped through the doors sure didn’t look like homework help.
Sure didn’t smell like it, either. More like old sneakers. Unwashed sheets. Unwashed dudes. Seriously, the place was crawling with little kids, but these gray-looking guys in dusty jeans and broken shoes were flopped on some beat-up couch in the middle of the room, staring at the television. Judge Judy, scolding someone. So that was my first mental note about the K Street Center: they don’t get cable. Because there isn’t a guy on the planet, even if he’s an out-of-it guy with broken shoes, who would watch
if he could flip to ESPN.
It was hard to tell whether the place had been, or still was, part of a church. The front looked like an old church, but everyone entered through the back. There was a grassless yard with a metal gate around it, the ground beaten smooth, like from too many feet, and it swarmed with children. They poured in and out
of the building, or wandered down the sidewalk, then disappeared into the maze of four-story wooden apartments that stretched the length of the block. They spilled across the street to play on the swings, the basketball courts, the skate park. In the distance, the spires of the Catholic cathedral towered above every other building.
“Can I help you?” This white girl, who barely reached my shoulder, spoke to me. Her nose was pierced with a round gold stud. Her blond hair was cut close, and a random patch on one side was dyed purple.
“Uh, yeah. I’m Tom Bouchard. I’m … ah, supposed to be here for homework help?”
Purple-Patch Girl smiled, which made her look older. Older than me, actually.
“Giving or receiving?”
“Are you here looking for help, or are you a volunteer?” She waited patiently for my answer.
“Giving. I mean, volunteering. Yeah.” I sounded unbelievably stupid. Something about her eyes, really blue, and her question unnerved me. Did I
like I needed help? “I called. Talked to somebody named Joe?”
“Cool,” she said easily. “Joe is out buying diapers right now, but I can show you where to go.” She turned and walked past the TV dudes to the back of the room, where she had to shove a packed rack of clothes out of the way before we could continue down a dim hallway. She wore bell-bottomed jeans that hugged her at the hips and covered her feet, dragging a little on the floor.
“I’m Myla, by the way,” she said over her shoulder as we walked.
“Tom,” I replied.
“Yeah, you said,” she answered. Smiled, but not in a mean way. “Do you work here?” I asked her.
“Yes. And no. I get paid for eight hours a week as part of my work-study job at Mumford. But I’m here way more than that, so I guess I’m also a volunteer.”
“You’re a college student?” She didn’t fit my idea of a Mumford student: blond girls wearing skinny jeans tucked into Ugg boots, driving shiny SUVs with out-of-state plates and ski racks on top.
We’d reached the end of the hall and a closed door. Hand on the knob, she turned to me.
“You sound surprised,” she said.
“No, it’s just … you’re small.”
Totally stupid comment. This was off to an epic bad start.
“I know, right? Usually only tall people go to college. But Mumford made an exception in my case.” She was still smiling, but now there was a hint of
Hmm, is this guy ridiculous?
in her expression. She pushed the door open to reveal a long room filled with cafeteria tables and metal chairs. Half the seats were taken up by kids, books spread out before them. Some hunched together in small groups; a few stood, leaning over their papers, elbows resting on the tabletops. Others ran around, laughing. Looked like a game of tag was going on. I didn’t see any other “helpers.”
All the kids were black. Most were girls. I guessed, from the clothes, that they were all Muslim. At least, the girls were. The boys were dressed like any American kid; the girls wore long skirts and their hair was covered.
“Hey! Abdi! What did I tell you?” Myla spoke sharply to a boy who was running. This little guy, who looked like he might be all
of eight years old, skidded to a stop. His eyes widened. He tried to look sorry, but those eyes were laughing. I smiled at him.
“This is the quiet and reading room. Play outside, okay?”
“Are you finished with your homework?” Myla continued.
Abdi shook his head.
“Okay, well, Tom here is going to help you get it all done,” she said to him. I tried not to look surprised. For some reason I’d been expecting a little more … preparation? Some sort of introduction?
And that “all done” part? I had figured on this lasting an hour.
Abdi didn’t say anything, but dutifully walked over to a metal chair with a Spider-Man backpack on it and heaved the pack onto the table. He unzipped it and began pulling out crumpled papers.
“Abdi’s been having a hard time in third grade,” Myla said quietly. “His spoken English is amazing when you consider he’s only been in this country for six months. But he barely reads. He’s still learning his letters. And you know how third grade is when you stop learning to read and start reading to learn? He is getting
I nodded, like I got what the hell she was talking about.
“Why don’t they just move him into a lower grade?” I said.
She smiled grimly.
“They’re placing all these kids based on age, not ability,” she said. “If they didn’t, half the high school would be in first grade with Abdi. Problem is, there are hardly any ELL teachers in Enniston.”
“Sorry … ELL?” I asked.
“English Language Learners,” she explained. “People trained to teach English as a second language. They’ve hired a few, but
nobody was prepared for how these kids are pouring into the schools right now. Everyone’s playing catch-up.” She half patted, half pushed me on the back toward Abdi.
