Before the Bell Rings

Sitting in the dark, my door always open, he was waiting for me. I can’t arrive before seven this year, and I told him that when he already asked. There he sat, one year and seven months from a journey between Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan, trying to decipher the ever-coded language of Fitzgerald, totally unaware of such a thing as a speak-easy, alcoholism, mistresses, or sin.

And how could I explain, in the seventeen minutes before the bell, the demons of our society? Doesn’t he have tucked in his back pocket enough demons of his own?

“All honors classes, this year, Miss. And I guarantee I’ll be out of your remedial reading class by the end of the semester.”

But here we are, September 16. And he’s drowning in a bucket of noon-drinking Gatsby.

“Did your teacher (the newbie, I’m keeping internally) tell you anything about the Prohibition? About illegal smuggling of alcohol? About bars under the streets?”

“No. He just told us to read chapter four and answer these questions.”

The first one asks for a college-level interpretation of why Nick begins the chapter with the world taking its mistress at Gatsby’s while everyone else is at church on a Sunday morning.

“Oh, Mohammed…” It is all I can say. He will not have time to finish the chapter, to check out the movie (as I suggest), to thoroughly respond to questions that his limited English and foreign background will keep him from understanding.

And this is when my heart breaks, before the bell rings. Before it is fully light, before I even need to turn on the fan. It breaks for the journey, the immigrant’s journey. It breaks before and after dawn, in those hours I spend marking his papers but not beside him at his desk.

I cannot explain, in seventeen minutes, how demons have overtaken our society, 1922 or 2014. I cannot define all the words or find the subtle undertones of the great American novel.

I can only help him with a few questions and hope he will survive the journey, just like all the journeys he has carried across three continents.


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