The bell rang throughout the schoolyard, echoing into my classroom. On the surface I remained calm and collected as the students anxiously closed their day with a prayer and were dismissed. Meanwhile, inside I was overcome with relief that the day was over. I almost laughed to myself as the expression, “saved by the bell” all of a sudden means something to me.
The students dashed out of the room, eager to get on with their day as children always are. I walked back to my desk and plopped down with a sigh. Outside, the sound of feet running across concrete and the laughter of children came through the open door and windows. But inside my classroom, it was finally quiet. Just a few days into the school year and this has already become one of the moments I look forward to each day. My counterpart teacher has been on sick leave, so I have had to teach all her classes myself until she returns as there isn’t any substitute teachers for the school. Consequently, the school day is chaotic to say the very least. In between teaching lessons on my own, answering endless questions, managing discipline, and consoling crying children-it’s clear that there will never be a dull day at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School (or the RC as the locals call it). A few curious students come in and out of my room, poking their head in to take a peek to see who the new teacher is. But I just smile and wave; I don’t mind because in this moment I can finally sit back and ease into the rest of my day.
Leaving the schoolyard, I step out onto the street into a steady stream of students, teachers, and parents. I walk along the side of the road, side-stepping onto a ledge on the side of the road as a white truck passes by. A reggae-rendition of a popular Drake song sounds out from a Bluetooth speaker in the backpack of one of the older students. Little boys and girls walk with a small umbrella in one hand and their parent’s hand in the other. I cross the bridge over a quiet river and make my way down the line of shops and bus stops until I reach a small alley way. Turning left, I cut through the alley and reach the gate of my apartment compound. Fumbling the keys in my pocket, I glance to the right to see a strip of the shimmering Caribbean Sea in the gap of two buildings, still as glass.
Within a minute of me entering my apartment, I immediately shed the contents of the day. Dropping my backpack in the corner, I kick off my shoes and change into more comfortable clothes. It was Thursday; the finish line to the weekend was in sight. I pull the waist-high, metallic fan from my bedroom and move it to the sitting room. Positioning it in front of me, I adjust the couch cushions and kick back with a book titled The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.
Reading for leisure is something I did quite frequently growing up. From an early age, I came to appreciate escaping into the world of a novel. However, as time went on and I moved on to higher levels of education, reading for leisure took a backseat. Much of my higher education involved reading and literary research, so I remained active in the world of literature. But because reading became more for work than for leisure, my desire to read in what free time I had declined. So I found other means of spending my spare time. That being said, my desire to read novels never left and I always looked forward to the day that I could make time for it again.
That day is now. I have a number of books set aside from the Peace Corps Office that they have for volunteer-use. Earlier in the week, in one sitting I re-read Tuesdays With Morrie, a personal favorite of mine written by Mitch Albom. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s a tremendous book about a man with a unique and admirable outlook on life and death. It changed my outlook on what I should value most in life. It might change yours as well. Next, I moved onto The Alchemist; although I have yet to finish it, it gives me something to look forward to coming home to each day.
So I kicked back on my couch with my book, angling myself so the sun casts its light through the open door onto the pages in front of me. The cushions are worn to the point that I feel the wooden beams of the couch frame under my back. It’s not the most comfortable of couches, but it’s enough for me. For about an hour or so I dive back into the world of a wandering shepherd boy who is trying to find his destiny travelling across the world. The sun begins to descend and the strength of the natural light begins to fade. Sitting up, I check the time.
“There’s about another hour so until dark, if I go out I should go now,” I thought to myself.
Part of me just wanted to keep reading, as the storyline has really picked up. But there are some neighborhood children that always hang out by the rock shoreline along the coast of Gouyave. I’ve been spending some evenings with them as they join me whenever I go to watch the sun set on the Caribbean Sea (another part of my day I aim to make routine for obvious reasons). I promised them I would bring the football I have and play with them. So after quickly throwing on some athletic clothes, grabbing the football, and closing up my apartment, I made my way to the rock-line.
“Mr. King!” one of the girls, sitting on the concrete sea wall, called out as I came up along the sidewalk.
“Good afternoon Gisele!” I replied. “Where are the rest of them?” I asked, as she is one of the group that is always there; but at this time she was the only one.
“They’re at the park.”
“Okay, I’m taking this football over there if you want to come.”
She shook her head, preferring to stay on the rock-line.
So I continued walking along the sidewalk, watching the figure of my shadow on the sidewalk spin the football between my hands as I went. The sun was beginning its descent in the sky. I paused for a moment, turning toward the Sea and wondering how far into the horizon I would have to go to reach South America.
Continuing on my way, I cross the street and step through the gap in the concrete wall that divides the park from the street. I make my way around the chain-link fence surrounding the concrete basketball court and head toward the football (soccer) field.
