Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 1

In the Hills Above Kabul

Sadeed knew he wasn't supposed to be listening to the men talking in the next room. He also knew he wasn't supposed to be peeking through the crack near the bottom of the old wooden door. But they had to be talking about him in there -- why else would his teacher have invited him to the home of the headman of the village?

His teacher, Mahmood Jafari, had not told him much. "Please come to Akbar Khan's house this afternoon at four. He and his councillors meet today, and I have to speak with them. And I may need you to be there."

Sadeed thought perhaps his teacher was going to recommend him for a special honor. That wasn't hard to imagine, not at all. Perhaps the village elders would award him a scholarship to one of the finest new schools in Kabul. He would wear blue trousers and a clean white shirt to classes every day, and he would have his own computer, and he would take his place as one of the future leaders of Afghanistan. His father and mother would be very proud of him. It would be a great opportunity. And Sadeed was certain he richly deserved it.

Through the crack in the door, Sadeed could see all seven men, sitting on cushions around a low table, sipping tea. An electric bulb hung overhead, and two wires ran across the ceiling to the gasoline generator outside. Mahmood was talking to Akbar Khan, but the teacher's back was toward the door, and Sadeed couldn't hear what he was saying.

When the teacher finished, someone Sadeed knew -- Hassan Jaji -- began to speak. Hassan stopped by his father's shop in the village bazaar at least once a week, and he sometimes stayed awhile, telling stories about his time as a freedom fighter during the war with the Soviet Union. One day he had shown Sadeed where a Russian grenade had blown two fingers off his right hand. And as the man spoke now, that was the hand he used to stroke his chin.

"I am only a simple man," Hassan said, "and I would never try to stop progress. But our traditions protect us. And they protect our children. And I believe that the schoolteacher has asked us to allow something that would not be proper."

The eyes of the men turned back to Mahmood. The teacher looked around the circle and cleared his throat, speaking more forcefully now so that Sadeed could hear every word he said. "What Hassan says about our traditions is certainly true."

He paused, and Sadeed saw him hold up a bright green envelope with three stamps on it, each one a small picture of an American flag. The front of the envelope was decorated with two pink butterfly stickers.

The teacher said, "But it is also a tradition that we are a courteous people. And therefore one student from our village school must answer this letter from the girl in America. And I believe it would be most courteous if our very best student writes back, the one student who is most skillful with the English language. And that one student is Sadeed Bayat."

A pang of disappointment cut through Sadeed. His name had just been spoken in the ears of the most important men in this part of Panjshir Province, and why? To be recommended for a great honor? No. To write a letter. To a girl.

Hassan stroked his chin again. He shook his head. "That letter is from an American girl. And should a boy and a girl be sharing their thoughts this way? No. Let one of the girls write back. A girl would be more proper."

And outside the door, Sadeed nodded and whispered, "Exactly!"

The teacher spoke up again. "To be sure, what Hassan says would be best. But the letter that goes back to America will represent our village, even our nation. And should we accept less than the very best writing, the best spelling and grammar? I know Sadeed Bayat -- you may know him too, the son of Zakir the wheat merchant. He is a good boy. And his excellent writing will represent us well. His words will speak well of all the children of Afghanistan. And I feel sure that no harm will come of this. I feel sure that -- "

Akbar Khan held up a hand, and Mahmood went silent.

The headman said, "Have you told Sadeed about this letter yet?"

"No," said the teacher. "I came to ask for advice."

Akbar nodded. "You did well to wait." The headman looked around the circle. "I agree that the finest student from our village must reply. And I agree that it would be best if a girl from our school is the writer." Akbar turned to the teacher. "Sadeed has a sister, doesn't he?"

"Yes," Mahmood said. "Amira, about two years younger."

The headman smiled. "Just so. Amira will write back to the girl in America. And the finest student from our village will watch over her and help her, doing what is needed to be sure that the writing is excellent. But only the girl will sign the letter. And therefore, all will be proper. And, of course, our teacher promises that nothing shameful will come of this." Looking Mahmood full in the face, he said, "Do you promise this?"

Mahmood nodded. "I do."

"Then it is decided," said Akbar Khan. "And now we will have more tea."

Fifteen minutes later, when his teacher came out into the entry hall, Sadeed was sitting on the long wooden bench with two men who had arrived to speak before the village elders. He stood up and followed his teacher down the hallway, out the door, across the walled courtyard, and then through the iron gate that opened onto the main road.

As they stood beside the road, Mahmood smiled and said, "Thank you for coming, Sadeed. It turns out that I needn't have bothered you. I know you need to hurry to your job now, but I must speak with you before school tomorrow morning. I need your help with an important job."

Sadeed nodded, taking care to put a puzzled look on his face.

"So," Mahmood said. "Good evening."

And with a small, formal bow, the teacher turned right and walked toward the school, headed home. Not only did he work at the school, but he lived in a room built against the rear wall of the building.

Sadeed turned in the other direction, headed back toward the bazaar. He worked for his father every day after school, and the shop would be open for at least another hour.

As he walked along the road, following a large man riding on a small donkey, he thought about all he had heard. No great honors were heading his way. However, Akbar Khan himself had called him "the finest student from our village." So that was good.

And Sadeed also thought about tomorrow, about how he would have to pretend to be surprised when his teacher told him he must help Amira -- just like he had pretended to be puzzled a few moments ago.

But the only thing that actually puzzled Sadeed was how his teacher could call writing a letter to a girl in America "an important job."

Because that made no sense at all. © 2009 by Andrew Clements

Excerpted from Extra Credit by Andrew Clements
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