Urdu Lesson at Beaconhouse Preschool, Pakistan

Madam passed out notebooks
the color of dirty seawater
and made the immigrant children
work the longest–

repetition as practice
until the preschool hand
tired of Urdu and turned
into a gnarled, graphite-
dusted fishhook. Aur karo,
aur karo, and fill up the blue
lines with perfect penmanship.

But she never seemed to understand
the hardship of sea storms, how
bay and tay were lifeboats
that sloppily bobbed up and down,
cast their ropes into thrashing waters,
crashed into floating driftwood.

How life preservers hung in neat groups
of twos or threes, extraordinary dots
and symbols that signaled each letter’s
distinct, precise punctuation.

How they were supposed to save us.
But didn’t.

She let the Americans go
when we learned to navigate by the stars.

My mother was pleased
with her little girl’s progress,
that the basic, boring aesthetics
of English characters
were being replaced, supplemented,
by something more elegant, complex,
like jewel-less palaces with golden
moats, or green-less labyrinths
with freshwater oases.
But all I saw was the seawater.
The fishhooks. The squiggly worms.

Mother told Madam,
Maybe talk to her in English.
She is out of place and unhappy.
And I interrupted them, an anchor
arrowed, grounded:
Nahi, nahi, mujhe Urdu aati hai.
Aati hai! I know it.
Years have passed.
I am a woman in America.
Urdu is as useless as rust,
flowering algae in an undiscovered
shipwreck. Still, looking back
I recognize the reward was not
swallowing whole the local lore of Jinn Baba,
or avoiding shouting boys who beat cows with sticks.

It was the taste of a sugar cane
at the end of the day, wrapping
the tongue around and around,
finally understanding

that shakar is sugar
and shukria is thank you.


Published in Stonecoast Review.

Synonyms for Human, Corruption, Literacy