A guy in blue, three-quarter soccer capris, a white t-shirt, and bleached dreads atop his head notices my approach. Seeing the football in my hand, he calls for a pass. I reach back and toss it over the fence. He catches it at his feet, his momentum coming forward as the throw fell just a bit short. I walk up to him and introduce myself.
“You can call me Twin,” he says.
There were a number of guys out on the field. Some were sitting on the bleachers, others doing foot drills, and even more others stretching. A man was jogging at a steady pace around the perimeter of the freshly-cut field. At the far end of the field, luscious green trees give way to the jagged line of tree-covered mountain peaks that overlook the field. To my right is a street with a few vehicles passing by, going up the hill into the neighboring Dougaldston. To the left is the concrete stands adjacent to the field. A few palm trees stick out amongst the forest backdrop behind the stands with a few humble homes intermingled between. Turning around, just beyond the top of the concrete wall you can see the surface of the Caribbean Sea on the horizon.
“Mr. King! Over here!” Jilani, one of the boys always at the coastline, called out.
He left the game of soccer he was playing with the others at the end of the field, which is why I didn’t see them at first. I reared back and lofted up a throw, which he trapped on his chest. Trying to grip the awkward shape of the football, he tossed it back, wobbling through the air until it pin-balled on the ground to a stop at my feet.
Picking up the ball, I notice a boy of about ten years of age off to the left next to the soccer goal. A man who I figured must be his father was next to him stretching. I point the ball in his direction, insinuating an offer to throw it his way. He jumps up excitedly, stretching his arms outward, ready for the throw. Reaching back once again, I toss it to him but it falls through his hands and bounces to the ground.
“Oh! You almost had it!” I called out with a laugh.
The boy picks up the football and shows his father, who smiles in approval while continuing his stretching. The boy hurls the ball with all his strength and it wobbles through the air before crashing to the ground.
Picking up the ball in stride, I walk toward him, “Come here, bud. Let me show you something.”
A curious look on his face, he just stood there as I walked up to him.
“See how I’m holding this? Put these three fingers on the laces on the back end of the ball and throw it like this,” I told him, simulating the throwing motion. “Here. Give me your hand.”
The boy held out his hand and I placed the football in his hand so he gripped it correctly. Then with a quick back-pedal to create some space, I called for another pass. The boy, unsure of the awkward grip, reared back and tossed it with all he could. The ball floated through the air with a slight spiral and into my hands.
“See! Just like that! You see that spiral?! That’s how it’s supposed to look!” I encouraged.
The boy, who I later found out was named Tymon, bubbled with excitement and ran to his dad, tugging on his shirt to ask him if he saw the proper throw. The father turned and smiled, nodding his head acknowledging that he’ll watch the next one. I toss the ball back to him but it bounces off his shoulders and onto the ground. He picks it up and looking over to check if his dad was watching, which he was now, meticulously formed his hand into the grip I showed him. Then reaching back, he let it loose and it floated through the air with another slight spiral. I ran forward and caught it off my toes. Looking up, I see him jumping with joy at the successful throw as his father laughed behind him.
I couldn’t help but smile at the scene.
Within the next five minutes I had four neighborhood boys and one girl with me, each wanting to play with the football. I took turns showing each of them the proper way to throw the ball. Some picked it up quicker than the others, but each had the same excited reaction as Tymon had the first time he got it right. It was inevitable, of course, that eventually a game of “American football” got started.
We broke up into teams of three and I designated a quarterback for each team. However, they all gave me a look of somewhat confusion as I did so. I figured they probably didn’t understand the purpose of that but I went ahead anyway to see what would happen. The other team was going to start with the ball and Jilani was their quarterback.
“Hike!” He calls as he rears back and throws the ball to another boy.
Almost immediately the game that we know of as ‘kill-the-carrier’ ensues. The children run into each other, attempting to rip the ball out of each other’s hands and take it for themselves.
“Whoa! Whoa! Hold up now,” I call as the children stop in their tracks, confused as to why I stopped the game.
“That’s not how it goes,” I laughed.
I wasn’t surprised that they played American football as a form of ‘kill-the-carrier,’ as that’s exactly what happened when I played American football with the market children in Ecuador as well. In my experience, that just seems to be the perception foreign children have on how American football is played.
I held out my hands and one of the boys tossed it to me. Then I organized them back into their teams and explained the rules of the game. We started up again and they passed the ball back and forth, eventually tossing it between the two shoes that marked the endzone and celebrating the ‘touchdown.’
I quickly realized, admittedly, that explaining American football was going to be like navigating a couch up a staircase. It’s just not going to happen right away.
They were somewhat baffled when I explained that you could only throw the ball forward once and had to run the ball past the goal-line instead of just tossing it through. They seemed to understand, so we re-set and started over.
This broken process continued for the next couple minutes until they began understanding the concept of a line of scrimmage and what a set of downs mean. They would stop playing whenever the ball was fumbled, but I wouldn’t say anything as I decided to save that rule for another day. Baby steps.
