I will arise and go now for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
– “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” William Butler Yeats
My work in Jordan was unpredictable. I’d catch a ride with the bus-driver who lived above me and we’d be 100 feet from the entrance to the center only for him to realize (with a bus full of students crammed behind us) that he’d lost the school keys. On another day I’d show up to find the school locked with a note on the door instructing me to call for a ride because everyone had gone olive-picking for the day. There were days when we started hours late or ended hours early or days when there was no school at all and plenty of the time I wasn’t totally sure why. But on the days when we did have school, it always ended the same way.
I worked in the spare classroom at the back of the school, next to the kitchen. Our tea lady Um Ahmad usually came in to hang out with me for the last half hour or so while I finished my work. She liked to ask me questions about America or tell me about her sons and sometimes we did crunches on the floor (ever since she’d heard about the women’s fitness classes I’d been teaching she had demanded private lessons).
After maybe 20 minutes the students would come. There were three that unfailingly arrived in my room at the end of the day, sort of my self-appointed assistants. Ahmad, Haneen, and Amer were all in the Autism classroom across the hall and somehow they always seemed to sense when the bus was about 5 minutes away; that’s when they’d come flying in. Ahmad was in charge of my bag. He’d run around the room and find belongings, stuff them in, zip it and hold it out to me as if it were made of gold. Haneen helped me clear all the pencils, pens, and papers from my desk and shove them all into the all-purpose cupboard in the corner. Then she’d close the window that I always left open and carefully draw the fringed gold curtain. Amer was more of a bystander until his starring role at the end: flipping the light switch and closing the door behind us with a slam.
All three of them would herd me and Um Ahmad out of the classroom and down the hall while we shook hands and kissed cheeks and helped various strays with shoes and zippers. We all made our way out the front entrance as one big pile of grasped hands and backpacks and limbs. Ahmad and Haneen always tried to hold on to me as long as they could while the teachers and I ushered everyone out and then somehow there were always more hands to shake goodbye and cheeks to kiss. Then there was the perpetually broken gate separating the courtyard from the stairs that only Sabreen really knew how to open and I’d duck under the olive tree and make my way up the stairs while the little ones stuffed their hands through the bars to shake my hand or grab my coat or touch me one last time before I got to the top, finally just waving, waving, waving, calling out “BYE” at the top of their lungs.
When I think of them now, I think of them standing that way, waving on tip-toes, the little ones pulling on the backpacks of the taller ones to make sure they lasted as long as they could, waving as if their lives depended on it just so I’d know how much I was loved, even as I looked over my shoulder from the road just to see them standing there one last time.