Lessons Learned
Outside of School

Chapter 2

For some reason, families seem to feel that it’s necessary to give Christmas gifts to their teachers, and it’s often fun to speculate about whether the student or their parents picked out a specific gift. For example, that year I received a little ceramic toad sitting in a rocking chair and smoking a pipe. I recognized it at once as a figure from a children’s book titled The Wind in the Willows, a story I’d read aloud to the class, and I was pretty certain the student had picked it out. I laughed appreciatively when I unwrapped it and placed it on display in my home. On the other hand, the bottle of wine I received was certainly from a parent. I usually spent a part of my vacation writing thank-you notes to all my students. If they wanted to pass the notes on to their parents, that was fine with me.

After Christmas, winter set in with a vengeance, and soon there were nearly two feet of snow on the playground. Since snowball fights were forbidden at the school, the students really didn’t have a lot they could do on the playground, so recess was indoors. However, there were no rules about snowball fights after school, and the playground then was usually filled with children engaged in team battles, complete with snow forts. I’m sure that most of them were soaking wet by the time they got home.

The newspaper was revived, and the staff worked on it nearly every day. When I printed it each time, I selected two of the staff to help after school.

It appeared that Akram had forgiven me. He gave me a little teacher-appreciation plaque for Christmas, even though I was quite sure he didn’t celebrate the holiday. Yes, there are Syrian Christians, but from things he’d said, I knew he wasn’t one of them. His articles were consistently the best written ones in the paper. He also drew caricatures of his classmates, putting one in the paper each week. Then he signed the original and gave it to the student, seriously telling each one to save it and that someday it would be worth a lot of money.

Spring seemed a long time coming. Finally, in mid-April, the snow was gone and the trees began to bud out.

As I mentioned, often in the spring some of the kids began innocent flirting. During recess there would be a group of girls walking around the playground followed about ten paces behind by a group of boys. Sometimes the girls would turn and walk back toward the boys, who then turned and walked away. Often, they spent the whole recess walking, never openly communicating, but clearly aware of what was happening.

Akram was a late bloomer, so he usually spent his recess time with any of the girls who were not in the herd.

By June it was clear that the kids were ready to move on. Their move was a big one, because they’d been in the same elementary school building since kindergarten and they would be moving to the large middle school in the city. It would even be the first time riding a school bus for most of them. The biggest change, I knew from past years, was that suddenly these children, who were the oldest in the school, became the youngest in the next one. They would have to adjust to that. They would also have to get used to having different teachers for different subjects and moving from one classroom to another several times a day.

The day before school got out for the summer, Akram handed me a note. I read that he and his father were inviting me to dinner at their home the following Saturday. I had occasionally received such invitations in the past, especially when I had just finished teaching the youngest of several children in the family. But this time, it would be just me, Akram, and his father.

During the day, I wrote a note back to Mr. Midani, thanking him and accepting the invitation, and handing it to Akram to deliver.

I assumed that the dinner would be informal, and I was taken aback when Akram answered the door dressed in a suit and tie. Embarrassed, I went in, shaking his hand and then his father’s.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize this would be a formal occasion, so I didn’t dress for it.”

“Not a problem,” said Mr. Midani. “Akram wanted tonight to be very special, so he dressed up. I’m still in my work clothes.”

“Well, you certainly look elegant, Akram,” I said. He smiled broadly and nothing more was said about clothing.

Sitting on the couch before dinner, Mr. Midani and I enjoyed a glass of wine.

The dinner was delicious. Roast lamb was about the only dish I could identify although it was cooked with spices I didn’t know. The other dishes were Syrian recipes. I enjoyed them all, and Akram told me the name of each and what was in it. Apparently, he had done a lot of the cooking.

At one point I referred to his father as Mr. Midani. “Please call me Jamal,” he said.

“Only if you’ll call me Ben,” I replied.

From then on we were Jamal and Ben. As the dinner progressed, we talked about many subjects, most of them having nothing to do with school. But near the end of the meal, Jamal told Akram that he should ask me his question.

At first, Akram was reluctant to speak, but eventually he said, “When we met before you mentioned bullies in the middle school. Why do you think they’ll pick on me?”

I thought about how to answer that. I had no idea whether he thought himself gay, so I tried to frame my answer without using the word. “This is difficult, Akram, but I need to say that you act somewhat differently from the other boys in your grade.”

“You mean because I’m gay?” he asked.

“Frankly, yes.” I looked at Jamal to see how he was reacting, but I couldn’t read his expression. “I’m sure there will be other gay boys in middle school but most of them are able to hide it until they’re older.”

“So I should act like a straight boy?”

“Can you?”

“I don’t think I can, and anyway, I don’t want to. I like myself the way I am, and I think if other kids don’t like it, that’s their problem.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say some of them won’t like it. Your friends, of course, will stick with you, but you may encounter bullying. You probably need to talk with your father over the summer about how to handle that.”

Turning to Jamal I said, “We’ve been talking as though you know of Akram’s being gay and are okay with it. Is that so?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we moved here, because many people in the Arab world believe that gays should be punished, even put to death, so we moved to a country where being gay is accepted. But now you’re telling us that it isn’t okay with everybody. Can you see why we’re confused?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Unfortunately, although our laws now permit gay unions and activities, there are bigots everywhere, and sadly, sometimes you can’t get away from them.”

“So what do the school policies say?” he asked.

“In this part of the country, which is pretty conservative, the policies supposedly protect gay students from bullying. Unfortunately, too often teachers and administrators look the other way and don’t enforce the policy, claiming that they don’t know who is doing the bullying. I think I mentioned before that it puts boys being attacked in a difficult position. If they don’t say anything, they get hurt; if they do name names, they can get ostracized by their classmates. I certainly wish there was a solution to all this, but if there is one, I don’t know what it is.”

