The Itty Bitty Airball Queen

Friday was our school wide reading program finale.  The finale was a series of races and games.  There were jump rope relays, basketball relays, soccer relays, minute to win it games, hula hoop contests, scoot board races and a host of other challenges for my little ones to participate in.  It was a scream!  There were times when I was doubled over, laughing so hard that I was crying.  Balls were escaping, jump ropes were tangling, and all the while the first graders were clapping and cheering with abandon.

One of the harder games was a basketball shooting game.  Each kid stood at a line in the middle of the key and shot five baskets.  This is a supremely hard task for first graders.  That basket might as well be in the clouds.  One of my darling little girls-a teeny, tiny breath of a kid-was chosen for this game.  
She’s an adorable kid.  When she gets excited about something, her blue eyes open wide and she flaps her arms.  I’ve seen her do this when reading her favorite books, when mastering particularly difficult math problems, when playing at recess and especially when she paints.
She stood at the line, basketball in hand, with a serious expression on her face.  She shot.  Air ball.  She scrunched up her face in concentration and shot again.  Air ball.  Her third and fourth shots arched through the air and again fell short.  
I bet you’re thinking this is going to be one of those stories where she makes the fifth shot and does a victory lap around the gymnasium.
It’s not.
Not one of her five shots even came close to grazing the net.  
Not a single one.
Back in the classroom after the reading program finale, we were gathered at the carpet talking about all the fun we had racing and cheering each other on.
My tiny airballer raised her hand to share.  “Mrs. McCauley, I was nervous about that basketball game because I’ve never played it before.”
She paused and I waited, scripting in my mind words of encouragement or some sage advice about perseverance or something, anything to ease the sting.
Then she continued, the pitch of her voice rising to an exuberant squeal, her arms flapping in wild excitement, “I was nervous at first, but then I played the game and I was AWESOME at it!!!”
Wait, what?  
She explained, “I’ve never thrown a ball that high before.  I threw it really high five times.”  She held up five fingers. 
My face broke into a huge grin, mirroring the smile on her own precious face.
What an idiot I am for thinking I needed to pepper her with my “sage advice”.  As is so often the case, I found myself marveling at the unconventional wisdom my students. 
I’m so hard on myself when it comes to trying new things, so fearful and bound in nerves, so unwilling to try, lest I fail, or worse yet lest I fail in public.
The next time I’m facing a new challenge, I’m going to remember her face, scrunched up by every ounce of her concentration.  I’m going to remember her candor in admitting she was nervous and afraid.  But most of all I’m going to remember her wild, flapping arms and the triumph on her face for throwing the basketball higher than she ever has before.
She didn’t make any baskets that day, and for that I’m grateful because if she had, I would’ve missed the lesson.  She didn’t score any points, but one thing is for sure, my itty bitty airball queen is winning.

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Meet Opiyo Chris

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites.  I love all of my students, no really I do.  I love my kids, both the ones here and in the ones in Uganda, but the truth of the matter is that there are certain students who wrap themselves around my heart and I’ll feel them in my pulse for the rest of my life.  
It’s the beauty of teaching.  I carry my students with me and I like to think that they carry a bit of me with them as well.
Opiyo Chris is one of those kids, one of my favorites.  
Opiyo Chris (Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee)
I met Chris two years ago during my first trip to Uganda.  In a writing workshop, he wrote about his memories of his mom who died of breast cancer when he was seven.  I could tell you all about Chris’ piece, but instead I think I’ll let his writing speak for him.
My Great Memories of Mum
Opiyo Christopher, age 16
            My mum was sick with breast cancer for a long time.  When I was seven years old and my sister was five years old I walked home from school one day to find my mother laying on her bed.  My sister was laying with her and some people sat around her.  I knew nothing about what was happening, but I began to understand when an ambulance came and took her to the hospital.
            I was called to go and be there at the hospital.  It was a dilemma for me, not an easy decision.  I made up my mind to go.  I was called inside where my mother was laying.  I tried to call to her, but she did not respond.  
           I touched her forehead with my hand and it was completely cold.
            “Mum, I know you are gone…” I stammered, “but, Mum, why did you have to go?”  I looked into her face.  Later I asked my mum to forgive me for not listening to her when she corrected me and I asked the Lord God to forgive her, too.  “May your soul rest in eternal life, Mum.”
            After my mum passed away, I felt so lonely, like I had nowhere to go and take shade.  My father was dead and I was left alone with my younger sister and we were too young to take care of each other. 
            In her free time my mum used to teach me how to count and write.  Now I can write, count and read well because of my mother’s lessons.  She corrected me when I was wrong and told me to behave well.  She molded me with good character and I learned to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness.
            When she died, I did not realize the benefits of her lessons.  I didn’t know to thank her.  Although she is not here, I thank her for the great job she did, for the great lessons she taught me, for the great mother she was.
Darn that kid.  The thought of seven-year old Chris touching his mother’s cold forehead gets me every time.  Hang on, I have to get a tissue.  Talk amongst yourselves.  I’ll give you a topic.  Rainbows or puppies or bubbles or anything happy that will make the lump in my throat shrink to a tolerable size.
Opiyo Chris graduated from Senior Four last November.  (That’s the equivalent of junior year here.)  Kids in secondary school in Uganda who want to go on to college or university must also attend Senior Five and Senior Six.  Sadly Chris has not yet begun his Senior Five year because he wasn’t able to scrape together money for his tuition or to find a school.
It breaks my heart that money is the deciding factor in who gets to go to school and who doesn’t in Uganda.  It’s wrong on so many levels.
This term while Chris was trying to find a school and trying to figure out a way to pay for school, he did a lovely thing.  He began volunteering his time with my friends Kristine and Laura at Educate for Change and helping their Primary Seven (sixth grade) students.
I wasn’t sure I could love this kid any more than I already do, but I was wrong.  It’s so like him in the midst of his own struggle for education to go and help educate younger kids.  It is the epitome of who Chris is.
Indeed his mama taught him well.
Imagine my delight when I received a message Thursday morning from Laura saying she has a spot for Opiyo Chris in school.  In my bathroom with a towel around my head, I did an absurd little happy dance and made ridiculous squealing sounds.
Opiyo Chris gets to go back to school.  My Vigilante heart was overwhelmed with joy.
Here’s the thing though, I’m not big on giving handouts.  I’m also not big on dropping in and imposing myself as some sort of haughty, all-knowing, superior person who knows what’s best for other people.  I believe in facilitating sustainable, meaningful ways for people to achieve their own goals, in a way that they see best.
Then an idea popped into my tiny brain.  What if I used Vigilante Kindness dollars to start a work-study type program wherein hardworking, kindhearted, service-oriented kids like Chris have an opportunity to work and pay for their own education?  I admit I did a second happy dance that was so enthusiastic that the towel previously wrapped around my head came undone and may or may not have landed in the toilet.  Oops.
I love that Chris didn’t start tutoring in order to be paid.  I love that he did it because he loves helping others.  And I love that I get to take his passion and help him turn it into a real way for him to obtain an education.  The mere thought of it makes me prickle with all kinds of goosebumps.

