Sweetie’s Bad Day

It was a sweaty evening in S.C. colony under the big tamarind tree. Twenty kids had crowded into the blue-tinted meeting hall that housed Papathy Tuition Centre.

Village India Papathy center

Our daughter Andry was volunteering for the summer in this afterschool study program. She was sitting on a straw mat with a handful of 2nd and 3rd graders, teaching them how to type ‘j k j k f d f d f d’ on a laptop.

Village India Andry teacher 2

“Teacher!” Andry frowned at the loud 7th grade girl who kept interrupting her. “Sweetie’s cheating. She’s copying us.”

Sweetie was a new 5th grader who had just enrolled in the village school. Backiam grabbed Sweetie’s arm and dragged her towards Andry. Sweetie tried to pull away. Backiam’s friend Durga pushed from behind until the two girls had hauled Sweetie in front of Andry.

Village India Sweetie 2

“I wasn’t cheating. I just looked back at them because they keep talking about me.”

Sweetie was crying now, big soft tears rolling down her pale cheeks.

“Proof.” Backiam thrust her answer sheet in front of Andry, then Sweetie’s. “See here? She copied my sentence, word for word.”

Backiam and Durga looked at each other triumphantly.

Though Andry had only been at the school for a month, she had already gathered that the big girls were jealous of Sweetie. The younger girl was far better in English because she used to study in a private school.

“I hate them,” Sweetie said. “They’re the ones who copied from me.”

“Quit lying, dee.” Durga’s sharp features appeared even sharper. She turned to Andry. “See how she talks back to us?”

Village India Backiam and Durga

“That’s enough, girls.  There’s only one hour left. Get back to your study groups.”

The power went off and class continued under the white light of two rechargeable lanterns.  Already, Andry was feeling overwhelmed by having to develop the English curriculum from scratch, and for so many age groups too.  She was just getting the hang of classroom control, but wasn’t prepared to tackle the troubles of middle school girls.

Village India Big girls doing puzzles

After the children had gone, Andry discussed the problem with the head teacher, Leela. They agreed to approach the supervisor of the woman’s program that ran the study center. Rajakumari was used to handling the dramas of 50 women working under one roof. She would know what to do, especially since all three girls’ mothers worked at Blue Mango.

The following afternoon, Andry walked through the red brick archway of Blue Mango and found Rajakumari in the packing room, working on an export order.

“Do you have some time to speak with me, Akka?” Andry asked. “I’m having trouble with some of the girls in the study center.”

Rajakumari pushed up her reading glasses. “So Leela tells me. Give me a few minutes to finish counting these necklaces.”

Andry found out that Sweetie’s father had migrated to the mountains a year earlier, looking for work in the spice plantations. He would only visit the family every few months, bringing money to support Sweetie and her baby sister.  Recently, Sweetie’s mother had learned that he was living with another woman.  He had also stopped providing for them, prompting Sweetie’s mother to withdraw her daughter from the English medium school.

“That decision is so sad,” Andry said. “A good education is the only way Sweetie and her mom will ever get ahead.”

“I agree, but she just doesn’t have the funds.” Rajakumari turned to the soft-spoken woman who helps in the kitchen. “Is afternoon yoga finished?”

“Yes, Akka.”

“Do you mind bringing us some tea?”

Rajakumari continued. “Another thing you should know. Sweetie and her mother aren’t getting along very well these days. Sweetie had always been a good girl, but recently has been getting into trouble. Several days ago when school was only half day, Sweetie’s mother had come home to find their house empty. She had searched all over the neighborhood, but couldn’t find Sweetie anywhere. That night while cooking kolumbu and rice outside, the girl had finally showed up. She had been playing on the main road near the edge of the village. Her mother screamed at her for disobeying.”

Andry lifted her  stainless steel glass of tea by the rim and took a sip.

“Sweetie’s mother told me something else.  You see, if her husband were to find out she can’t control their daughter, he would be angry and ashamed.  What if the girl were to be kidnapped by men in a van?  Or hit by a speeding lorry? The village would talk badly about him.”

“So what if he’s ashamed? He’s not helping with the children anyway.”

“It’s not just that. Sweetie’s husband has been threatening to come and take both her daughters away. She couldn’t bear having her babies raised by that other woman. That’s one reason why she’s often irritable and short tempered with Sweetie.”

“So how can I get the big girls to stop being mean to her?”

“The older girls do have a point. Sweetie lifts her face too much, acting like she’s better than them. Perhaps it will just take her some more time.”

“How about if I give the older girls more attention? Then, maybe they’ll lay off a bit?”

Rajakumari smiled and nodded. “We’re so happy you’re here, Andry. Keep it up.”

Over the next few weeks, Andry spent more time with Durga and Backiam, giving them tougher assignments and special games like Pictionary and Scrabble.

Village India pictioinary

She made flash cards, invented games to teach the verb ‘to be’, helped them with jigsaw puzzles, and had the kids make posters with glitter and colored markers.

Village India monkeys and andry

Good behavior was rewarded liberally with stickers. Sure enough, the big girls began to leave Sweetie alone, and Sweetie made new friends with girls her own age.

Village India sweetie

When it was time to say goodbye at the end of summer, the kids all expressed their grief at seeing Andry go.

“We’re really going to miss you,” Backiam and Durga said. “We’ve learned so much.”

“Thank you. I’ve learned so much too. More than you can imagine.”

Village India  teacher with kids

(Note: Some names were changed to protect privacy)

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Bob Granner

    A beautiful experience. So good for the girls and so good for Andry, too. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Carrie

    That sounds tough! It takes a person of great courage and compassion to even think of teaching middle school, in my opinion!!

  • Marlo Henneman

    Thanks again. Beautiful story & photos. The girls are so beautiful in their bright clothing! There’s one thing for sure. As a mother, grandmother & great-grandmother of girls there is no difference between middle school girls in Minnesota & in India.

  • Uncle John

    There is perhaps no one more valuable than a good teacher. Andry becomes one.

  • Mark Garrison

    Three cheers for Andry.
    May Durga, Bakiam, and Sweetie, (by their true names) continue in their success in learning together.

  • Jenna

    I somehow missed this story until now. Kudos to Andry – I taught middle school for a few years in Los Angeles at a school in a poor inner city area, at which some of my students were barely literate. It was tough, and exhausting! Far more difficult than the college level education I teach now. I have all the respect in the world for Andry, and wish her continued success! Enjoyed reading about the girls, too, and hope they thrive.