Salih earns his soccer referee badge

"Salih's asleep," his wide-eyed younger sister declared on opening the door at 7:30 one recent Saturday morning.

I didn't want to hear this but before I could begin to get annoyed the sixth-grader from Kurdistan appeared at the door. "It's OK, Mr. Drew, I got up early to revise. I was so excited I had to lie down for a bit," said Salih. "Let's go."

[Today's blog is by Drew Whitelegg, an ICS fourth-grade teacher.]

"Salih's asleep," his wide-eyed younger sister declared on opening the door at 7:30 one recent Saturday morning.

I didn't want to hear this but before I could begin to get annoyed the sixth-grader from Kurdistan appeared at the door. "It's OK, Mr. Drew, I got up early to revise. I was so excited I had to lie down for a bit," said Salih. "Let's go."

I was giving Salih a ride to the second day of his United States Soccer Federation entry level referee course. He - along with three other ICS students - had attended the previous evening's arduous session from 7 to 10. (One other student took the course at another location a week later) Now they were preparing for another six hours of instruction, followed by a 50-question test. If they passed, they could referee recreational youth soccer games in Georgia, earning roughly $18 a game in the process.

Ironically, I'd first met Salih a few years back when I was refereeing him. His altercation with an opponent led to a stern warning: Much more of his misbehavior and I'd give him a red card.

When I began teaching at ICS in August and found his sister in my fourth-grade class, I was inevitably drawn to talking to him as he waited for the bus transfer to the Stone Mountain campus. However, stories began to filter back from there that Salih was not doing too well - the same mouth that got him into trouble on the soccer field was getting him into trouble in the classroom. I decided that Salih needed some help and thought refereeing could give him something of which to be proud. Hence the early morning ride.

Salih was nervous. "Mr. Drew, what if I fail?" I told him he wouldn't fail and then grilled him on the offside law. He told me he wanted to pass partly so he wouldn't have to rely on his dad so much. His father's car workshop is, like so many businesses, hitting hard times.

When I went to collect him up at 3:30, I had to wait while he and the other students finished their test. As I paced around the corridors, I realized that I was as nervous as Salih had been: I so desperately wanted these students to pass. Being a soccer referee could help teach them so much about leadership, responsibility, punctuality, self-discipline ... and they'd get paid as well. They could also call themselves members of a profession at the age of 12 - the same profession and organization as the referees in charge of the World Cup.

When the exam door opened, one of the assessors came over to me. "You should be proud of your students," he said. "They conducted themselves really well."

And then the great news: All four - Salih, Christopher, Ephrem, and Manace - had passed (as would Dante a week later).

Driving home I noticed that Salih kept taking his new blue referee badge out and fingering it, turning it over in his hand like a precious stone.

"Mr. Drew, I did it," he suddenly exclaimed grinning from ear to ear.

"Yes, you did," I said. "Yes, you did."

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