They slept with their tournament medals and nailed them to their living-room walls so every guest could see them. It dawned on Luma: This meant more to them than she ever could've imagined. It dawned on Luma what that meant: She could demand from them even more.
The steel that her father manufactured hadn't all been trucked and sold across Jordan. One thick rod had gone into his eldest daughter. The former U.S. Marines who coached her youth teams in Jordan had tested it and found it formidable, then a blowtorch of a high school volleyball coach, an American named Rhonda Brown, had made it harder still. Even as a teenager Luma had begun channeling those coaches, ordering her eight-year-old sister and a half-dozen cousins out of the family Range Rover on a country road, demanding that they run to keep up with the SUV and reducing them to tears.
It shocked the Fugees, how the lady who wrapped an arm around them and listened to their woes, who understood just how it felt to start over in a faraway land, could stride onto the practice field and transform. If they tried to beg off running laps, claim their stomachs hurt, she'd bark, "Just fart!" If they tried to cut corners while doing sit-ups and push-ups, she'd explode. "If you're going to clown in practice, don't come! Go home! We don't want the quitters coming! Do you want to test me today? You'll run the hill for the rest of practice!"
Dead silent were the Fugees each time she summoned them to kneel around her on the field. Was Coach angry? They could never quite be sure; her unpredictability became her sword. Two Thursdays each month, she held a confessional. "Does anyone have something he'd like to tell us?" she'd ask. They knew she'd forged relationships with their parents, principals and teachers. They had to assume she knew everything, to fear the double whammy if they stonewalled, and so they coughed up new indiscretions left and right.
After all, they'd signed the Fugee contract: No smoking, drugs or alcohol—or no more Fugees. Miss a practice, miss a game. Miss two, goodbye! All progress reports and report cards went straight to Coach; C average minimum, or see ya! Five-absence limit per semester. Tutoring mandatory. No hair longer than Coach's. Curse and it's curtains.
I'll tell Coach. That's all their mothers need murmur to turn them to mush. They'd come to Luma from long, frustrating days at school, exhaust themselves in her grueling 1 1/2-hour workouts, then pull their books from their backpacks for another hour and a half of tutoring, sometimes by flashlight on benches beside the field. Let all those relief-agency workers roll their eyes and tell her she was nuts to take on teenage refugee boys. Let others ache for them and give them excuses to fail. Not Luma. She'd show the depth of her respect for them by plumbing the depths of their resilience and character. She'd cut them no slack for the tragedy on their résumés, because she knew the world would not.
But she leavened all that misery with mirth. She planted rubber spiders on their food and tittered when they screeched. She made her ears wiggle. She turned them into ghouls and vampires and ferried them to wealthy neighborhoods to trick-or-treat. She'd cheer them on as a Fugee from Liberia named Josiah led them in a hilarious butt-rollicking dance routine to It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Except for those 1 1/2 hours on the practice field, Luma loved nothing more than to cram into one room with the kids on road trips as they yanked down the blinds and cranked up the heat, burrowing in their warm, safe Fugee cocoon. They didn't talk about their pain or pasts in that cocoon. It was the place where a Fugee could forget that he looked and talked and felt different, because everyone around him did as well.
They had no cheering section—their overwhelmed single parents had no time for children's games—so here, in the cocoon, they became their own audience, replaying every moment of each game, celebrating and mocking each other's every move. Josiah did the wickedest Luma impersonation, flinging a ball cap to the floor in disgust and screaming, "Spread out, Fugees! You clump like bubble bees! You play like craps!" They'd roll across each other laughing, and she'd marvel at the wonder of the world, at how an unmarried woman could find a family 6,500 miles from home in the unlikeliest ethnic stew, how a Jordanian could become the gateway to America for a jumble of Asian, Eastern European and African kids.
Go back to Africa! Luma cringed when one team's parents shouted those words as the swiftly improving Fugees dismantled their sons. Some spectators mocked the Fugees' accents or snickered at names, such as Mohammadullah's. So painful grew the slurs in another game that a 12-year-old Liberian player asked Luma if he could play with her Walkman earphones to blot them out. "How does it feel to coach a team of n------?" an opposing player asked Luma.
Luma's unprintable reply broke her own team rule: Smile at the slurs and walk away. One Fugee smiled so hard that an opposing coach snapped, "What are you looking at, boy? Turn your head, n-----," and got the heave-ho from the ref.