CHERISHED MEMENTOS

It is not my job as professor to make my students smile.  But with Hana, I couldn’t resist the challenge. And so I gave her an old phone card.

Hana would keep to herself in the back. She befriended few in class. She also was very serious.  

Serious in class debate. Serious in one-on-one chats. Serious even in the lighter moments of the class. Rarely did a smile alight her face. It was as if she had a mission, or carried a secret, like a royal in waiting. But if she was aloof in her carriage, she was passionate in debate, her pronounced Middle East accent no hindrance at all.   

As the semester drew to a close I began packing for a study tour of Israel. Out of a box filled with travel aids from previous trips there fell a long-expired phone card. It was the kind you used to insert in telephone booths. Why was I still holding on to it, after nineteen years? When I asked Hana about her last name, the mystery was revealed. 

Like stamps, Israeli phone cards bore commemorative images. This one marked the Camp David Accords of 1978, and showed a picture of our former President Jimmy Carter, the late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and the assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.   

The last day of class, I taped the long expired phone card to the back of Hana’s term paper that I now returned to her. From the front of the room I watched her read my comments, flip the page, and stare at the card. Then, slowly, from the back she walked over to me.

Hana was in that moment before crying, but did not betray her stoic bearing with a single tear. She thanked me earnestly, and asked me for details about the card – what it was, how I had obtained it, that kind of thing.

As I explained the origins of my ancient Israeli phone card, in these final moments of the last day of class, Hana actually smiled. A soft and sad smile, but a smile nevertheless, as Hana Elsadat, my young student from Egypt, looked again on the phone card bearing the image of her murdered grandfather: Anwar el-Sadat, assassinated in 1981 for making peace with the Jewish State. The grandfather whom she never knew.  

I believe that the expiration date that counts is the one that we attribute to the objects that they’re stamped on. And that some of them never really do expire. 

Bill Miles is the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University, where he teaches in the political science department. Professor Miles came upon his not-so-expired phone card thanks to the Schusterman Center Summer Institute of Israel Studies at Brandeis University, with whom he was preparing to travel to Israel with other colleagues from around North American and the world.