As we walked back from the soccer field with big smiles on every face, we saw her. The frail woman walked hunched over such that her chest, clothed in a beautifully adorned baby blue shawl, casted a dark shadow over her sandals. The white shawl that was decorated with opaque white sequins was loosely wrapped around her head, revealing a brown and softly wrinkled face. The wrinkles around her pupils sharpened as her focused gaze sifted through our group of jumping rambunctious kids. Finding her target, a short timid kid with a faded blue T-shirt and high-water dark jeans, she screamed, “ZUYER”. Propelled by a string of Creole curses, the woman bustled from her slow pace two meters away, and in a matter of seconds had Zuyer’s wrists in a deathly clutch. As the woman began screaming in Creole at Zuyer, his thin cheeks sank in revealing his sharp cheek-bones that were soon covered in tears and nervous sweat. Remembering the shame that comes with public parental chastising, I ushered the other students away from Zuyer to wait for the woman to finish ranting and leave. As I turned my back to give Zuyer some privacy, an echoing POP broke through the peaceful day we had enjoyed thus far.
I whipped around just to see the woman withdraw her hand from Zuyer’s face. Calling Kabir, I asked him to explain to me why Zuyer was in trouble and who this woman was. Neither he nor the other students knew the exact details of Zuyer’s crime and there was much ambiguity as to the woman’s relation to Zuyer (she had some familial ties though). I was emotionally torn between stopping the argument and preventing the immediate physical abuse but risking a harsher punishment later on for Zuyer, or letting the woman finish her tirade but risking more immediate physical abuse. It was then that the woman’s bony fist connected with Zuyer’s jaw line.
Zuyer put up his fists like a boxer to deflect the punches but the woman tore his hands from his face with her left hand and delivered another blow with her right. She got in two more punches before I blocked Zuyer with my body. The woman still had his wrists in a tight grasp but I wedged my body halfway between them and encouraged the woman to allow me to take Zuyer back to class. Then something wonderful happened. While tears streamed down Zuyer’s face and my mind raced trying to design a way navigate the poor child away from the situation, the rest of the students surrounded the woman and started chanting “Teacher”, “Professor”, “Class” motioning to me. The anger faded a bit from the woman’s now coarse face as she looked up at me. A few of them tapped her and aggressively pointed to me speaking in rapid Creole explaining that we had to go back to class. The woman glanced away from me and spat some more bitter Creole at Zuyer and threw his arms away. Finally after the tumultuous ordeal, we began walking back to the Naw-N-Shaw center, with Zuyer cradling his shoulders sniffling and limping.
On our way back to the classroom Raeés turned to me and asked what happened. Holding Zuyer tight I turned to Raeés in disbelief, laughed and said, “Dude, I don’t speak Creole, so you have a better idea than me”. Raeés gave me a goofy but bright smile and shrugged.
Even with only Zuyer knowing the complete details of what happened, I still got a crude glimpse of these students’ upbringing. Until now, my knowledge of the students’ home life was limited to their behavior in the classroom, what they told me during class, and the proverbial obedient phrase “I go to ze house” or sometimes, “I go to house”. It was easy to pretend that these kids’ home lives were, maybe not harmonious, but at least humane and for most of the part loving. Punching grandmas were non-existent in my mind. Not anymore. The worst aspect of this incident was not the violent old woman, or even Zuyer’s tears, but rather it was the other students’ oblivion to the situation. Rather than reacting with horror or sadness to one of their peers’ abuse they just danced around the woman and Zuyer, wholly numb to the violence. This leads me to believe that adults swinging their fists at these kids are not out of the norm. To these students, Zuyer getting publically beaten was just a normal part of the day, just like getting Dairy Milk after class.
Before Zuyer left that day I gave him some Biskrem cookies (a small almond biscuit with chocolate and happiness in the middle) to cheer him up. I lectured the other students on being nice to him since he had a rough day. They all nodded and let out a quick stream of “yes yes yes yes yes yes” – so I knew that they were not listening, but I decided it was their social structure so I left it to them. As I threw my backpack in the car I looked up to see Zuyer, Raeés, Nawfal, Kabir, and the rest of their gang running and kicking each other down the ally with their mouths full with Biskrem. Although it was nice to see that Zuyer had moved past his beating, it was also saddening to see that these kids had to learn how to cope with being punched in the face by a woman old enough to be my grandmother.