I am in my Grandma’s green Jeep Cherokee in Waupun, Wisc., in the parking lot of my high school alma mater. I forget how big the sky is here. I am earlier than I want to be. I have no-where else to be, but it feels better to arrive, as if I am rushing from one place to the next.
I am coming from a game of Scrabble and a cup of tea with my grandma. It’s only 10:00, but we’ve already fit in an hour of Scrabble. It’s never too early for Scrabble.
I walk through the parking lot and up the white pavement. I mutter phrases to myself and speak through the outline that I have written in my little orange notepad. I turn into the office and Mrs. Homan, the secretary smiles at me.
Mr. Schut! She pronounces my name right. She gives me a big hug and points me to Mr. Z’s office. I walk back and Mr. Z receives me the exact same way. Mr. Schut! He smiles and shakes my hand hard. He pumps his fist and tells me how well the Chili supper went. They raised over $6,000.
That’s how it’s done in Waupun, Wisconsin--huge tubs of chili, the boys soccer team ladling out beefy, beany, hearty chili to an entire town.
David, Caleb, and I are walking to the schoolyard, passing a basketball between us. The road is burnt red and rugged, with deep grooves that bounce the ball unexpectedly away from us. Two of the RUHU boys are walking ahead of us, chipping clumps of clay with their feet. One boy is behind. We are a 3-on-3 squad on the move.
David is telling Caleb and I how much he loves OKC--the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant. Caleb and I both love basketball, and we are also drawn by bright colors. The NBA has both, so we’re in.
I try to picture the three of us in a bar in the States, watching an OKC game. I cannot see how David would sit at the bar. I cannot see David outside of this--the red roads and his long, lean arms and his big smile.
It is the end of the day, and so the road is burning with sun. I’m tired. Caleb is tired. It is the end of a long day with the kids. It is a spent day, but David insisted we play (and we had promised), and his fake layup into the air convinced me it is worth the energy for us to head for the schoolyard.We are walking along the side of the road, and on our left are the tin shacks and on our right is a deep rut and then the road. The boda-bodas zoom past, one man in a Chicago Bulls puffy winter jacket.
When we get to the schoolyard, there is a square building like a guard house and an open metal gate. We speak to the guard. He is short. He doesn’t look us in the eye. He looks beyond us, as if waiting on someone else to come, like, Next!.
David holds the basketball on his hip and asks politely if we can enter.The guard is agitated. He has sweat on his forehead. He shakes his head. He turns and gets on the other side of the gate. He tugs the bars to close them.
“That’s not necessary, sir,” David says. “Please, sir. You don’t have to.”
The gate is shut. We are outside. The guard is inside. There are students in their uniforms, moving in a pack. The campus is tropical--open-air buildings and the green, broad leaves of the matooke trees that wilt down and shade the main walkway through campus.
We are on the outside. We are eye-to-eye with the guard, except he still will not look at us. Next! He has proven to us that his word goes. He has locked us out of the school.
Mr. Z gives me the sport’s updates and the latest news as we walk towards the gym. In Mountain View, I am tall--often I tower. But here, the boys are bred tall and I am looking up at blond-haired high school boys as we walk down the hallways. Chapel is in the old gym--the gym where I played basketball; where I sat through chapels when I was 16. Uganda has three indoor basketball courts. Here there are two. We walk through the blue doors. The huge painting of a crusader is still there. The basketball court is hardwood, varnished. Bleachers are stacked on each side of the room. Rows of chairs are set up facing a black stage. We walk over to the chairs.A bell rings and kids enter into the gym. Middle School and high school students take their places in the cold metal chairs next to their friends. The middle schoolers sit on the right side. They look young. They are giggling and chatty, but then they quiet quickly. The high schoolers sit on the left. Mr. Z introduces me as one of them. Then he prays and hands me the microphone.
The first basketball game of the season is today, so I open with an anecdote about my basketball days, about getting benched. It is not as funny as I thought it might be. So I move quickly to Uganda.
My voice is shaky. My hand holding the microphone is quivering. I expected to be smooth--to be an impressive Alumni-Speaker-From-California, but my voice is breaking, as I trip over the first lines of my story.
It’s a school official, dressed in pleated black pants and a clean-pressed shirt and a loose tie who comes to our rescue. He points to us standing on the other side of the gate. He is not happy. The guard nods toward us and points to the gate. He is not happy. They argue.Then the guard is unlocking the gate. He focuses on the lock and when the gate is wholly opened, he stares beyond us.
It’s a jailbreak for him. Unacceptable.
