November 29th, 2018
I was sitting upstairs in the humble residence of the Syrian family. Their home always reminds of the house where I grew up. The building has to be at least one hundred years old. This house, like the home of my youth, needs a lot of TLC. The house has the same energy that my childhood home did: lots of kids in constant motion, random yelling, no privacy, and a sort of barely contained chaos.
I had just finished working with Muhamed on his reading assignment. That kid is sharp. He knew the answers. He never guessed. His understanding of English is impressive. He has no accent that I can detect. It is probably because he is so young. He is easily absorbing the language that surrounds him at school. He will do well.
Nizar came up the stairs with his math assignment. He had to multiply numbers with decimals. He smiled as he told me,
“This is easy. It won’t take long.”
He had already done a couple of the problems. I could tell at a glance that the answers weren’t quite right. This homework was going to take longer than Nizar thought.
We went back over his completed problems. In a way, doing multiplication on a piece of paper with a stubby pencil is rather archaic. It took me a minute or two to remember how to do it. Even then, I asked Nizar to find us a calculator, just in case my brain had atrophied.
I showed Nizar how to do one of the problems.
“Okay, you first multiply the number on top by the last digit of the bottom number. You have to remember where to put the decimal point. Both the numbers in this problem have decimal points before the last digit, so when we times them, the decimal point will be in front of the last two digits. You got it?”
I wasn’t fooled by that.
I finished the problem, and then I told him to do the next one. I said,
“Keep the numbers you get in straight columns, so you can up the results. The decimal points need to be lined up.”
He paused for a moment, obviously unsure of something.
He asked me, “What is seven times eight?”
“Well, let’s figure that out.” I held up the fingers of my hands and counted,
“7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49…”
Nizar interjected, “54?”
“No, not quite. Try 56.”
He nodded, “Yeah, okay.”
As he scribbled on the worksheet, I heard a voice in my head. It was a voice from fifty years ago. It was an angry, impatient voice…
“Goddammit! How many times do I have to tell you the number?! Don’t you pay attention at school? Do you just use your head for a hat rack?!”
“Is this right?’ asked Nizar.
I shook my head to clear my thoughts, and looked at his answer. “Yeah, that is good. Check it again with the calculator.”
The voice from my past was suddenly more insistent.
“Jesus Christ! What is hard about this? Are you dumb or just lazy?! Anybody could figure out the answer!”
Nizar’s mother came up the stairs. Her arrival brought me back to the present. She had a plate of food for me: stuffed grape leaves.
She said in her halting English, “I make this today. You eat, Frank. That is yogurt there too.”
I tried some of the grape leaves. They were very good. Nizar struggled through another math problem.
“Frank, what is six times eight?”
“You’re smart, Nizar. Think about it.” Then I counted off,
“6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42…”
The voice screamed in my mind, “What is wrong with you?! You can’t cut the mustard?! I don’t need no dummies in this family!”
My heart raced. I thought to myself, “Shut up. Just fucking shut up.”
Nizar said, “We are done now.”
“Cool. Nizar, you need to work on your multiplication tables. I mean really. You can’t get the right answers if you can’t times the numbers.”
He looked at me seriously and nodded.
“Nizar, what are you good at? In school, I mean.”
He got excited. “Reading and writing. I am very good with that. I write a lot in class.”
I smiled. “Good. I write a lot too. I wrote a book once. It was about my son. He was a soldier.”
Nizar looked at me a bit oddly.
I shrugged and said,
“Nizar, you’re a smart guy. You’ll be okay.”
The voice from my past was silent.