He had orange hair, big and bushy.
And an orange beard. That was big and bushy too, like an orange afro on his chin. He wore checkered shirts and wire-rimmed glasses and had a potbelly. And his eyes were always crinkled in a smile.
Like an orange-haired Santa Claus.
His name was Mr. Erickson, and he was my eighth grade geography teacher. He also taught English and probably some other things as well...you see, this was the American school in Taiz, Yemen and there weren’t that many teachers to go around.
If you were a twelve-year-old Muslim kid who’d never met an American, let alone been to America (or anywhere close for that matter), Mr. Erickson was quite possibly the most perfect first-ever-American you could be introduced to.
Mr. Erickson had been everywhere.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to my twelve-year-old self, who had been nowhere (beyond Pakistan and Yemen, that is). When I say everywhere, I mean not just the usual places in Europe and Asia but interesting places that I’d never even heard of (until he made me color them in on the map of Africa), like Malawi. That’s why he was the perfect geography teacher. When Mr. Erickson talked about the African savannah, he made it come alive like...at any minute, a giraffe might really poke its head around our classroom door.
I loved Mr. Erickson, and through him, I learned to love the world. And I learned to love America too, decades before I ever set foot in this country.
I was a little ex-pat girl from Pakistan, living in a noisy apartment building in Taiz. Our flat was a four-room deal, with a beautiful view of Jabl Sabr in the distance. That is, if you looked past the road, past the big garbage heap where skinny me lugged our trash out to dump and.. past the big graveyard. Oh yes, how can I forget the graveyard...
I’d gaze unblinking, with my nose pressed against the glass pane of my bedroom window when the funeral processions went by. All men, with the dead body draped in green aloft their shoulders, rhythmically chanting ‘La ilaha illa Allah, La ilaha illa Allah’. It wasn’t scary. Rather interesting even, to watch. Like a parade or something.
Mom was the resident seamstress of the building. Random women would show up at our door with glossy pictures cut out of the latest Egyptian fashion magazines. They would point excitedly and in sign language mixed with loud Arabic, give Mom orders for elaborate gowns. A trip to the ‘fabric store’ would follow. This was really a corner of the local souq, with mounds of fabric on the dirt. We’d yank what we liked out of the mound, and then it would be not measured, but weighed, to figure a price. Haggling (in sign language mixed with loud Arabic) between Mom and the shopkeeper, would ensue. Our kilograms of loot then came home and were crafted into couture modest dresses, just like in the magazine, to the delight of Mom’s modest fashion clientele.
Mom being a seamstress also meant that my siblings and I were the only kids at the American school in Taiz who (proudly) wore home-sewn uniforms.
For two years, Mr. Erickson taught me Geography and English. He found me with a brain like a dry, thirsty sponge, and left me feeling like the African savannah after the first rains, drenched, bright and curious.
Two short years just flew by and soon it was the end of the school year, and the end of our time in Yemen, too. We were leaving Yemen to return to Pakistan and Dad’s new job. And Mr. Erickson was leaving Yemen to go teach somewhere wild, to a school in Papua, New Guinea, I think.
I so wanted Mr. Erickson not to forget me. But, how could I do that? He’d probably taught hundreds of kids before me and would teach hundreds of kids after, I was sure.
I’ll give him a present, I thought. Something to remember me by. Something unique, from Muslim me.
As you’ve probably gathered, shopping wasn’t a thing in Taiz at the time, so there weren’t any memorable Muslim gifts to be had. So, of course, I turned to Mom for help.
She dug into our suitcase of Pakistani treasures. She pulled out a velvet vest.
‘Why don’t you give him this’, she said. ‘It’s unique, it’s a handmade gift from Pakistan’.
I looked at the vest. It was red, with swirls of gold braid all over, and mirrors that glittered.
‘Mirror-work like this has been done by hand in Pakistan for centuries’, Mom added. ‘Trust me, he’ll like it’.
Hmmm...I wasn’t at all sure that this humble gift was befitting an American Santa Claus. But it was the only thing we had. So, I reluctantly agreed.
After the party on the last day of school, I mustered the courage to go up to Mr. Erickson and shyly, held out my gift wrapped in homemade paper. He shook my hand and received it with a big thank you, and an even bigger smile.
It made me feel like the most important person in the world.
I left Taiz American school for the last time that day, feeling so happy, yet so sad that I’d never see my favorite teacher ever again.
A decade went by. The skinny girl grew tall and became a young woman, and the young woman went off to college, and then to university. Teachers came and went, but nobody like Mr. Erickson. Not even close.
From Yemen to Pakistan, to England to Scotland I went. My own little family grew. One became two and two became three.
Dad, on the other hand, ever-adventurous, moved Mom and my little sister from Pakistan to Zaire. My sister who was perhaps six when she left Yemen, now entered the American school in Kinshasa, as a tenth grader. And I, planned a summer trip to visit them with my baby girl, now a chubby eight-month-old.
I arrived in Zaire on an August afternoon, just as my sister was finishing up her last day of school at the American School in Kinshasa.
‘Remember, Mr. Erickson, the teacher you’d talk about all the time in Yemen?’ my sister said casually, in the car, on the way home from the airport. ‘I think he’s teaching at my school here.’
‘No way!’ I exclaimed, ‘Impossible!’
‘Yes, I’m pretty sure. Bushy red hair, bushy red beard,’ she added
‘Oh my God, I want to meet him, let’s go!’ I couldn’t wait.
‘It’s the last day of school and all the teachers are leaving, but we can swing by the teachers’ housing and see if he’s around’, said my sister.
‘Yes, yes, yes!’, I was excited. I didn’t want to come this close, and then just miss him.
But wait...there’s no way he’d remember me, I suddenly thought. I looked nothing like that kid in Yemen. He’d think I was some weirdo knocking at his door, unannounced. Maybe it wasn’t even him. What if it was someone else?
There was only one way to find out.
We drove up the leafy green street through the teachers' housing compound. Trees lined both sides, a shade of emerald so deep you only see it in a rainforest. We parked the car.
I got out, weary after my long flight, and trudged up the walkway with my baby on my hip. I arrived at the doorstep of the modest, teacher’s cottage, one small house among many, in a big field. I hesitated. I took a deep breath.
Then, I knocked on the door.
Someone with bushy red hair and a bushy red beard. Like an afro on his chin. An American Santa Claus.
My heart racing, I held out my hand and said:
‘Hi, Mr. Erickson. You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Sarah Ansari..from your eighth grade class in Taiz’.
His eyes crinkled, and his face broke into the biggest smile.
‘Of course, I do!’ he said. ‘You’re the one who gave me that beautiful red vest!’