Smile: Absent

by Linea Jantz

Small hands rained on the classroom windows, smacking the shuddering glass. The shouting was reaching banshee decibel levels. It was hot in the small room so I had mistakenly propped open a window. Young Abdi was head and shoulders through, trying to climb inside.

I had been warned when I started teaching at the refugee resettlement center not to yell at this roving pack of children myself. You had to find an older sibling or cousin of one of the kids to handle these things. 

One of the teenagers ran over and pushed his younger brother back out the window, pulling the pane down with an emphatic thump. The kids outside and the studying teenagers taunted each other through the glass in a flood of Maay Maay and Arabic, laughter and shouts. It was chaos, but I loved them all.

One day I received an email about one of my teenaged Somali-Bantu students from the center director:

Smile will not be in class for a few days. His grandmother, the matriarch of his family, has died. If you would like to pay your respects, you can bring food to the family. Just make sure to take off your shoes if you go inside.

I wanted to show respect to Smile and his family in their time of grief, so I emailed back for his address. The director suggested I bring a sweet treat like cookies, so I bought some on the way to their apartment.

I was nervous, even though the director assured me that this was normal. The door was opened by an unsmiling middle-aged woman. She did not speak English and called over one of the smaller children in the apartment. He spoke to her in Maay Maay and I heard him say “Teacher”.

I held out the cookies and said, “For Smile.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t there.

The woman’s face remained impassive but she ushered me inside. The child informed me that I could wait on the couch. I carefully kicked out of my shoes and let them join the sandals by the door. I wished I had worn prettier socks. 

There were several women and many children gathered in the small living room. A bounty of dishes covered the kitchen table, each fragrant with spices. I was embarrassed by my stupid plastic sleeve of cookies. I wished I had brought something better. I wished I knew how to cook. I had burnt a pot the last time I tried to boil water. They didn’t know it, but the cookies were an act of mercy really.

Colorful tapestries hung over the windows and walls. The room was dim and a soccer game was playing on low volume on the TV. I could hear the women speaking to each other and every once in a while “Smile”, “Teacher”. They were talking about me.

The kids had taught me a few words of Maay Maay but nothing to say, “I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry that your heart is split open and some strange woman is sitting on your couch like a lump.” 

I tried to pretend I was raptly interested in the soccer game. From the other side of the room the smaller children occasionally glanced at me with mischievous eyes but did not come to my rescue. I jokingly narrowed my eyes at them. They giggled and grinned.

Smile finally walked in, then froze in the doorframe, shocked to see me. I held out my sad gift. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

He looked incredibly touched. Like it was some great thing to sit awkwardly on someone’s couch with a plastic sleeve of cookies and mumble words that weren’t enough. I was humbled.

“Thank you, Teacher,” he said. And he shook my hand.

I was no stranger to the younger kids hugging my legs or students reaching out to touch my colorful jewelry (which I wore just for them). But in the months I had been teaching at the resettlement center, this was the first time a student shook my hand. 

Smile took the cookies to the table and placed them carefully among the other dishes. He spoke to his relatives, voice rich with his mother tongue. I heard him say, “From my Teacher”. He said it like it was something to be proud of.