Monday, May 29, 2017

The Sprint

I saw Khushboo sprinting around the school field. Round and round, full speed. 

We had just finished the English class and it was time to go home. All the other kids ran into the classrooms to pick up their bags, but Khushboo ran in the opposite direction. I followed her with my eyes, surprised, and she stared back at me, never taking her eyes off me for even a second.

Khushboo is a 10-year old girl from our village. I have known her longer than others because her father, Tirloki, did some odd jobs for us when we moved into our house. Tirloki was famous in the village for two things- being able to speak fluent English and being able to be drunk out of his wits at 9 in the morning.

When I first moved here, he would find every opportunity to speak to me in English, much to my delight. Slowly, I realized that he was not a dependable worker. After earning some money, he would vanish for days, lying here and there in an alcoholic daze. I rarely saw him last year, and when I did, I noticed his dirty clothes and shrinking frame.

In November, we were invited to our gardener's house for his son's wedding lunch. That's where we met Tirloki after a long absence. He was limping and looked very gray. He died that same evening of an injury that he never bothered to get treated, because being admitted in the hospital would mean no alcohol for that day or longer.

The following week, I went to his house to pay my condolences to the family. Khushboo hung around in the shadows. I met her mother, a tired frail woman. She had been the breadwinner for the family for the last few years because her husband couldn't hold down a job and would drink away every penny he earned. About the day he died, she shared how he put his head on her lap and asked for his drink minutes before dying. I was so surprised to hear tenderness in her voice for a man who would have put her through hell for sure. Love is a strange beast and can weather so many storms.

Khushboo is the younger of their two children. She is one of those kids who are labeled "slow" or "zero" by the school staff. Having taught her for over a year, I had noticed that she was quite quick to learn but easily distracted. I just could not get her to stay focused on what was going on in the class for more than 5 minutes. She would soon be pulling someone's pigtails or pinching someone. When it came to group activities, such as making charts or acting in a play, she was shunned by her classmates. No one wanted her in their team. When I asked a few kids why they treated her so badly, I was first told that it was because she hits everyone. Then, the truth came out.

Khushboo stinks. The irony- Khushboo means fragrance in Hindi.

I had thought it was only I who had noticed her body odor, and that these young kids would not be bothered by it. Apparently not. Her body odor was a main reason she was ostracized, and this exacerbated her anti-social behavior. Based on this piece of information and inference, I even designed a lesson on hygiene, bringing buckets, mugs, soaps etc. for a vocabulary session, encouraging everyone to talk about how often they bathed and washed their clothes. Khushboo did not participate. She often chose to sit quietly in a corner and that's what she did that day.

Last month, I decided to teach the kids a poem I had written to show correct usage of prepositions. It has five paragraphs of four lines each. I have patiently taught the poem to the kids for over five sessions, helping them pronounce words and phrases individually and in groups because even simple sentences are like tongue twisters for many. Yesterday, there was a breakthrough. The kids managed to recite the entire poem in one go, in rhythm and harmony. One voice was leading and confidently reciting the start of each paragraph for everyone to catch on. And that voice was Khushboo's!

Immensely relieved that they had finally learned the poem, and grateful to Khushboo for being their invisible leader, I called her out and shook her hand. I must have said some words of praise too, as is my habit, but I forget now. As the school teacher yelled for the kids to come and collect their bags, I remember turning to Khushboo and saying "Khushboo darling, you were great today".

The look in her eyes was too fleeting for me to understand. But then she ran. In the opposite direction to the other kids. Full speed. Eyes on me. A smile plastered on her face. All around the school ground. Turning back towards me, not the classroom, still running. Then, stopping and quickly hugging me, while I was still sitting on the ground, transfixed by her antics.

The first hug from her in 14 months!

I am no expert in child psychology, but since when has that stopped anyone from trying to interpret human behavior? I think Khushboo's sprint was her expression of a feeling she hadn't experienced before, or at least not in my class. She ran because the child could not contain these feelings and had to do something about them. She also ran because by the time she came back to me, all the other kids had left my side and she could hug me without feeling self conscious.

Her sprint reminded me of this part of the poem by Emily Dickinson:

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,        
And I tip—drunken.

1 comment:

  1. My God what a lovely piece . Overwhelming . brought tears to my eyes.