Ramadan Day 3 – Keep it Together, Mustafa!

Ramadan has this way of turning my life into a flickering surface, perhaps a television.  The images whizz across my screen brain too quickly for me to catch up.  Starving is such a great lesson in how to not react.  Unfortunately, in pre-and-post-Ramadan times, I possess an abundance of energy so when something pisses me off, I let rip.

Also, dinosaurs exist.  Their wing clippings are available in custom colored sets from Heaven.

I may as well have called today’s post the Battle of the Big Gulp.  You see, I had to commute for five hours and teach for 2 and 4 hours, high school drama and undergrad creative writing respectively.  I graded/snoozed during the commute because I was too weak to do much else.

Let’s discuss how high school kids win.  I was much more focused on surviving the second class (college undergrads) because of its length and it being at night until about 10PM, smack dab @ the highest dehydration point.  Mistake #1.

Abraham (name changed) walked in with his sneakers and scabby knees along with his two buddies.  I teach groups for one week at a time, part of a college-“bridge” type program for students whose parents have had a rough go.  “Professor Lin is a college instructor so this will give you a chance to experience college,” the program founder likes to say.

Abraham held like a super-sized big gulp of soda in his hand for the second day in the row.  Other than the fact that he had to pee several times in the previous class, I didn’t think much of it.  Big Gulp, not a big deal.

(FYI – Abraham had already been given the long glare by me a couple times since the class started two days ago.)

During the class, Abraham shook and swirled the ice in his cup.  Picture the same motion a bartender uses to make a dirty martini.  I didn’t move because I was concentrating on staying still.  At one point, the cup flew out of his hand.  There was a mound of ice melting on the carpet.  But it’s Ramadan so I don’t have very much energy.  Voices come in and out from behind the door, Rumi tells us.  I’m picky about using my vocal cords.

As his classmates came up one by one to recite monologues, they were accompanied by the hoots and hollers that come when popularity is the only code that matters.  Abraham eventually began to lean forward in his chair until he was face forward on the table.  I have this class ambassador whose sole purpose is to “assist” me.  I signaled to him to help deal with Abraham.

Ambassadors — previous iterations — have raised their hands to be called on like the high school students (yes, they are paid college students or professionals), or have had side conversations with students to the point where I have to ask them to lower their voice.  But my new ambassador is an actual high school instructor who is watching me, with no high school teaching experience, handle thirty kids in summer school.  (There remains real questions as to whether it is him or I teaching the class.  My guy likes to correct the students if they mispronounce words while reading.)  In a real show of solidarity, the ambassador crossed his arms and scowled at the students.

Also, my “help” hand motion probably looked like Don Corleone drawing that pretend knife across his neck.

Abraham was very still, and his shoulders were shaking.  He had succumbed to the giggles, which everyone knows is contagious.  Eventually his two other bright-eyed but slack-jawed friends also started chuckling.  Another of my students was reading in the front of class.  I was so irritable that I stopped the class and asked Abraham to leave the classroom to regain his composure.  When he returned, I gave the crew a Daniel Webster-like oration about my disappointment in their behavior, about college students not requiring the equivalent of a hall monitor (see eeny weeny lie, definition of), and then I made vague threats to have them removed from my class if they can’t behave.

It wasn’t a terrible speech, but it was stern leaning toward overkill.  Basically, I should’ve kept it together, kept my cool, but I couldn’t.  What little energy I had was expended.

The little angel on my shoulder who marks the good column recorded a #fail.

How do I know this?

Ambassador dude, super-teacher, came over after class and suggested to me that I give the kids something more to do while they were listening to each other’s monologues, like take notes, rather than simply listen.  Ahhhh, how I was demoted from teacher in one fell swoop.  My pride got the best of me, and I was livid that he was telling me how to teach.  I did my best not to defend my choices (although I failed at that too) and acknowledged that he had a good idea.  Another teacher watched this exchange and later said, “I would’ve told him, dude, who cares?  We only have like two classes with this group left.  But, you were polite.”

So, you see, that’s the great thing about Ramadan.  You totally blow up, but it’s kinda’ muted.  Most of your reactions are mainly internalized because your facial muscles are in a weakened state.  This is a real thing.  You care.  You are MORE irritable than usual.  But, people tend to say that you are either glowing or you look really tired.  They rarely call you a rage monster.  Even if inside the stuff you’re thinking would definitely cause mass hysteria.

