Summer started winding down and inevitable thoughts of the year to come crept in. Days spent living in the comfort and luxury of the new compound were graced with walks to the park, watching the kids ride their bikes and having lazy days at the pool. As I relaxed and took in the beauty of this comfortable life, the nag of reality came and went. The one thing I had avoided and shoved to the back of my mind, was now fast approaching and the same familiar pit in my stomach began to prod me. This sick feeling had followed me since that first day of school when my beautiful baby boy looked up at me and said that Amu (uncle) hit him on the head with a stick. Since then, there were stories of corporal punishment, screaming, calling names and general humiliation of the students. I tried to raise my children the way that I was raised, be respectful and treat others how you want to be treated, use words to resolve conflicts and be aware of boundaries. But each day I sent them out that door and into the Saudi school system, I felt my life lessons began to sound meaningless and my advice a glaring contrast and mockery of what they faced. I also began to question myself, maybe he had been right all along when he told me that my head was filled with “rainbows, butterflies and sunshine” all ridiculous things that did not help in “real” life. Even so I still had hope that good would prevail as I gave hugs and kisses, packed special lunches with home made treats and said I love you at the door.
The year before had been spent in Al-Khobar which proved to be very Western and accepting. The school was no exception to this and the boys had a wonderful third year, making huge strides in their language skills and confidence. They had a bold and open, “no hitting” policy, that was in accordance with a new law in Saudi. If schools used corporal punishment they could be investigated and shut down. This seemed to mean nothing as I heard stories each day of students being hit and school administrators turning their heads. He had warned me from that first day, not to ask about this issue as he claimed I was suggesting something that was not happening. I continued my inquiries but unfortunately the children seemed to learn that speaking up only made trouble as they witnessed this with other students. I spent 12 years befuddled trying to make sense of the school system, teachers saying they had never hit my kids, children being asked publicly to recant their words and principals quoting Saudi law. It seemed like an alternate reality where I was clearly in the wrong, each piece fit nicely into the scheme of our already sheltered existence.
Now the time had come, he inquired about schools in Riyadh and was told about a large school run by a married couple who were both educators. They worked to make the school a model of excellence, providing free lunches, a spacious outdoor area equipped with the latest and best cooling technology for hot days and up- to-date classrooms. It sounded like the answer to our hopes and prayers and so it was set, the boys would attend this school. I went along and sat in the car, amazed at the outward beauty of this modern school. Other schools looked old, worn and institutional-like, whereas this was colorful and boasted windows for healthy sunshine to stream in, not the usual dingy and stark exterior. I sat looking, wishing I could walk through those doors and speak to someone in charge, explain that I would be watching closely, that I would not accept poor treatment of my precious boys, that I would hold them accountable and would expect the excellence that they promised. But this was not allowed and so I sat, playing out hopeful possibilities in my mind of cheerful teachers and new friends.
The day arrived and we (the boys, See See, Foof, little Abude and the baby) all piled into the van with the driver that had been appointed to us for school trips. We made our way to the large school which took about 30 minutes. The compound was located just outside of town and so every destination took at least 20 minutes to reach. As we approached the school I once again told the boys I would be home all day and everything would be fine and that I was just a phone call away. I watched them walk away and into the door, a smile firmly planted on my lips, but inside I felt those same nagging fears and anxiety.