Frau Herz looked at me with eyes struggling to contain their tears. I wanted to tell her it was OK. But I was still mute back then. Her milky hand hovered as she debated in her mind whether it was OK for her to press her palm to the scab, but we both knew it was not a good idea. So, instead, she slowly turned around, head bowed, and returned to the book she was reading to us and I was pretending to follow. Her voice was different now. It was lower and huskier. Luckily, the other students didn't pick up on anything. I was torn between wanting to look at her assuringly and wanting to look away ashamedly. So, I fixed my eyes on the letters dancing in front of my misty eyes.
When I first arrived in Germany in eighth grade, it was in the dead of winter, and though everyone in our camp was thrilled by the sheer amount of freshly fallen snow, sparkling and engulfing, I didn't even leave my bed. Like everything in that room, the bed was given to us by generous Germans. The bed itself was much better than the one I used to share with Dana back in Aleppo. This one had a mattress with springs and down quilts that smelled of fabric softener akin to a field of roses. But I wanted it to smell of home, of Dana, of me! Dana stayed behind with Baba. She refused to leave him. I refused to leave Mama, so, like the splitting parents, the sisters split. And my heart with it.
Everything was new. The sun hid from us for days. I guess it decided to stay a while longer with the downtrodden. You couldn't take away their hopes, loved ones and sunlight all at once.
In this new "home", fruit and vegetables had no taste. Tomatoes tasted like soft rubber, and oranges tasted like wedges of sponge. The now old and dirty snow squished under your shoes like grey marshmallows. Mama said we weren't allowed to eat marshmallows because they were made from pig intestines, but that was how I imagined them.
The other children in the camp became close to one another, but I couldn't bring myself to join them. Instead, I spent my time sleeping, talking to Baba and Dana on the phone, or alone in the bathroom. Mama would cry whenever she noticed I was getting smaller rather than bigger. A few months prior, she had bought me my first bra, but now we both agreed that there was no need for it because I was reverting to the skinny, flat-chested girl I had once been.
I met Frau Herz for the first time when she came in as a Referendarin, a teacher trainee. I had been there for about two months, in a special preparatory class for newcomers like me to be introduced to German, the ways of living in Germany and other basic subjects.
The teacher before her, Frau Eisenberg, wasn't exactly bad, but you could tell she was bored with life in general and with us "dumb kids" in particular. Then, one day, she was just gone!
We walked into class that morning to find a young, bespectacled woman smiling nervously yet expectantly at us. Frau Herz introduced herself as a book lover, a basketball player and an avid knitter. Of course I had no way of understanding any of that, had she not used her every limb to mime her words. And judging by her sweater, she was not a great knitter.
She had learned our names in advance and looked very proud reciting basic information about each one of us. Ahmad loved football and was always eating Snickers. Hadia, whose name meant The Quiet One, Frau Herz winked, talked too much; Frau Herz opened and closed her hand in front of her mouth like a beak. Everyone laughed. Jaber, which she pronounced "Yaber", was very good at maths; she smiled at him. He blushed.
When she came to Rania, me, she looked at me apologetically for not having anything nice or funny to say about me. I lay my forehead on the desk and looked at my feet.
My classmates, most of whom lived in the same camp as me, thought I was sleeping in class. I would hear them whisper things like "lazy lizard" or "sleepy sloth" behind my back.
The old me would've gotten up to pull their hair or kick their shins, but this new me didn't care. If I was going to be forced to go to this school and live in this country, then I was going to wait it out until they kicked me out or something.
"It's not fair!" Mama would say, crying, "I risked everything for you to have a better future, and you're throwing it all away!"
Sometimes I imagined scenarios where the police would barge into the class in slow motion, startling everyone, dragging me away to deport me and send me back home as they did with the Iranian guy who lived in the room down the hall. My mother would run after me crying and pleading, and I would be sad to see her like that, but at least I would finally be going back home. Home where the bombs rained down and the people ran for their lives screaming, but at least I would be able to understand what people were screaming about. Home where food grew scarce and expensive but was cooked for me, not for hundreds of strangers, and the food would actually have some flavour. Home where the air smelled of sulfur most of the time, but at least I'd be inhaling it with Baba, Dana and the rest of my people. Sometimes my fantasies would include us reunited in Aleppo as a happy family in a miserable country.
I was only thirteen, but the idea of me living a "better" life than what doomed Syrians, including most of my family, called life made me sick. Quite literally. I would spend days rushing to the toilet and emptying my bowels from both ends, while Mama cried outside.
In class one grey morning, I had the feeling that I was being watched even though my head was resting on the cold desk. I slowly peeked at the side to find Frau Herz crouching by my side, looking at me with big, blue eyes. They weren't the cool, steely kind of blue, but rather the kind where the huge irises were made of millions of overlapping sky-blue dots. She had worn the smile of a child attempting to feed a wounded wild wolf, unsure whether it would accept her peace offering or tear her to pieces.
She had a book in her hand. It read Irgendwie Anders. But of course I wasn't able to read that back then. I only know that today because I still have that book. I never returned it to the library.
Not knowing what else to do, I took it from her and dropped it into my rucksack, along with the other unopened textbooks yearning to be touched. It stayed there for three weeks.
