Swallowing the Bitter Tea

A green tea served by an Afghani student during Ramadan. Although it’s different from the tea mentioned in this story, it is still a reminder of the hospitality of the Middle Eastern people.

I showed up at the door of a Kurdish couple’s home on a Monday in September 2017.

They gave me Doritos and teas, and I “taught” them an English lesson about numbers they already knew. That’s when my Monday mornings changed for the better.  

Every week I come to their home. They usher me in gladly, and we sit down for English class. Nearly 100 Mondays of this routine of welcoming and learning, but we all knew this particular one was different.

We sat down. We reviewed our homework and chuckled over some of our mistakes. We laid out some work, and they listened as I asked questions. We played a game. We read some. They spoke. And the whole time, it just felt so normal.

It’s like we didn’t want to face that today would be our last day like this together. Without even agreeing to this, it was like we had decided to ignore it by going like normal. We were clutching these last minutes of our time together.

But at the end of our class, we moved slower. The clock neared 11:00. We knew it was coming. As we closed our full folders and packed pencils away, the woman spoke up. “Ms. Brianna, you coming next week?”

I’ve not mastered the art of saying goodbye yet. I hope this comes with age, because right now I am clumsy and awkward when I part. I knew this question would come, and I still wasn’t ready.

“No, I’m not. Today is the last Monday in May. This is our last class together,” I responded.

Even though we had talked about the ending of our class together weeks earlier, their faces dropped with disappointment. I wondered if they’d hoped I’d changed my mind. They didn’t need words to show me the forlorn looks on the faces, pulling down their mouths and lowering their eyes. 

Clinging to one more act of our routine together, they asked if I wanted tea – and don’t you know it’s impolite to refuse such an offer?

They had their daughter bring it for me within a couple minutes. Because they’re fasting, I prepared my cup alone as they sat with me. As I dipped the spoon into the dish of small white crystals, I explained to them what I’ve been praying for. I told them about how hours I’ve been working, and how I’ve been asking God for one job – not many, like I currently teach. I told them about how drastically my schedule is changing this summer, and how I wouldn’t have a pocket of time to teach their class anymore. They nodded in understanding.

I stirred the spoon in my cup as they asked me about my husband. “Ms. Brianna, now you are married. You cannot work so much. Now you have your husband. He need you,” they reminded me, and possibly themselves too. As much as they didn’t want this to be true because of the implications for our class’ ending, they understood.

Goodbyes hurt. And with that, I raised the tea cup to my mouth.

Immediately, I was surprised by the bitter taste. I quickly took the cup away, raising my eyebrows and reaching for my water bottle to wash it down. It only took a small sip for me to realize what had happened.

Thankfully, my expression had gone unnoticed. They continued talking. I thought to myself:

“This will be my final act of love for our class. I will finish this cup for the sake of not offending or hurting my friends’ feelings. I can finish a cup of bitter tea.”

I loathed the dish disguised as sugar next to my cup. I already despised the next sip I’d have to take.

The clock ticked as we continued talking, and my tea cup remain untouched. I watched it, and I knew I’d have to leave soon. The tea was getting colder; I knew I’d have to finish that soon too.

Preparing myself for the next sip, I resolved to just get it over with, and take a large gulp. I grabbed the cup’s handle and brought it to my lips. I braced myself for impact and… midway through the courageous gulp, my face puckered and I quickly removed the sour cup from my mouth.

In an ultimate act of failure, I refused to finish the disgusting cup of tea. I really couldn’t do it. No matter how much water I drank with it, the distinct taste of salt remained in my mouth, overpowering the tea leaves and tainting the entire cup.

I had to tell them. I couldn’t leave this nearly untouched tea on their table. That would be the ultimate offense.

Bracing myself once more, I knew I just needed to say it. I interrupted the silence in the room with a quiet, yet confident, “My friend, I think this is salt,” motioning toward the crystal dish.

My student’s brow furrowed, as she looked from my cup and back to the crystal dish beside it. She reached for the Kurdish word in her head. Salt. Salt. Salt. The silence lingered for only a second, and then the realization washed over her face as her eyes widened.

She found the word. She understood.

