Beneath the Dust

I am always thinking no one loves me in this world, and no one cares about me, but a few days ago, I got to see this is an illusion. I am a volunteer English teacher at an orphanage where I also teach computer skills and volleyball.  I have more than twenty students, and I love them all.

My students love to play volleyball more than they love learning English and computer skills, and we play for thirty minutes a day. Sadly, we don’t have a real volleyball. Instead, we use a football, which is so heavy it makes our fingers tired.

One Monday, I walked through the dusty alley to the orphanage. Dust covered my feet and clothes, and my little black face was almost white with dust. When I arrived at the orphanage, the tall solider was standing in front of the door with a gun.  A blanket covered most of his face, to keep the dust out, but the dust powdered his dark eyebrows.

He began to ask me the same questions he asks every day.

“Where do you want to go? Where is your home? May I ask how much is your salary?” And a thousand other questions. It always takes me ten minutes to answer these questions, every day.  I do not like this man.  Finally, he was through with me, and I entered the orphanage, which smells like sunflower oil and spoiled food.

As I walked to my classroom, I passed my students, walking along in their dusty bare feet.  After I shook their hands, they sat on the carpet, and I asked them their questions. I was happy because they all had done their homework. We practiced English for an hour and a half.

At last it was time to play volleyball!  They all went to one side of the net, and I took the other. The game was going well, and then my student Farhat shot the football hard, and it hit me on the face. It really hurt! I put my left hand on the right side of my face and tried not to cry.  For ten minutes, I sat on the ground, forcing myself not to cry.

I kept telling myself, “Zahra be strong.  If you cry, your students will be sad.”  My students were shocked.  They told Farhat, “You bit the teacher!  You are so impolite!” They meant “hit the teacher,” but I didn’t correct their English.

“Believe me guys,” Farhat said, “I didn’t want to bit the teacher with the ball.”  He was afraid.

Then, even though my face was red and still hurting, I got back on my feet and continued to play.  I played for fifteen more minutes.  Then I said goodbye to them and walked back to my dorm.  All the way home, I was thinking, Now I will fall down, but thank God it did not happen.                                                                                                                      

Back at the dorm, I took some medicine, sat down on my bed, and began to study for my online English class at 6:30. Then I noticed it was late, and I jumped out of bed so fast that my feet got tangled in the blanket, and I tripped. My head hit a wooden cupboard, and I passed out.  When I opened my eyes, my friends were standing around me crying because they were so worried.  Even though I had a terrible headache and could not concentrate, I went to my English class.

After class, my friends took me to the hospital. I cried silently on the way because I didn’t want them to know how much my head hurt.  I hate the hospital because of the blood and sick people and the terrible smell. The doctor was unkind.  He gave me some medicine and told me not to walk for a week.  Then my friends and I got in a taxi. I looked out the windows as we drove home and felt so sad, like I was losing all my hopes. For a week I rested.  My friends brought me food and helped me, but that week seemed to last for seven years.

After that, I left my dorm to buy some things at the store. As I was crossing the street of the orphanage, the tall soldier shouted, “Moalam Sahib!” It means, “Dear Teacher.”  But I kept walking and did not pay attention to him.

Suddenly, he stood in front of me.  I stopped and looked up.  He handed me a bunch of papers and said, “Your students gave these to me to give to you.”  I was afraid because I couldn’t believe his words, but I took the papers, said “Thank you,” and walked away.  While I was shopping, I thought about the papers.  I thought, “What is in these papers is a lot of people.”

I walked home fast because I was alone. I ran up the stairs to my room and opened the papers. The first note was from Farhat.  He wrote with good handwriting in Dari: Sallam Dear Teacher!  I hope you are doing well.  I am really sorry for biting you.  Actually, I didn’t want to bite you, but…  Please come back to our orphanage.  We miss you so much. Frahat Mohmand.

The second note was from Aftab.  There were seven more letters.  The tears were coming down my face like rain.  I couldn’t stop them.  I felt so much love, even for the soldier.

By Zahra A.

Photo of Afghan boys playing volleyball in Mazar-i-Sharif: Qais Usyan/AFP/Getty Images


  1. I absolutely love this story. The details of how everything is so dusty really brought me into the story. The description of the soldier who wore a cloth over his face was so vivid that i felt like i could see a man in front of me with his eyebrows powdered in dust. On top of the vivid words, I really enjoyed how you took things for a twist by making it seem like the main story was going to be about getting hit in the face with a football, but instead it was about the children thinking that is what hurt you and then showing their support and love for you as their teacher.
    Your work really captured me.

  2. Michelle says:

    What a very touching story. I felt as if I were right there with you going through all of your feelings. I can’t imagine what it is like there and how very different it is from the states. The way that you tell of the soldier questioning you everyday makes it feel as if you are in a court of law and having to answer many questions. It was very kind that the students thought and worried so much about you. What a blessing it must be to be able to teach them and enjoy watching them learn. Amazing story.

  3. Zahra, it is very humbling to read your story. It makes one think about how easy some of us have it, and about the things we can all do to help others and how gratifying it can be. It should also teach everyone that no matter what you think, there are plenty of people out there who do notice when we’re not there, and for who we make a difference, like you with your students. Perhaps you think that because they are kids they don’t really care, but the really do.
    Congratulations and keep doing what you do!

  4. This was beautifully written, Zahra. As mentioned in the other comments, this piece was descriptive of the are and the people, and even brought a smile to a painful story (with the biting instead of hitting). I was hoping the story would end with the soldier bringing a proper volley ball, but the letters were just as nice!

  5. This story makes me cry. What a golden moment. So filled with pure spirit. I am so glad that you are doing the work that you are doing. To borrow from a song, you are sowing the seeds of love.

  6. Der Zahra: I am an American English teacher, and I have worked in schools in both wealthy and poor neighborhoods, and while I wanted to comment on your writing I find myself thinking about your students. You are brave, and very kind, to go to the orphanage, my imagination has created the students in your story. I would like to see them (through your writing), individual faces, the surfaces on which they write, the room in which they are sitting. More details. A metaphor or two. Ahhhh….I wish I could sit down with you and work on my writing and your writing together over a cup of coffee or tea.

    I like the humor in the piece. How many of us have tried to use a new language with comical results? I know I have. I once rescued an ailing cat from the streets of Florence, Italy, and told a cab driver that
    “I am taking a dead cat home.” I was trying to tell him that I was taking an ailing cat home! Luckily my daughter, corrected my error.

    I wish I could write in a second language as well as you write in English. Keep up your good work, for your students and for yourself.


  7. Dear Zahra,

    this story is very strong. It shows the power of a story to bring us visually into a situation and without explaining give us a much bigger story. I could feel the three shared situations: everyone is living in dust and covered by dust; the conflict situation effects everyone from the solider who must ask questions every day and the doctor who has no time or zeal to be kind; and the untarnished presence of love and appreciation that can not be destroyed. thank you so much for letting us feel so much. and to you for your deep care of your students, the soldier, and sharing with us. Do not stop writing.

    with loving embrace,

  8. Peter Yacobellis says:

    What you do is truly wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to share such a great story. Your storytelling is really good and the one theme that sticks out through this piece is just how selfless you are. I hope you healed well.

  9. Erin Casey says:

    I love the detail in this piece. The way you describe the floors, and the soldier pestering you with questions, really brought it to life. I love that you find ways to have fun regardless of the challenges you face, and that your students used the opportunity to let you know how they feel about you. Your story made me wonder why you felt that no one loved you, when it seems obvious from afar that they do very much. I would love to hear more about your story, which is the best mark of a good story teller. Thanks for sharing!

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