“Well, thank you for being thoughtful,” he replied. We all cleared the table, putting most of the dishes in the dishwasher and leaving the cooking dishes to soak in the sink.

We had lingered for a long time over the dinner table. When we finished with the dishes, Akram said he was going upstairs to bed. I wished him goodnight and prepared to leave before Jamal asked me to stay for a while. I agreed, and he brought two goblets of wine into the living room, where we sat in comfortable chairs.

As my eyes wandered around the room, I noticed that most of the objects on shelves and walls looked to be Arabic, probably Syrian in origin, and a few of them seemed very old. I asked Jamal about them and he gave me a little tour. He told me that his family had been collecting objects like these for hundreds of years. He said that some objects, usually antiques, were not allowed out of the country, but he had been able to smuggle a few small ones.

When we were seated again, Jamal asked, “Tell me frankly, Ben, what is your attitude towards gay boys and men?”

I thought a little before answering. “I believe that different people can be biologically different. They may be straight or gay or trans or any one of the categories which are now being defined. I believe that people should live according to how they feel about themselves and it’s nobody else’s business.”

“Thank you,” Jamal said, and then he told me something I’d not expected. “I agree with you, and I too am gay, like Akram. I suffered for many, many years living a lie. I don’t want him to suffer as I did. When I finally told my wife that I was a homosexual, we divorced, amicably. Akram sees his mother often and she knows about both him and me. Our relationship is perhaps odd but friendly. We respect each other.”

I sat listening, wondering whether I should tell him about myself, but then I realized this conversation was not about me or about me and Jamal, but about Akram.

“Thank you for telling me, “I said. “The only thing I can suggest if Akram is bullied is to go directly to the principal. Don’t go to the assistant principal, even though he or she is in charge of school discipline. It’s the principal who has the power to do something.”

Jamal nodded and then changed the subject. We talked for another hour or so as Jamal kept filling my wine glass. I asked him what sorts of things he wrote.

“Mostly fiction, although occasionally a nonfiction piece for a magazine. My latest book is Leaving Syria.”

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “That’s been on the best seller list.”

Jamal just nodded and smiled. He went to a bookshelf and returned with a copy of his book which he autographed. Taking it, I thanked him profusely.

When I stood preparing to leave, I realized that the several glasses of wine I’d had were making my head spin a little, so I drove very carefully, arrived home safely, and fell into bed.


In the summers I worked for the Parks and Recreation Department in the city supervising a park with a playground. Most of the time it was easy work, just keeping an eye out for kids getting hurt or bullied.

Throughout the summer, I occasionally saw former students at the park. Sometimes I just watched what they were doing; other times they sat with me and we talked for a while before they went off to play. I always enjoyed talking with my former students, and I wished for a better way to maintain contact with them.

As part of my job at the park I was supposed to put together a mixed-gender softball team which would play other teams from parks in surrounding areas. The kids in our park were of several races, so naturally our team was also.

By far the most outstanding player in our park was a boy who called himself Doodah. I never did learn what his real name was. There was an age limit of 15 on the team, and I was quite sure he was older. My problem was that since we only took kids’ words for how old they were, I had no way of checking.

Furthermore, Doodah had a reputation as being a troublemaker, and I didn’t want to invite trouble to the park.

Our first game was on our home field. The two teams lined up on baselines and we sang the National Anthem as well as we could.

When we finished singing, the other team’s coach came over to me and said, “There’s no way that kid Doodah is 15 or younger. My God, he’s claimed to be 15 for over three years. We won’t play the game if he’s on your team.”

I sighed and walked to Doodah, who was preparing to pitch and chew bubble gum at the same time.

“Doodah,” I said, “their manager claims you’re over age for the team and I have no way to prove otherwise. I think it would be best if you didn’t play today. I’ll consult my boss this evening and we’ll try to straighten it out.”

Doodah said nothing. He simply shrugged, placed the ball in my hand, and walked off the field, blowing a big, pink bubble. I had to give him some credit. He did keep his cool. In fact, that was part of his persona. He never seemed to get angry or lose control.

With Doodah gone, the teams were fairly even, and we went into the last inning tied at 12 runs apiece.

As the opposing pitcher was warming up, I heard a laugh and looked up to see Doodah on his bicycle, still blowing pink bubbles. He rode his bike around the outfield and then headed towards the infield. Riding right over the pitcher’s mound, he did a dramatic wheely at home plate.

The opposing coach was apoplectic. He walked on to the field and tried to stop Doodah, but the boy would have nothing to do with that. He just rode around the man, blowing bubbles. The coach yelled at me, “Get this goddamn Nigger off the field!”

That did it for me. I called the rest of the team over and told them we weren’t going to accept that language and we were quitting the game. Most of the kids were fine with that, although a few pointed out that our record would be 0-1.

“I don’t care about our record,” I said. “All I care about is you being safe and having fun. That coach just insulted every person of color on our team and his, and we’re not going to accept that. We’re better than that.”

As a group, the team walked off the field and went back to the small equipment building about fifty yards from the field to turn in the bats and balls and borrowed gloves.

That night I called my boss and told him what had happened. When I finished, he said, “You did exactly the right thing, Ben. That coach will be fired in the morning. As for Doodah, if he says he’s 15 you have to let him play. We have no way to check that in the summer when the school offices are closed.”

Doodah rejoined us, and after that we won more games than we lost, but more importantly, the kids had a good time and got along very well with each other. Doodah made no more trouble for the rest of the summer. In fact, I often saw him on the field coaching younger players.

As the days moved towards the beginning of September, I began to feel that little sense of anticipation I always get before school opened in the fall.