Joe Hessert is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Central Maine Community College, the University of New England and the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. He has his MFA from Iowa and has been teaching for four years.
Picture me in the writing center at Central Maine Community College, where I also work as an adjunct instructor. A student walks in (call him Abdi) with a narrative essay he wrote for college writing. Abdi is a survivor of the Somalian civil war and Kenyan refugee camps who was awarded a visa to the United States.
He lays the essay on the table. Attached to the front is a sheet with handwritten feedback from his teacher, written in neat cursive; each section (organization, sentence structure, grammar, narrative arc) has a paragraph of text and a grade. Every grade is a D with one exception … narrative arc. Abdi’s narrative received an F in this area. When I ask Abdi what specifically he’d like help with, he doesn’t speak but points to the F. I ask him to clarify, but he can’t because, while he can read English text, he cannot read cursive. He asks me to translate his instructor’s feedback. I skim the page, frown at the tone of the comments and set the essay aside, face down. I invite him to sit, and close the door so we can speak privately.
Abdi wrote his piece about soccer but misunderstood the assignment. Instead of telling a story about soccer, he detailed each position, its responsibilities and privileges and he wrote about how fun the game is. When he reaches for his essay, I tell him to forget that for now and ask him instead to tell me why soccer matters. He gives me a puzzled look and then begins to tell me about the goalie. “No,” I say. “Forget that. I am an American,” (I say this with a smile) “I know nothing about soccer – tell me something that will help me understand why it matters to you.”
Abdi closes his eyes. There is a silence as he gathers himself, deciding where to begin. Next, he tells me that at 8 years old his father was killed outside their home. He was beheaded in front of Abdi, his mother and Abdi’s six-year old sister. When his family fled to Kenya the food rations in their refugee camp were limited because there was only one adult in Abdi’s family. At 9 years old, Abdi took a job, working every day to support his family. At 14 his favorite soccer team, Arsenal, was playing an exhibition match against Manchester United. The game would be held in a stadium about three hours by bus from where Abdi lived. When he asked his mother if he could go to the game she told him they couldn’t afford it.
Here Abdi leans close to me and tells me that he was afraid of his mother. She was strong, he said, and while she was a good woman and he loved her she beat him if he ever got out of line. He holds out his arms to show me the length of her broom handle and closes his fingers in a circle to show me its diameter. He pauses here and leans back in his chair.
“That night I crept into my mother’s room,” he said. “I stole her money and I took the bus to the stadium.”
Abdi tells me how he slept outside the stadium that night and about how, when he walked inside the next day, the color of the grass and the team’s jerseys made him feel dizzy and light. After the match he describes hanging over the tunnel as the players ran out – his fingers extended, reaching. He tells me that he could feel the heat from his favorite player’s body as he passed by, just out of reach.
When Abdi got home, he submitted to his mother’s beating. He couldn’t sit for four days, he said, smiling.
Over the next few weeks I worked closely with Abdi, helping him craft a narrative based on this story – a story of a fourteen-year old desperate to be a child again if only for one day – to step outside of hardship and suffering and death, to risk his mother’s scorn, her fists and the long wooden handle of her broom for the chance to be a kid, if just for the duration of one soccer game.
At the end of the semester he re-submitted his essay and earned an A in each section and an A+ on his story’s narrative arc. His instructor wrote that it was one of the best pieces she had read in recent years. But when Abdi came into the writing center after receiving his grade he wasn’t there to share his success. He had an idea about his next assignment and he wanted to help me understand why the subject he had chosen was something I should care about.