We enter. A jailbreak! The campus is quiet, except for the bounce of the basketball between us. We pass by several of the school buildings, which look unfinished. No doors. Window holes. Cement floors. Cracked teal-painted walls. We are strangers in this foreignness.
Caleb and I know better.
Carpeted, well-lit air-conditioned air-treated air-heated school buildings; chairs, desks, computers. At the very worst, our teachers used pocket money to stock their own supply cabinets, loaded with reserve notebooks and Elmer’s white glue bottles with the twist orange cap and fat erasers pink like thumbs and pens and pens and pencils and pencils and colored pencils, markers, crayons, rulers, scissors, masking tape, duct tape, Scotch tape, sheet paper, graph paper, lined paper, unlined paper and boxes of butter cookies for the kids who forget a snack during snacktime.We just know better, and I cannot see David in a bar in Mountain View watching his OKC Thunder, and I cannot see Caleb and I as schoolkids here.
The basketball court is beyond a soccer pitch, which is doubling as a steer pasture. There is a deep creek bed at the end of the pasture. When we get to it, we leap across to the basketball court. The court is dotted with little holes, like breath holes. A group of students are playing volleyball next to the court. A steer watches us from just off the court, his head down, nibbling.
We divide into teams. The RUHU boys never play basketball. They are sure with their feet; not so with their hands. Tight with a soccer ball. Clunk with a basketball.
But we are here to play some solid 3-on-3 basketball.
The kids pick-up the game fast, at least, the passing. Pass pass pass. It is hard to get them to shoot. “Shoot! Go for it!” we yell. “Hit it!” “Take a shot!” “Have one!” “Money ball!” Caleb and I yell to encourage them. We leave our hands at our sides to give them a clear shot, not wanting to block. The kids play tentative and clumsy on offense; on defense, they are fierce with their bodies, shoving, weaving their long, strong arms to steal the ball.
We keep score, to keep it interesting. Some rules to keep it organized: out-of-bounds, check ball, no kicking the ball. Hey, no kicking the ball.
They never shoot basketballs.
And Caleb and I never play with a steer watching.
It’s a game as I’ve never quite seen it before.
Shoot. Shoot. Lots of misses. Backboard clunk. The kids are sweaty. They push. They laugh. Caleb and I rustle our shirts, cooling ourselves. We are sweaty.
Basketball is a new thing. They play hard. They play as if the only object of the game is to give your all, whatever you have. Hey, no kicking.
They give everything.
This is exactly what they do best.
My voice becomes clear when I start telling the story of meeting Patrick and William. I get too quickly to the part where I tell them the stories of specific kids at the orphanage. This is the best stuff I’ve got. I tell them about Carlos, about Liz, and then about Zula and Aisha, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t use that story. The kids--they're the true story.
Everyone is still paying good attention--decent eye contact, only a few teachers have fallen asleep. The clock hanging on the back wall at the other end of the gym tells me it is time to wrap up.
I close in prayer and dismiss everyone. Mrs. T makes her way up the front. We hug. She thanks me. We talk about life. A young woman comes up to the group around me. At first I cannot tell if she is a teacher or a student. Mr. Z introduces her--a senior. She is going to Hope College. She is planning on going to Uganda this summer. It is a pretty significant happen-stance. Hope. Uganda. Waupun Christian. I'm bad at the chit chat, but I smile and am impressed by all of our similarities.
I'm just afraid that if I go over there, I won't want to come back, She laughs and I smile back at her.
Well, I think you should definitely go to college.
Yea, I definitely will, she responds.
Everyone eventually leaves and Mr. Z and I leave the old gym. We stop by the new music room where high schoolers are singing scales. Mrs. T does an impression of them singing--everyone laughs and then sings fuller, louder, beautifully the second time. Mr. Z and I talk back and forth about fundraising--chili dinners, auctions, parties. He wants an Ipad per student next year. It's an ambitious goal for Waupun, Wisconsin. We sit together and he prays for me--for the new house in Uganda, for the kids--it is an ambitious prayer.
It is a prayer he knows well.
I get back in my grandma's Jeep and drive back to her apartment. She gets up slowly from her green chair and turns to me,
So. How'd it go?
I think it went alright.
Ummm...not yet, no.
She begins to tell me the lunch options as she opens the door to the fridge. I see the picture of Gavin smiling in his new clothes from our last trip to Uganda hanging by a round Packer magnet.
I wish you could come to Uganda, Gram.
Me too, kiddo. She tilts her head down, and I know that she would come if she could.
Want to play Scrabble? I ask.
She looks up at me and smiles. Well, sure!