Monday, May 15, 2006

Picture of God

“Do you want to see a picture of God?” That’s what a girl asked me in my first-grade classroom at O’Toole Elementary School in Chicago’s South Side, many years ago, of course.

We were standing in the aisle separating our old desks that were bolted tight into the floor and had deep rivers scratched on their surfaces. It was a typical public school classroom: An American flag in the front, green cards of cursive writing tacked above the blackboard, a door with semi-translucent glass about half way down, and a portrait of the president.

“A Picture of God?” I thought. “Allah?”

I was six years old at the time. My parents had arrived only seven years ago from a one-road village near Jerusalem. They often spoke to me about Al-Aqsa Mosque and the general spiritual temperament of the Old City. So I did wonder what He looked like.

“Well?” she grew impatient, apparently ready to offer the fantastic deal to someone else, a soul more deserving for no reason other than a faster response. “Do you want to see God or not?”

“Okay,” I said right away, shrugging my shoulders. But the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I mean . . . wait a minute . . . a picture of God! Who wouldn’t want to see?

"Good," she said. "Ready?"

I nodded my head. The performance began. She slowly took hold of a small locket attached to her necklace. She opened the locket with the pace of good drama. That's where the picture was the whole time, unbeknownst to the world. This kid had around her neck a picture of the source of all, the Holy of Holy, the Glorious, depicted on oblique Kodak paper miraculously small enough to fit into a locket and light enough to be worn around a mortal's neck, a tiny, pink, frail-looking girl to boot. She smiled like crazy, wild eyes, and who can blame her. She brought the locket closer to my face. A born sucker for drama, my heart now pounding. I was already thinking how I'll answer my parents when they ask me, "How's school today?" "It was ok, we learned some stuff about math and then I saw a picture of Allah and then learned a couple cursive letters. That's about it. I’m hungry. Can we eat?"

The locket appeared before my eyes. Lo! there “He” was, right there in black and white, with faint purple hue and a halo effect.

I stared at it for a while before I said anything. I soaked in the whole thing and then said: “A man? This is some man! Where's God?”

My reaction confused her, then disappointed her, then angered her, one right after the other. I saw the transition. Faces do not lie! But I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, I was promised something and didn't get it, even after all the dramatics.

“That’s God, I told you!” she repeated. She insisted that an artist’s image of Jesus, an image I had never seen before, was God Himself, pictured right there, kept in her little locket.

“But that’s not God. That’s some man,” I said more than once. “Where’s your picture of God? You promised!”

She closed the locket, turned away, and slid into the seat of her desk and looked straight forward. She never said a word to me again. I swear, never. Not the whole year. Had I ever choked on something in the days and weeks that followed and was about to die, she wouldn't have looked toward me or alerted the teacher and possibly would have faked a string of coughs to cover the sounds of my asphyxiation.

So I stood there by my desk for a few seconds, not entirely sure what made her so angry. But this 6-year-old Muslim boy did learn something and he learned it then: Not everyone in the world believes in the same thing—not in my school, not even in one classroom. Before that day, I simply didn’t know that, and I wasn’t prepared to know either. For some reason, that memory ambushed me today as I was driving. I'm not sure what I was thinking of, but stay home, Sherlock. The tension in our world is so pathetic and thick, it's as if differences were invented yesterday, which is nonsense. They were invented in my first-grade classroom.

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