Saturday, May 23, 2009


Kyme and my match had come to an end. It was the last time we would hang out together. It had been a year since we had been paired up through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and as I drove her back home from our last activity, I felt like a failure.

I had first heard about the organisation in an Archie's comic book. I was probably ten years old then and had no idea what was outside the world my parents had built for me between Oman and India. A lifetime later when I became independent in Tulsa, USA, I remembered BBBS and looked them up. I wanted to make a difference in someone's life while my own was in utter chaos. Soon I found myself in their office sorting through a bunch of children's profiles for The One.

Her name was Kymnesha Edwards. She was 14, black, and two years behind in school. She lived with her parents and younger sister in a neighbourhood where trees were never trimmed and the grass grew between the bricks on the pavement. Her mother used to work in a hospital. Her father had been to jail but now worked odd-jobs.

My primary contact as her Big was her mother. I wanted to do it right, not make any mistakes. I asked her mother all the right questions - what did she think were Kyme's strengths and weaknesses, what did she want me to do for Kyme? Mrs. Edwards had had a hard life but was a strong woman who held her family together. She told me that Kyme was a creative child who loved books but didn't feel confident about her reading skills. She got intimidated by too many words, so would check out books on tape from the public library. Her spelling was below average for children her age, yet she still couldn't stop writing stories in her wobbly handwriting. Mrs. Edwards wanted me to nudge Kyme towards actual reading and expose her to the shiny world everyone else lived in.

I was ready to groom genius. In the couple of hours I would spend with Kyme every week, I tried to pass down all the knowledge I had ever acquired about world religions, philosophy, politics, ethics, and culture. I gave her weekly creative writing assignments and tried teaching her new words. I tried to come up with activities that nobody had ever come up with. A new one every week, something that would blow her mind. I took her to a workshop about food shortage. I even took her to see 'Swan Lake'. She nodded off to sleep. I was crushed even though I was forcing myself to stay awake.

Kyme would listen to everything I said, but I felt like the relationship was becoming one-way. And pretty soon, I was burned out. I couldn't think of any more earth-shattering activities. Our outings dwindled to fooling around at the mall and chit-chats over ice cream. She started telling me about her complicated social circle in school. She told me about this one guy who thought he was all that. I remembered that I too had once been 14, and I gave her my 26-year-old advice. Then I told her about who had given me an attitude at work that day.

I began to forget about being the best Big in history. I took Kyme to my workplace and introduced her to everyone as my Little. We took photos of her in my high-tech cube. We went to the Scottish festival where we both watched the stepdancers with our mouths hanging open in awe. I showed her my fake British accent and even convinced other people by ordering an entire sandwich at a Subway like an Englishwoman.

She liked my Queen CD so I burned her a copy. I caught her humming 'The Show Must Go On' for many days. After checking with her mother, I gave her an authentic Queen CD set for her birthday, the same one we used to listen to in my car while driving all over Tulsa. We made a scrapbook. I listened to the stories she wrote and told her she could become a writer just like, well, me. We hung out at the mall, sipped milkshakes, and tried the cheap massage chairs there. It was my first time.

Our last activity was watching Barnyard at the dollar theater. I couldn't remember the last time I had pried myself away from my foreign films and disastrous true-life dramas to enjoy a simple children's movie. We laughed a lot. We knew it was the last time we were going to be hanging out together but we didn't bring it up much. I was planning on leaving Tulsa for good.

That ride back was the last time I would get to tell Kyme to believe in herself when others didn't. I did tell her but I wished I could say something bigger that would stick in her mind long after I had gone. I hadn't made her a genius the way I had thought I would. She was still Kyme from the same neighbourhood, only a year older. I hadn't made any difference in her life. For someone who can talk a lot, I sometimes end up saying everything except what needs to be said.

Kyme had something to say too. She struggled with it, maybe she was like me. After dutifully listening to everything I had to say, she told me that she had checked out a book from the library. A book with words to be read, not to be heard on tape. A grown-up book, not for little children. A book with lots of big words and no pictures. She said that she one day just felt like trying it out. Then she read it and loved it. Then she checked out more books and couldn't stop reading. She loved reading books now. She didn't check out books on tape anymore.

The look on her face as she told me this was one of a new belief in herself. The kind that you get by conquering an obstacle that you thought you were just too stupid to overcome. Sometime between boring ballets and fake accents, I had made a difference when I wasn't even trying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Khadija, you are incredible. I'm your no. 1 fan.