Each morning, Frau Herz, in her weird outfits, would open an imaginary book looking at me with inquisitive eyes. At first, I just ignored her and lay my head on the desk. A few days later, I shook my head apologetically, feeling sorry for her near naive enthusiasm for me to read a simple picture book. I shook my head for another week or so before retiring to my dark, unrelenting world of homesickness. Then, a few days later, a small smile crept onto my lips as I shook my head. Not a happy or appreciative smile, but an incredulous smile. Did this woman not tire of trying with what all the other teachers had deemed a hopeless case?
Eventually, I gave in, or maybe I just wanted her off my back, so one day, when Mama was not in the room, I took the book out and leafed through it. It was full of bright pictures and little text. I didn't need to speak any German to figure out what it was about. It was about a weird-looking creature that felt lonely in a place where she didn't belong, though she tried very hard to fit in. Until she met another otherworldly creature, she could be weird with.
The next day, Frau Herz, leafing through her invisible book, looked at me with the same unspoken question. I nodded feebly, and she beamed.
That day at recess, she looked outside the staff room window, caught my eye, and waved enthusiastically at me. I attempted a tight-lipped smile and sat on the damp, cold ground, resting my head between my knees.
A few seconds later, she was sitting next to me on the ground, cross-legged. What could she possibly want from me? I couldn't talk, I didn't understand, and I was in no way fun to be around.
"Basketball?" she said, bouncing an imaginary ball.
I didn't know how to respond to that because the truth was that I loved basketball. It was the only sport I enjoyed at my previous school. Baba even put up a small plastic hoop in the bedroom I shared with Dana. While she did homework, I threw ball after ball after ball into that hoop. No one in the building, except for Dana, complained because those were war times and people had bigger problems and louder noises to worry about.
"Hmm?" she looked at me with her expectant blue eyes.
I looked at the lone terracotta-coloured ball beckoning me in the playground corner. I turned to Frau Herz and gave her a nod. She was taken aback. I guess she had expected me to decline any offer to connect as I had done for the past four months. Her eyes danced with glee as she got up and pulled me up with her.
She picked up the ball, slowly showing me how to position myself, how to bounce and how to rotate the ball into the hoop. I smiled inwardly. This woman had no idea that this was something I did with my eyes closed. Yes, my hoop was smaller, my ball was lighter, and my room was tiny and full of furniture, but I had a hawk's aim and eye-hand coordination. At least that was how Baba had put it.
She gave me the ball, and I took a moment to take in my surroundings: where I was, how heavy the ball was and how high the hoop was. I took a deep breath in and boom, the ball was in and out of the net. Frau Herz's big eyes got even bigger and she jumped in excitement, her messy orange hair getting even messier.
I was hooked. That corner became the only patch in all of Germany that seemed to have enough oxygen for my constricting lungs and sufficient life for my withering heart. I would zoom outside after every boring lesson of sounds my ears couldn't comprehend and information my brain didn't want.
Whenever Frau Herz was free, which was every Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, she would run out to challenge me to a game. But she wasn't the only one.
Suddenly, I became the star of the basketball area. The senior students would take turns challenging me--and losing-- and the teachers would sometimes watch me from behind the windows of their classrooms, slowly sipping whatever hot beverage they had in hand.
I was never the person who craved attention or even approval, but for the first time since I left the northern borders of Syria, I wasn't just a number.
I was someone. I was a name and a face.
One sunny morning, while Frau Herz was reading to us from a book of short stories, she suddenly stopped and hurried over to my desk at the back of the room. She caught me off guard, because this time I really was trying to follow along. I looked up at her in alarm, and she looked down at me in horror. I followed her gaze and realised that the loose sleeve of my hoodie had slid up and the scabs on my arm were showing. Her eyes widened and froze. I tried to tell her it was all good now. That these were old scabs and on their way to peeling off. That I'd put away the knife. But I didn't know how to say any of that, so I pulled down my sleeve and attempted a faint smile of reassurance. Or maybe shame. Perhaps an apology for scraping her little good heart. A heart that seemed untouched by misery and blades.
Frau Herz taught us until the end of the year but then had to leave because she had to finish her teaching degree.
On the last day of school, she watched a movie with us and we drank soft drinks and ate cake to celebrate the advent of summer.
Before she left, she gave each one of us a piece of coloured paper. On one side, she had printed the lyrics of "Love My Life" by Robbie Williams. On the other side, a hand-written letter. I couldn't wait to go home and put the words through Google Translate. It said:
I have only known you for half a year or so, but I can safely say that the Rania I met seven months ago is definitely not the same Rania I'm leaving today. This Rania is fierce, fast and fearless.
It broke my heart to see you struggling while I stood there with my hands tied behind my back. But your soul was unbreakable, and it fills my heart with joy to see you smiling. You don't smile very often, but it's enough for today. Tomorrow you'll smile more, I'm sure.
Wishing you all the best!
Your Frau Herz
P.s. here is my email address, should you ever want to reach out or challenge me to a basketball game. I'll always be here.
When I decided to repeat the year, I wanted to write to her, but I knew she had exams, so I waited. Every time I looked at that picture book, I wanted to write to her, but I thought it wasn't important enough. Every time I passed a school year, I wanted to write to her, but I felt that with each passing day, it was more awkward to write to her.
Yesterday I finally finished my training as a nursery school teacher. I really want to tell her, but I wonder if she would even remember my name after all these years. I think she would.
I'm definitely going to write to her one of these days. Maybe when I've done something great, or made a broken child smile. She would be happy.
Her sky-coloured eyes might even twinkle.