Bye, Bye Childhood

Last night, I visited a Pakistani family in my village. I had a garbage bag full of winter clothes that my neighbor had told me would be deeply appreciated by this poor family whose father worked in the fields harvesting fruit and wheat, but was currently jobless.
I lugged over my garbage bag to their house and rang their doorbell. Feet scurried behind the door, then a curtain shyly parted and a nameless face peeked at who had arrived unexpectedly. The usual shuffle of feet and whispered voices ensued as the girls put on their head scarves and the men went to the other part of the house. When the door opened, a young girl with a mischievous boy clinging to her leg smiled and said, "Ahelan wa sahelan (Welcome)!"
After the usual ceremony of kissing the host on the cheek, introducing myself, inquiring about their family, and drinking the Bedouin coffee, the mother asked about my health, my religion, my family, my work, my salary, my rent, my background (you're really American? Are you sure you aren't China?), and my health again. Some things never change in Jordan, and I had long ago rotely memorized the answers to these everyday questions.
I was introduced to her entire family, whose names I can't remember. The oldest boy had just completed his Tawjihi exams, which are taken at the end of senior year for a high school diploma and, depending on the score, university placement. He had 2 sisters, and their mother had died 10 years ago. My host explained to me that her husband had then married her (she was a second wife), and she became a mother at 20 to 3 children without ever having given birth. Now, she had a young son and a 6-month-old bow-legged girl who was always gurgling and giggling.
Her daughter (from the first wife) served me white peaches, and I commented that she looked familiar, but I couldn't quite remember where I'd seen her before. Her mother explained to me that every morning, when I go for a run, she used to stand outside and wait for me, then scream at the top of her lungs, "Mandy! Mandy! Mandy!"
I laughed, and then she went on to say, "She also was your student for 2 months."
I gave her a confused look, asking what grade she was in. In school, all the girls wear either head scarves or the khemar (full covering, except for a slit through the black cloth for their eyes), so when I visit families and see students without any head covering, it often takes me several minutes or hours to recognize which student they are.
"She was in the 7th grade with you."
"Really? I don't remember you in class..."
"Oh, I quit school after 2 months."
"What? Why?"
My shocked look only made the mother and daughter laugh, and they casually replied, "Because Allah willed it."
"Did you not like school?"
"Eh, it was OK."
"Why did you quit?"
A shrug. Her mother smiled at me, daring me to ask more questions.
"Did you not like the girls? Or do you not like to study?"
"I'm not that smart, so I never liked to study."
Mother, beaming proudly at her daughter: "Her father's brother asked her father if his son could marry her." (The translation is confusing, but that's verbatim how it's said in Arabic)
"Oh!...Congratulations." I quickly tried to recover from the disappointment of hearing that one of my students had quit in the middle of 7th grade coupled with the shock of a 12-year-old engaged to her cousin.
"Yes! We were so happy! She decided by herself to quit school, since she's engaged."
"1000 Congratulations. When is the wedding?"
"Oh, we'll wait, of course. It's far too early now. She's still just a girl. Her father wants the wedding to be when she turns 15."
I fiddled with the white peaches that had been sitting in front of me on a plastic plate. Clearly, the mother and I had different views on how beneficial it was for her daughter to be engaged so early and to have quit school so young. I changed the conversation by commenting on the peaches: "These peaches are so delicious and ripe. Did you get them from your farm?"
"No, some nice people from the next village gave them to us."
"Allah is kind."
"Yes, he is."

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