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.
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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
(Note: Some names were changed to protect privacy)