The student who fell in love

This is perhaps one of the most difficult things I've admitted on the blog so far, because to me it feels like admitting my guilt in something that never actually came to fruition.

Like I've said before, many parts of my manuscript are based on fact.

Perhaps the most startling truth that I've included in the novel is the fact that a student from Mauritania really did fall in love with me. Let's call him Amadou since that's what he's called in the novel. 

The moment Amadou sat down in my class and looked at me, I felt uneasy. I knew there was something different about this student. I can still picture him that first day in his acid wash denim jeans and a plaid button-down that didn't look like it fit his style. Over the following months, I would watch his style evolve from dad denim to darker colors. He would always sit in the seat closest to the board--a choice that many students made because they did not have eyeglasses. I did not think that his choice was anything beyond practical. 

I knew very little about the real "Amadou." He was 21 years old, but he looked both far younger and older at the same time. He lived with his father on 43rd and Chestnut street--a mere three blocks from me-- and we took the same train to class. I know he was a refugee and not an asylee. He spoke English better than most of the students in the class, and he had perfect attendance. Perhaps my deep respect for him as a learner is where the miscommunication began. 

There was a time I thought I saw him once while walking out of my apartment complex. I whipped around and didn't wait to see if I was right. The idea of living in the same neighborhood as one of my students felt both comforting and disorienting. There was a chance that he would see me in my non-teacherly roles: buying frozen creamed spinach and peanut butter and jelly (my staple foods in grad school), or hoisting my laundry outside and around the corner, always dropping at least one sock on the sidewalk.

I sometimes wonder if Amadou ever knew that our universes intersected so often and that we could run into each other at any time. 

It was 2010 and Philly's evolution was well underway. Neighborhoods were undergoing shifts that must have felt like tectonic forces to the locals--grad students encroaching on what many considered the hood, immigrants infiltrating the marble-lion fortresses of Italian neighborhoods. The dreaded "g" word--gentrification--was making it much more common for (mostly) white, young twenty-somethings to live alongside long-standing immigrant communities. But two new groups are colliding too--the gentrifiers and the refugee communities. Perhaps the newest occurrence of this is in the 19148 zip code of South Philadelphia, which encompasses East Passyunk and Pennsport. The Mexican community developed in the nineties, and after it came the wave of Burmese and Lhotshampa of Bhutan in the 2000s. They are not a population that can be ignored or whitewashed. These refugees do not have the roots of older neighborhoods, and they don't even have the seniority of the Mexican families living there, but they have been uprooted enough times in their lives that they want this neighborhood to be theirs. They don't deserve for such upheaval to happen again. In West Philly, the dynamics are slightly different but follow a similar pattern--the Penn students spilled over into the surrounding community of West Africans who comprise one of the largest African Muslim communities in the region.  

But I didn't know any of this then. At the time, I was a grad student and I knew it wasn't my neighborhood. I didn't feel a deep sense of belonging, and tried to remain detached. At the time, I was convinced I was in Philly just for grad school and then I'd join the Peace Corps. Teaching in Philly was just a stepping stone towards another, more exotic place. I didn't think about the long-term implications of refugees being my neighbors and that the people from supposedly "exotic" locales whom I needed to help were already right in front of me.

In other words, I didn't want Amadou to see me on the street that day because I didn't want him to mistake me for someone I wasn't: an actual member of that community. I was an imposter masquerading as a Philadelphian, and my students didn't know that yet. 

I first got inklings that Amadou had a crush on me before Thanksgiving. He was the only student to show up to class that week. One policy that I took pride in was that I never cancelled class no matter how few students came. We sat side-by-side at the long table that was normally filled beyond capacity, and we practiced talking about Thanksgiving food and writing keywords in his notebook. I drew a poor imitation of a turkey and he nodded at me intently. Except he never looked down at the paper--his eyes lingered on me a few beats longer than normal.

After that, he called me up once or twice on my cell phone (the only number the students had in the event of a snow cancellation, of which there were many that year). I remember the first time he called me because it was snowing hard that night. I had been studying for finals, and I'd left the building quite late. I got the eight blocks to my building only to realize that I didn't have my key. No one answered the door, so I was left with no choice but to retrace my steps and see if I'd dropped the key. To make matters worse, it was snowing so hard that the sidewalk was quickly dusted white.

I got all the way back to the front door of my school's building only to see a homeless man staring at me as I circled the sidewalk. I scraped away snow with my boot as a last-ditch effort to find my key. He saw me just as I was about to cry and I remember saying something along the lines of "not now" as he inched closer. 

And that's when Amadou called. 

At first, there was only silence on the other end. Then, a "how are you?" followed by some more silence. I'm not sure what he wanted to say, or if he wanted to say anything at all. I told him I'd see him in class and hung up my phone, a pit forming in my already wrung-out stomach.

Turns out, the key was in my pocket the whole time. It also turned out that Amadou had gotten a job at the airport and wouldn't be returning to class. 

A few months later, I got a Facebook message from him late at night. He professed his love to me online (I actually went back and tried to find the conversation that is now over six years old, but it has been lost). 

I never knew what happened to Amadou. I moved out of West Philly a year later, and shortly thereafter that branch of the refugee resettlement agency closed. I was relocated to the central office farther north, suddenly removed from the Haitian and West African community and thrust into the largely Puerto Rican and Colombian swath of Hunting Park.

While writing this novel, I often thought about what I could have done differently in this situation other than telling Amadou it was not appropriate to profess his love to his teacher and that it was also inappropriate for a student to call late at night. I have not had an incident like this before or since, but it serves as a reminder that there is something particularly raw and intimate about the relationships forged between refugees and their teachers. The teacher is often the only point of contact other than the caseworker for accessing American culture. I was, in most cases, the first American whom my students got to know.

There have been other moments when such intimacy was made abundantly clear.. A student of mine once pulled me aside and asked me to choose from a plethora of, ahem, creams to please my husband. There was no shade of red I didn't turn, and I think she was equally embarrassed when I explained that I didn't have a husband. One of my students also sewed a traditional African suit made of rich black and purple fabric for me (and I wish for the life of me that it fit me and that I had somewhere to wear it). These moments often made me incredibly sad because I never felt like I was giving them enough support to warrant their kindness. These students simply faded away--one day they were there, and the next they weren't. Some got jobs. One got depression. One approached me after class one day to tell me that she had been homeless the past few weeks and that's why she hadn't come to class. And then there were good stories--Iraqi journalists getting jobs in New York,  a student taking sushi-making class in hopes of becoming a professional chef, or the student who got her citizenship.

I keep coming back to this idea of love between student and teacher. I believe that every invested teacher loves their students on some level. Even the students that annoyed the crap out of me were still my students and I would defend them. Defend them against what, exactly? I'm not sure. I wanted so badly for them to feel like they were learning and making progress, and sometimes in the absence of obvious goal achievement, I settled on unwavering enthusiasm. 

I suspect that Amadou sensed my need to please and tried to take it a step further. I wonder if this is why we hear so many stories of illicit affairs between teachers and students. The line between platonic and romantic gets blurred by the intense contact that students often have in order to achieve some level of fluency, whether it's in math or bio or the English language.

Wherever you are now, Amadou, I hope you learned something from your first teacher in America, and that you understand why I had to reject you so viscerally and so coldly. I was horrified not at you, but at what damage such a misunderstanding could cause.

And now, years later, that has become the premise for my first novel.