Aninka Martek

(WOMENSENEWS)–The American Red Cross Southern California Region had goofed. They assigned a man to teach the state required Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation class to a group of Islamic primary school teachers when a woman had specifically been requested.

I was the emergency replacement. With the image of their former instructor in mind–Joe, a red faced, oversized New Yorker with a booming voice and a big heart, demonstrating mouth to mouth like a big-footed clown blows up balloons–I was sent speeding down the freeway with piles of faceless manikins pressed against my backseat windows. A passing driver did a double take and I smiled brightly.

Oddly enough, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent much time with only women. I just didn’t try. Women, after all, could be so hard on one another. I began to feel nervous wondering how they would judge me. I also knew, from my talk with the contact that these women were anxious about what was happening in their home countries and troubled by how they were perceived and treated by Americans in California.

I, a white, Catholic-American, took in the interior of the Los Angeles Islamic center with wide eyes, peeking past the bright mosaic-tiled mosque, to the first grade classroom with children’s colorings of Arabic letters. My 14 students, ranging from age 20 to 70, wore long gowns and headscarves. They came from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and one from Mexico.

“Ah-salaam malay-kum,” I shyly tried the standard Arabic greeting. I had researched. Immediately they beamed. They bustled around, shoving coffee in my hand and giving orders to each other on how to set up the chairs without any semblance of consensus.

“Too many teachers in one classroom is like too many cooks in a kitchen!” complained one.

Immediately, I felt what made women without men different: the intimacy. It was a swift sensation that made all of us teachers, sitting down in little-kid chairs with silly smiles, relax.

Roles Dissolve

I got us introducing ourselves and, as we did, our roles as mother, wife, daughter and woman dissolved. We didn’t share our last names, which so often told us who we were to somebody, rather than to ourselves. We were grateful for the reprieve and respected what it allowed us. Laughter, first.

“In my free time, I like to eat,” admitted Mona from Pakistan.

“I like to hide my son’s headphones!” confessed Fatima, also from Pakistan.

“You hide them?” Mushirah, from Afghanistan, was incredulous. “I tell him to put them on. I tell him, ‘Listen to your music as long as you want, I will be on the other side of the house!'”

Their vigorous energy flew at me like a current. They wanted to talk. And they didn’t mind that I, an outsider, was witness to their private jokes and fears. Two of the women had already saved lives. They shared how the children looked while they were choking and the horror they felt realizing that that was what was happening. They discussed the serious seizures that had taken place during class, shaking their heads at the parents who had not warned them and nodding admiringly at how the teachers handled the incidents.

I soon became hopelessly behind schedule, but even I barely noticed: we were enraptured by the experience of the other.

Ameena, from Iran, laughingly told how her husband typically runs in fear during emergencies.

“Yours too?” Fatima exclaimed.

“Nose bleed. That’s all it takes,” Ameena hooted.

“You see it’s important to recognize how capable we are,” I said. “No one knows how each of us will act when we find someone unconscious or in cardiac arrest, but if we have the right tools, then we might not feel so helpless.”

Tentative at First

These women had never learned something like CPR and they struggled with the numbers and the physical motions of giving chest compressions and breathing into the manikins. They were tentative at first, embarrassed, and then Rasha from Iran, who was nearing 70, and the tiniest, mastered it. We cheered. The 5-foot tall woman had a club foot, which by no means slowed her down as she began to hobble busily around, assuming the role of my second-hand drill sergeant.

In broken English, she commanded the youngest girl, “No! On children you push the chest five times and give the breath of life once. Yes! Again! No harder, one inch down. You have to be strong, keep going!”

“Look, mine has sat up! I’m done.” Asma, from Saudi Arabia, balanced her manikin, an oversized Ken-doll torso, upwards.

“Yes and then he took one look at you, and faint straight away,” Rasha shot back. “Keep going!”

“Don’t expect a victim to sit up while you’re doing CPR–that’s Baywatch,” I interjected.

“Oh Baywatch!” Mushirah lifted her face from her rescue breaths to shake her head disgustedly.

“We’re not trying to start the heart, our goal is just to keep the brain alive.” I clapped the pace of the compressions and the resting teammates joined in, like beating a mantra. It was a mantra, a life mantra. I give life; I preserve life.

We were getting louder and louder as the women worked, so loud that a man poked his head in, and quickly ducked back out. Our timidity had evaporated; my fear of them, their fear of the task, poured into our labor as precious energy. As I pushed them on, counting, I found myself saying, “You’re doing great; it’s okay that you’re getting tired. Expect it! CPR is hard work, but you can do it. You are doing it.”

I felt good. I’d feared these women–most of all because they were women–and they’d reminded me what women can do.

I saw Mona working over her manikin, passionately giving breaths and compressions. I put my hand over her feverishly pumping palm. “Just a little bit less force okay? Remember you’re working on a 4 year old.”

“Huh?” She seemed to wake from her trance-like rhythm. She smiled sheepishly.

The entire room radiated.

At break time, Mushirah and Rasha snuck me into the back of the school auditorium, where on a makeshift stage, second graders, dressed in white gowns and sneakers, were boisterously singing a love song in Arabic. In front of them, their music teacher gestured frantically, while mothers, with their headscarves bouncing lightly as they moved, snapped pictures.

Wives, daughters, sisters . . . We wear our roles like we hold things in our hearts–with so much hope and not without some fear. Together we are learning: I give life, I preserve life.

Aninka Martek worked for the American Red Cross in California before moving to New York City as a free-lance writer.