Tomorrow, I’ve resolved to ban the big gulp from my room.

Me:  It must’ve been that giant soda he was drinking.

Ambassador:  Yeah, I’ve never seen them allowed in a classroom before.  They’re not allowed usually.


It’s true though — once you’re fasting, you often end up receiving more support than you think.  The little gifts of Allah.

Writer, mentor, friend, and wisdom-bearer — Tayari Jones — agreed to come today to speak to my relatively small and humble summer class.  She’s basically been one of the top five reasons I haven’t dissolved in a puddle since ending my MFA program.  She doesn’t get a speaker fee.  There’s no requirement or incentive to help me on her part, other than caring about students, including me.

Being her friend is like having a chariot pick you up when you called a taxi.

Observing me in my jaw-dropping “laid-back” state, she not only stayed for over an entire hour unasked, Tayari read from her award-winning novel Silver Sparrow.  (That totally rocked.)  Just thinking about all the water I saved by not talking for nearly an hour made me want to weep.  But, I kept it together, Mustafa!  It was such an act of generosity to have Tayari essentially run my class as I fasted.  Thank you Tayari.

I thought a lot about Abraham when Tayari told the class a gut-wrenching story about doing the work of writing even when she was between publishers.  The necessity of patience.  I thought the moral of the story would be that she persisted in finding a publisher, but she turned it around.  Tayari advised us all to keep doing the work because we don’t have control over the rest.  “If I hadn’t written that manuscript, if I hadn’t done the work, then when I did meet that publisher, then it would’ve been a 5 minute conversation.  If you do the work, then all these doors open, and you can walk through when they do open.”  I’m paraphrasing, but she’s right.  I know it.  Now you do too.

Mustafa is one of the first people I ever knew who fasted for Ramadan.  He’s a Pakistani dude with a drawl.  Mustafa fell on hard times, which he’s since recovered from (I think), but I’ll never forget the first time he told me that he loved fasting.  Mustafa said he hadn’t slept that night because he wanted to see the sunrise.  He explained that watching the Sun wash over the Golden Gate Bridge — he had a vision that he would be like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and make a difference in people’s lives.  I think our primary conversational topic at the time was me trying to explain to Mustafa why embezzlement was wrong even if the owners had everything but conscience to spare.  Mustafa interrupted our argument to say that when he fasted, he felt more connected to God.  He could imagine his future, he confided, and he knew that someday he’d be assassinated because he was making that big a difference.  At the time, I thought he was extremist and nutty (which we both can agree is true, in retrospect), but he was fasting.

In his eyes, only the sky.

Call it what you will, but the Ramadan Effect is more complicated than any of us will ever know.

As Tayari spoke, I felt as if she was speaking to me rather than my students.  (That’s how event organizers often feel when they’ve organized a really great event.)

My thought for Abraham was that someday I would get to teach him in college, and he would get to be there in the room listening to Tayari Jones.

I’ll leave you with a sense of how I feel around Tayari.  Just read her post Green Leaves – A Daily Writing Prayer.

Outside, before Sehri, I tried to see behind the concrete block, maybe catch the moon.  On the sidewalk there was a guy arguing with his pit bull, a man buried in his tunes, and two girls laughing at each other’s jokes.  The buildings grow at the rate of one inch per night and this night they pressed in on me.  An old woman’s hands around a bowl of porridge.  There’s so much here in New York City.  So much crowd, so much noise, so much action.  So much heat, and as one fellow Ramadan poet said — it’s hard to keep cool.

Los Angeles, Ramadan 2011

I walked out to my backyard, an open square, my toes touching the lawn.  The sky was conch shell pink and went on for forever.  A few crows stared down from telephone wires.  I couldn’t hear the ocean of freeway cars.  I couldn’t hear anything except the sound of my water glass as I set it down.  The air was clean that day, and I understood what Sonia Sanchez meant by setting sail through the grass.

Please, let me come new to each fast

even if I repeat the same mistake

isn’t that why we pray for grace?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. dinahfay
    Jul 01, 2014 @ 13:09:46

    Being her friend is like having a chariot pick you up when you called a taxi.
    So beautiful.



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