“Oh, Ms. Brianna! I’m so sorry!” she shouted, jumping up to remove the salt dish and tea away from me.

“My daughter, my daughter! She’s crazy!” my student continued, blaming her daughter for having served my tea mistakenly with salt.

Instantly, I laughed. I assured her it was okay, and she and her husband laughed too. They both rushed to the kitchen, hurriedly talking, and came back with a fresh cup of steaming hot tea and the sugar container. The metal lid that covered the small opening at the top of the dish was sticky with the remains of white crystals. I recognized this dish. This was the right one.

I didn’t want to watch the clock now. In our last few minutes together, we talked about all the feasts we could have and plans we could make together. We made plans to picnic and to text each other. With a cup of sweet, warm Arabic tea in hand, I promised them I’d come back.

When I sat the empty cup down on the table, I knew it was time to go now. We arose to say our final goodbyes, and I thanked them both for all their hard work. I hugged the woman, and she said, “Thank you for you,” as she had so many times before. I shook her husband’s hand, and with that, she quietly pushed me out the door. I turned for one last wave, but the tears in her eyes stopped her from returning the wave.

Then the door shut. It was really over.

As I walked down the steps and drove away, memories of our nearly 2 years together covered the pavement on the road and all the familiar buildings I drove past. This couple had been one of my first classes and my longest running one. It was hard to think it was over.

Nearly two years ago they had grace for me – a newbie ESL teacher, experimenting with her teaching style and methods. Even when my lessons sucked (and I know they did), they remained eager to learn. Again and again and again.

They celebrated with me when I got married, saying, “We are so happy. We cannot explain our happy.”

They came to my home, meeting friends from all over, on my birthday.

They invited me to their home for feasts when their fasting was over.

They showed me maps of their beloved country, describing the images of their past life in broken English.

They helped Travis and me move in the middle of the week last August, sweating and hustling to load a truck as fast as possible.

We exchanged gifts and cards, and they asked me to help them read their mail.

They fed me and welcomed me when I had nothing to offer them but more homework.

As images flashed in my mind, I smiled because I knew the thread in them all was this: we grew together. We settled in this corner of Southeast Nashville together. When I was new to this community of English learners and learning how to love across cultural borders, they welcomed me. When they sought to learn English, I praised them, remembering they once couldn’t make a phone call without help. Now they can and do.

I almost don’t even want to say this, but I’m going to: it’s good to say goodbye.

When you invest and pour your best into another person, things will change. I watched this couple grow from timid and nervous language learners, to people empowered to try. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but it does mean that they know the risk of their imperfection is worth it to be heard. They know now that their voice and actions matter.

They can make a difference, and I think they believe that now more than they did a couple Septembers ago.

How do I know? Because they did it for me. I became more accepting of differences and gracious toward mistakes. I learned to laugh more. I decided to be okay with deviating from the plan. I began the arduous task of refusing to freak out when the schedule gets off. I grew accustomed to sitting with a cup of tea without looking at the clock.

They helped me. They gave me the gift of presence and contentment when all I wanted was to run in my impatience. They showed me that sometimes sitting with tea is just as helpful as the work.

And now, when the lessons have been learned and the seasons have moved, we say goodbye.

Knowing that we gave our all, and have outgrown what we offer to one another, we turn to leave. It’s not a forever goodbye. But, it is a recognition that this weekly routine of strictly English class is not working anymore. We’re stepping away to give each other space, knowing this is where we need to go in order to keep growing.

For them, it’s time to plug into a higher level class with more opportunities to connect with other language learners outside their home. For me, it’s time make more space for finding more sustainable ways to use my gifts. For our relationship, it’s time to deepen our friendship without the implications of our student-teacher relationship.

Saying goodbye is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I know that too. Really, it’s an act of humility to declare: I can no longer help you in the ways you have grown to be helped. It’s been an honor to walk with you, but I want you to keep growing. Don’t let me get in the way.

I’m grateful to have said goodbye to a space and place that has shaped me and my students tremendously over the last 21 months. Here’s to loving my students – now friends – enough to give them the space to keep growing. Here’s to uttering a clumsy goodbye, and admitting when I can’t drink the salty tea.

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