“You’re good to help out. It’s too bad more people in town don’t feel like you. Come look for me when you’re finished.” Myla turned and headed for the door. As she left the room, a little girl jumped from her chair and hurled herself at Myla, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. The kid was a splash of bright colors and patterns, from her long skirt to her head covering. Myla stopped long enough to return the hug and speak with her.
“Hey. You gonna help me?”
Abdi stared expectantly. His arms were folded across his chest. His legs, which didn’t reach the floor, swung impatiently from his perch in the metal chair.
“Sorry. This is my first day,” I explained as I pulled up a chair alongside him. I stuck out my hand. “I’m Tom.”
He shook my hand.
“I’m Abdi. You a Mumford student?”
“Can’t, dude, it’s all girls. Besides, I’m in high school. I go to Chamberlain. What about you? College or high school?”
He looked incredulous.
“No way, man! I just a kid! What … you crazy or something?” I shrugged.
“I don’t know. You could be, like, a midget genius. What grade are you in?”
“Third grade. I in third grade! Man … you crazy!” He laughed. But he’d gotten the joke, and I had his attention. At least for a few minutes. Those feet of his, swinging beneath the table, reminded me of Donnie.
“So what’ve we got here, Abdi?” I said, lifting one of his papers from the pile. It was almost impossible to read, like it had been smashed into a ball and unfolded again a bunch of times.
“You play sports?” he asked me. He had a thick accent going but spoke in full sentences.
“Do you like sports?” I asked.
“I like soccer. You play soccer?” he asked.
I put the paper down. “You bet I like soccer. I play on my school team.”
He jumped off his chair. “Oh man … what position?”
“I’m a midfielder. But I can play striker, too.”
He was so excited he leaped in the air. “Yes! Me too. That’s my position!” I didn’t bother to ask him which one. His feet shifted from side to side.
A couple of the girls looked our way. “Shh!” one hissed.
“I think we’re disturbing the others,” I told him, motioning him back to the chair. “Tell you what: let’s take a look at the homework, and when you’re finished we can go outside and kick around a little. Do they have a ball here?”
Wrong question. Wrong suggestion. In a flash, Abdi was out of the chair again and making a run for the door. I grabbed him by his T-shirt and reeled him back in.
“Whoa. I think I said homework first, soccer later.”
“They do! They have a ball. Myla knows where. C’mon, man, ask her.”
It took a few minutes to convince Abdi that I really wouldn’t play unless he finished his homework. He looked pretty disgruntled, but I stuck to my guns. There was no way I was gonna face
Myla after only five minutes and admit I was a homework helper failure.
Abdi was working on writing the letters of the alphabet. According to his sheet (which we eventually uncrumpled), this day’s letter was R. He was supposed to practice writing an entire page of upper- and lowercase
’s, then draw pictures of words that begin with
. I watched as squiggly lines of big and little
’s marched across his page. It was messy at first, because he was hurrying to wrap up and go play soccer, but then he actually settled down. He was left-handed, like me.
When he finished with the letters, he pulled out a box of crayons.
“Okay, so: words that begin with
. What can you think of?” I asked him.
He shrugged. He looked down, then away. One foot started swinging.
“What sound does an
make?” I prompted.
Abdi shrugged again. I couldn’t tell whether he was just bored and jerking my chain or if he really didn’t know.
I floated my tongue in the middle of my mouth and growled at him: “Urrrrr.” This cracked him up.
, man,” he laughed. But he did it back: “Urrrrr.”
“Awesome, dude! Now let’s think up some words. I’ll give you a few examples, but you have to come up with some yourself. How about …
urrrriver? Urrrroach? Urrrrat?
All the girls’ heads shot up. “Shh!” one hissed at him again.
“Uh … what?” I said.
he repeated. I was stumped.
. It like …” Abdi scrunched up his face. He was dying to say something but just couldn’t spit it out. Suddenly he got on all fours. He started scuttling around the room, going “Naaaa! Naaaa!” loudly. The other kids in the room completely abandoned their homework at that point. Some were yelling at Abdi to be quiet. Others laughed at his antics.
“Is it a sheep?” I guessed. “Baaa? Baaa?”
“No, no, not a sheep,” he corrected me. “Look.” He grabbed a crayon and began drawing. An animal. Four legs. Kind of furry. Sharp hooves. When he added these little horns, I got it.
“A goat?” I said.
He tossed the crayon down. “Yes! Goat.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” I laughed.
He shook his head. “I forget. I get so many words in here.…” He struck the heel of his hand on his forehead, a little hard. “Sometimes I forget.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” I said. “But are you supposed to come up with
-words in English or Somali?” He shrugged. The assignment didn’t make it clear. We decided to go with a combo, so in addition to his drawing of a
we added a road and a ring. His pictures were hurried because he wanted to get outside and play … and so did I. He stuffed the completed pages back into the Spider-Man pack (I was beginning to understand how they got so crumpled) and ran out ahead of me to find a soccer ball.