Rule Breakers: Walk Away

I started ninth grade as one of five girls admitted to the Friends Boys School in Ramallah. We all needed a school that taught in English, but from the first week, the girls were often in trouble for minor infractions. A school mistress kept her sharp eye on us. We were ordered not to “speak to the boys,” which felt impossible since there were hundreds of them, surrounding us.

Everyone else in Palestine had bigger troubles than we did, but, being high school students, we were dramatic.

I determined that the Jerusalem Times newspaper, which my father was editing in both English and Arabic editions, needed a teen column, written by me. In this way (despite the slightly shady nepotism) I would be able to expose the foolishness of school rules no one could possibly live up to. Justice! My father agreed. I started making lots of notes.

November was balmy and soft, but school felt tight and tense. One day something swung open in my brain, like a creaking garden gate on a rusting hinge, and I thought, You could just walk off this campus.

I was writing something about my school that would, by Christmas, get me disinvited from it entirely. Expelled. I stared out the window. Walk away. At lunchtime I crossed the schoolyard, left it, hiked around a few blocks, smelled the falafel frying, watched old men tinkering with their beat-up taxis, then circled back to a white stone wall at the far side of the schoolyard, smoothed across the top, obscured by leafy bushes and one ancient tree. No one could see me there. I lay down on it. Clearly hearing the voices floating. Disembodied syllables, the up-and-downward lilt. My friends, all the boys I would never stop speaking to, the soft feathery air, the bell ringing. Everyone else went back inside. I thought, This will be my life. I will stay a little distance away from many things and consider what they feel like. This is a free hour, and the next one can be too. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me. I will sleep and dream. I will write my piece inside my head.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is the current Young People’s Poet Laureate and author, most recently, of Cast Away: Poems for Our Time (Greenwillow).

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