I had the pleasure of writing with Chris both summers that I was in Uganda.  Last summer he participated in our This I Believe writing workshop.  Here’s one of my favorite shots of Chris.  It’s incredible to see where his belief taking him.  
I, too, believe we ought to love one another.  Opiyo Chris makes it easy.

Love in the Middle

“I don’t have a middle initial,” she tries to submit the form, but the computer highlights in red her namelessness.

I feel her begin to crawl up into herself, chameleoning into my couch.

“Shouldn’t I have a middle name?” she asks.

“Not everyone has one,” I try to make this unnamed middle a smaller absence.

But it is there.

This blackness.

This shadow always creeping across her face.

This unbuoyed business of being unclaimed.

I think of names for her, this blazing star so terrified of burning everyone else.

“You could choose a middle name,” I say, cursing the computer and that damn red box.

“What’s your middle name?” she asks.


“Like a wheel?” she laughs.

“Sort of,” I smile.  “It was my maiden name and I kept it because I wanted to remain linked to my brothers.”

“What do I want?”  Her question is pregnant with wanting.

I hold my breath.  She’s not asking me.

“Love.  My middle name will be Love.” She types an “L” and submits the form for college.  “What do you think?” she asks.

“It’s perfect.  But then again, what do I know?  My Acholi name means ‘Laughter’,” I shrug.

“Love and laughter,” she relaxes into the herself.

“Love and laughter then,” I squeeze her hand and we giggle.

Hard to Love

You fold your matchstick arms, one atop the other,
The sun is a token of yellow,
Glinting through the window behind you,
Playing off the filaments of your skin,
The skin of my soldier boys.

You twist the straw wrapper,
Threading it through your fingers,
Then crumpling it in your fist, which contains your story.

I choose to take another bite, the avocado slippery on my tongue.
“How do I unscrew you?” I think.
“How do I unfold you?”
You who have determined to occupy so little space.

I think of you,
Tucking yourself under the pews at church,
Until the parishioners left and you slept there alone,
Notched in the arms of God.

I wait for you.
I wait with you.
I wait.

You slough off your shell.
And tell me about the father who sold you,
And your mother who let him.

You walk a tightrope between telling and keeping,
I hold onto your silence,
Watch the landscape of your face,
Marvel at your eyes, still white, still lit.

You tell me about being a slave at the age of ten,
And of the man who tried to undo your silver straps.

But the worst of it all
Is the family who rescued you,
Called you Princess,
Loved you,
Taught you,
And then,
And then poured it all out and sent you back.

You say to me, “I think I must be hard to love.”
With bravery trickling down your face, you whisper,
“It is hard for me to love.”

I nod.  I know this difficulty of loving and being loved,
The exquisite risk of allowing myself to be loved.

We sit across from each other,
Two so hard to be loved.
And somewhere on the table,
Between lunch plates and crumbs,
Love has joined us.

for E.L.M.