Maia's first class was held in a large room filled with hundreds of tables and chairs, a whiteboard and a very stern-looking teacher wearing a military uniform at the front. She found a table with Simone and Erica, sat down and pulled her notebook and pen out of her bag. Jonas sat a few rows behind her with some of his friends. She was aware of his eyes on her, but resisted the urge to turn around to meet them.
The room filled quickly, and some students had to sit on the ground on the edges of the room. Nobody spoke. The only sounds were chairs scraping on concrete and the rustling of book bags and paper.
"Attention class." The teacher's voice was being carried by the sound system so that it blared at them from all angles. His every breath seemed to be coming from both in front of them, behind them, and from the sides. They stood at attention, chairs scraping loudly in unison. The students spoke as one. "Good morning Mr. Armstrong."
Mr. Armstrong sneered. "Good morning indeed. Sit down."
The students obeyed. They sat straight upright in their chairs without a word or movement. Mr. Armstrong was infamous for assigning extra homework to students who slouched. Each student wore a similar uniform: a white shirt and navy blue pants or skirt. Many of the shirts were stained, the pants too short, the skirts too loose. Some of the white-skinned students had fancy hairstyles, name-brand bookbags and cellphones, but they didn't stand out as much when they were in uniform with the rest. Maia wondered what the nation had been like before the war: when even the poorest had cellular phones and the internet was free and uncensored, and most schools had no uniforms and teachers encouraged creativity.
The teacher began with his regular rant of how this school was a waste of time because none of these students would amount to anything and they would be of much better use working in the farms and mines. Everyone sat attentively, as discouragement bombarded their ears from all sides. Finally Mr. Armstrong looked at his lesson plan. He taught about English, the meaning and spelling of words, the applications of text and tenses. Maia was entranced by his knowledge of language and literature.
"Your parents' generation grew up with computers spelling for them. The language was nearly lost to shortened text messages, abbreviations, emoticons and changed meanings. Fortunately, the government has come to their senses and has reinvented the curriculum for your generation. I want all of you to write a 4-page essay on the importance of proper communication skills and language."
There were no groans. The only sound was the quiet scratch of pencils, writing down the assignment.
The next few classes proceeded much like this. The history professor complained that nobody memorized dates in the previous generation. The math professor complained that this generation's parents did not remember long division. The geography professor complained that they rarely knew the states in their own country, never mind other nations. The students bore their parents' implied ignorance attentively and silently.
Maia was not unfamiliar with inherited shame. It was a tradition from her homeland, that great shame did not only affect one generation, but also their children and grandchildren. Though her parents had not grown up in this country, she felt the shame inflicted by the teachers- she had only learned English in the last year, and had little knowledge of the country she inhabited or others around the world. The war had taken precedence over her education for years. Now sixteen, she had only attended around five years of school. Her inherited shame did not end with her lack of education. She also was ashamed of her refugee status, of being forced to live and worship in a foreign country, and of her people who had ignored their faith and made wrong choices, then chose to fight when they could not win, resulting in much bloodshed. Her brother often talked of the prophesied Chosen One, who would become the leader of their people, with Ayam's help destroy their enemies and lead them back to their homeland. It was a crazy dream, but it was all they had left of hope. The religious leaders had become increasingly strict, claiming that adherence to Ayam's teachings would bring his forgiveness and the Chosen One. Maia felt restricted on all sides - persecuted by her religious leaders for any mistake in her faith and by this new government which enforced curfew, language, and behaviour. Still, she felt safe as long as she did not make mistakes or draw attention to herself. Her family finally had a safe home and enough food and she was getting a free education. Ayam had delivered them from certain death in their homeland, and she was content to be wherever he guided them. She found herself saying a quick prayer to Ayam as the bell rang. She had learned to pray invisibly, moving her lips only slightly with her eyes open and hands in her lap so that her teachers would not notice.
The students stood to go into the outside lot for a lunch break. Maia stood and felt a tall presence behind her. It was Jonas, and he had picked up her books before she could collect them. "Can I walk you to the Oven?" he asked. The Oven was the nickname the students had for the outside lot, because it was always stiflingly hot during lunch time without any shade and the pavement radiated enough heat to fry an egg.
Maia nodded shyly, and they walked together down the hallway, engulfed in a sea of white shirts. Only outside the building did students feel safe enough to talk. And even then they did not mention the government, war, religion, or any other controversial subjects loudly. The sun beat down on them relentlessly, though a bit of a northern breeze gave them relief. Jonas chose a bench close to the building and set Maia's books down. Maia sat and pulled her lunch out of her bag. She ate the cheese and apples first, before they became hot and dried out. Jonas ate his sandwich, and did not talk.
Maia finished the cheese, surprised that he was not speaking. The silence became uncomfortable. "Why me?" she asked suddenly.
Jonas swallowed and smiled. "So glad you asked. Do you ever have this feeling, like maybe fate, or Ayam is guiding you down a path? When I first saw you in church, I thought you were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. Until I watched you pray, religion had never seemed so holy. I've seen the way you look after your younger sister and even your older brother. You're an amazing woman, Maia. Ayam will do great things through you."
Maia was blushing, much more than even the intense desert heat could account for. She stood up and boldly took his hand. "Ask my father for his blessing," she said. The heat spread from her face to the rest of her body as she leaned down and kissed his cheek. Then she walked away without looking back. Jonas sat there alone for the rest of the lunch period, pretending to do homework, but smiling a little too often.