Eventually, however, we got a legitimate game of two-hand touch going. Jilani passed it forward to Sharmona, the girl of about twelve years who sprinted past not only her defender, but me as well. She was fast. Anyhow, she sprinted through the two shoes that marked the goal-line and kept on running.
I raised my hands to signal a touchdown and the other team celebrated. There was a mix of confusion and disappointment on the faces of my team as I explained to them that they just scored. But now it was our turn to be on offense.
I started off as the quarterback and the boys on my team ran off into random routes. They both stopped and turned, completely covered but still calling for the ball. I pointed them in directions until I saw an opening. Reaching back, I lofted the ball through the air and it soared just above the sea of outstretched hands. Tymon jumped for it, but the ball just grazed off his fingertips.
I jumped up in a circle, frustrated with myself for throwing the ball just a tad too far. When they came back I huddled them up and drew routes on the ball that I wanted them to run (classic backyard football style). As I did this, the children on defense kept running in to eavesdrop on the huddle (again, classic backyard style). My teammates immediately got protective and pushed them away so they wouldn’t hear (dare I say it again?). When the defense wasn’t trying to eavesdrop on us, they got into a huddle of their own to make their own plan. I got a kick out of this, as even in a foreign country the defense will still try to eavesdrop on the offensive huddle in a game of pick-up football; but when they’re not eavesdropping, their mocking the offensive huddle by having one of their own. It’s good to know some things don’t change, as this must be in the nature of backyard football.
We broke the huddle and I slapped the ball to signal the snap. The boys took off into a vague form of the route I mapped for them. One of the boys, Magaya, broke free on his route and I quickly launched a pass toward him. He jumped up, trapping the ball against his shoulder between the outstretched arms of two defenders and falling to the ground.
“That’s it! Nice grab!” I shouted excitedly, running up to him for a high-five as he beamed with pride.
Re-setting for the next play, I look over to the pick-up soccer game taking place on the field. One of the guys there I recognized from a game of basketball I played earlier in the week. We made eye-contact and I waved, to which he nodded in approval.
The game continued on as the sun began to settle on the horizon. Everyone took turns at quarterback. Lining up as a receiver, I saw just past the wall that the sky had taken a purple and pink color. The ball was snapped and the pass was thrown to me. I caught it and braced for impact. Whenever the ball came my way, I was always immediately swarmed with defenders trying to take me down. (The two-hand touch rule didn’t seem to apply when it came to tackling me). I didn’t mind, though, because it was going to take a lot of them to take me down and they were having fun trying.
To be perfectly honest, part of me wanted to stop the game simply so I could watch the gorgeous sunset that was unfolding on the horizon. But I knew I couldn’t, the kids wouldn’t understand such a request as they’ve grown up seeing sunsets like that every night. They wouldn’t understand the value I’ve placed on watching them, knowing I have been blessed with the unique opportunity to watch them for two years. More can be said about the Caribbean sunsets I’ve enjoyed at an almost nightly basis so far; but I’ll save that for another post, as it deserves one all to its own. But we were still having fun, so we carried on playing football until the night fell.
“All right, that’s it,” I said after the declared last play finished. “It’s dark. Time to head home.”
Passing around high-fives to each of them, I made my way to the exit of the field. I looked up to see Tymon’s father leaning up against the chain-link fence. He must have been watching for some time now, because the pick-up soccer game he was playing in wrapped up before our game did. I introduced myself and explained how great of a job Tymon and Sharmona, both his children, did. He laughed and thanked me for playing with them while he was busy playing a football game of his own.
I left the field while Jilani and Magaya followed me along the coastline sidewalk. I gave Jilani the ball and showed him how to hold it securely with the points covered.
“See? Now you can protect it and no one can punch it out,” I said, poking at the ball as he covered it protectively.
“Now give it to him so he can try,” I told him and he flipped the ball to Magaya.
Magaya took up the ball in the same way and they both proceeded to wrestle for it as we walked along, the water quietly crashing on the rock shoreline.
Soon the boys parted ways and I was back in my apartment. After eating a simple dinner of chicken, rice, and beans I returned to the beat-in couch. The humming of the fan was accompanied by the echoing crickets, passing vehicles, and voices of passer-bys on the road outside my window. I kicked back with my book and returned to the story, picking up exactly where I left off.
There’s a lot going on right now as I balance work, being out in my community, and finding time for myself. But I’m adjusting well and establishing a routine during these first two weeks of school. It’ll be sure to include more chaotic days at school, pick-up games at the park, sunsets from the rock shoreline, and of course taking time to myself to read.
I recently found a quote that I find quite relevant right now.
It goes: “The journey of a lifetime starts with a turning of the page,” -Rachel Anders.
My journey of a lifetime has finally started. I turned the first page when I boarded the plane to Miami. I’ve turned many pages along the way as I went from pre-service training on St. Lucia, to swearing-in on Grenada, and finally starting school in Gouyave. There will certainly be many more pages to be turned along the way on this journey of a lifetime.