nancy levinson

The Year I Volunteered in a Third Grade Class

“Looks like we’re the first ones here,” I said to my boys as I parked the car directly in front of the party address.

“This Houman’s house?” Michael asked, making a face with crossed eyes.  Ben socked his brother’s butt. Michael grumbled and slammed the back door shut behind them.  

Houman had arrived that fall from Iran with his family, as had many families fortunate enough to escape the country that deposed the Shah and brought forth theocratic Islamic power under the ruthless rule of the Ayatollah Khoumeini.  Some of the migrants arrived with suitcases and paper bags stuffed with cash they’d hastily managed to withdraw from their banks and make their way to California, specifically Beverly Hills.  Some even knocked on doors of homes, held out wads of money, and offered to buy their houses outright.  Right there. Right then.

I knew nothing of Houman’s family situation. My relationship to this rotund, dark-eyed, justifiably bewildered boy was as his twice-weekly tutor at Hobart Elementary. We perched on kindergarten-size chairs at a little metal typewriter table set up in the hall outside his classroom and worked on English conversation and the Sullivan beginning-reader series, popular in those years. (“The cat sat on the mat.”)  Each time I showed up, poking my head through the doorway at the arranged hour, he flashed a wide grin.  Dutifully, my son Michael acknowledged me with a half wave from his table and quickly resumed either his lesson or jousting with his seatmates.

One day I happened to be on the playground during lunch.  Houman was sitting on a bench, snacking from a small bag of potato chips.  One kid threw a basketball, smacking Houman broadside on his head.  Houman rubbed his temple, stood, put the bag on the bench, and innocent, baffled, turned around a full three-sixty degrees.  As if choreographed, another boy snatched the bag, spit in it. and replaced it with lightning speed. Houman sat again, picked up the bag and continued eating.  The bullies took off . What could I have said?  What could I have done?  With each crunch I felt my heart heave. His teacher promised to keep an eye on him, as were all the teachers trying to keep an eye on the foreign students.

I met Houman’s parents one evening at a school family night.  His father grasped both my hands “thank you, thank you,” and his mother, “you are good lady thank you.”  I heard the crunch of those potato chips.  Your son is doing fine, I told them, he’s coming along so very nicely.

The Shirvani house was modest, white wood-framed.  At the front door Michael and Ben punched a bouquet of blue and green balloons tied to the knob.  “Be nice, boys, be kind,” I begged.  “Please.”

With a flourish, Mrs. Shirvani invited us inside.  In a chorus the three of us exclaimed a happy birthday wish as Michael handed the gift to Houman, who stood in a gray suit behind his mother.  I missed the flash of his grin at his classroom door.

The dining area was part of the living room, the table decorated with a crepe paper Bugs Bunny table cloth, matching napkins, plates and cups and a balloon tied to the back of each of ten chairs.  There was no one else in the room.

Michael urged Houman to open the gift, an electronic football game, and as he did we made a big noisy fuss.  Ben told him what a neat game it is. “Yeah, really neat,” Michael echoed.  Mrs. Shirvani crumpled the wrapping paper, thanked us, directed us to the sofa, and offered pretzels in a glass bowl.  There was no knock at the door. No doorbell ring.  

We talked about school.  “Mrs. Rice is a nice teacher, isn’t she?”  Michael said. “Okay, Sometimes.  On Fridays.”  That brought a puff of laughter.  Ben, only in kindergarten, sat twisting the bottom of his tee shirt.  Mrs. Shirvani nodded. “They are good boys.”  She stood. “Come.  We’ll sit. We’ll have cake.  Ice cream. What kind ice cream you like?”

Houman sat on one side of the table.  Slowly, Michael took the chair next to him. Ben and I seated ourselves facing the two.  “Hey, what’s up Doc?” Ben snickered with a curled mouth.  Houman repeated it. Mrs. Shirvani exited the kitchen carrying a layered cake bearing nine lighted candles.  We sang. Houman blew out the candles. We applauded and cheered. After, my boys explained the football game to Houman, and they played together a while.  Mrs. Shirvani and I spooned a little extra vanilla ice cream onto our plates.  I complimented the soft, silky, multi-colored scarf she wore around her neck.  “It’s Persian.” She smiled. “So lovely,” I added.

The goodbyes and expressions of gratitude were effusive.  Outside an earlier wind had subsided. The air felt heavy and still.  I kissed my sons on the forehead as they both climbed in the front seat with me.  Michael started to say something, an inaudible mumble really, but stopped and sat clutching an unopened cellophane bag of candy corn, a party prize. I didn’t ask what he was about to say.  

Nancy Levinson is author of MOMENTS OF DAWN: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family; Affliction & Affirmation, as well as work that has appeared in Survivor's Review, Poetica, Jewish Literary Journal, Confrontation, The Copperfield Review, Evening Street Review, I Am Not A Silent Poet, many anthologies, and elsewhere.  In years past she authored some thirty books for young readers, including biographies of Columbus, Magellan, and Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty.  Nancy lives in Los Angeles.