The plan was to start gradual, an initial game between our two classes. Mad Dave assured me the soccer skills of our students were high. We weren’t allowed practice time or to coach. Instead we’d referee, finding old cloth jerseys in a sports bin in town, a couple of whistles and a ball. Then we cut yellow and red cards from supply room stock.
When we told the students, they went wild, hurriedly scrapping textbooks to begin drawing up plays on the whiteboard. I can’t speak for Dave, but standing back in the classroom listening to the excited voices and watching them divvy up positions and argue about strategy was a complete revelation. I’d always been able to connect with difficult classes, creating roles of responsibility for troubled students and taking the extra time to reach at-risk ones as well.
Yet in Saudi, every student was at-risk. A potential danger to himself, to me, to others. A futbol match was exactly what these students needed.
Especially these days, when there is so much mistrust and animosity between people. Some days at the school, it was so thick you could slice is like a meaty kebab. I had experienced this greatly in
Still, no matter how bad the landscape closed in around me, the classroom was always my refuge. My little corner of the world I kept sacred. Watching those students laugh and draw arrows between X’s and O’s on the board, I felt that I’d already won. No matter the box score. This was only the beginning of good things in Saudi.
Of course, there was one slight problem. The school had to say yes. Our point person was Hassan. A man whose desk was a boneyard of requests and acquisitions forms. We still had not received our Iqamas and were trapped in this desert country. Certainly, Hassan would see our reasoning and grant us access to this pristine artificial field with its virgin plastic grass. Certainly, right?
The following morning I went to see the Admiral. The head man in charge. Believe me, nobody knocked on the Admiral’s door for any reason. He carried himself with this swagger, like John Wayne in a pair of Banana Republic slacks and a comfortable pair of loafers. He spoke flawless Arabic, was a millionaire numerous times over, was chauffeured around with the Saudi princess, and just generally seemed like the smartest guy in the room. He was the obvious choice.
I climbed the stairs and turned the corner past his private bathroom when I heard voices inside. Hushed whispered voices. Stopping to listen at the door in shock, I heard my name being spoken in Arabic in the room. Believing it to be Hassan, I stepped into the doorway ready to defend myself. I was completely wrong.