When I am old, I will confuse my stories with the stories my mother told me. When my youngest grandchild asks me to tell her about my first day of school, I will tell her about how I walked hand-in-hand with my mother, from the main gate of the school, to the kindergarten building with the hot, tiled roof. I will say something about falling and scraping my knees on the pebbled path, and then I will remember that that didn’t happen to me. I will tell her my class teacher’s name was Ma’am B, and that when I was in the fifth grade, I heard that she lost her son. I remember that she had two children.
The first school I attended was not the first school I was put in. My father wanted us in school at the age of two, because that’s when everyone was putting their children in school. My mother thought that everyone had lost their minds, so she dropped us off at my grandparents’ house each morning, before she went to work. When I was three, still not entirely convinced, she tried enrolling me in nursery. I agreed to go because my best friend at the time was already there. But she had moved to the next grade, and I hated that we weren’t allowed to sit in the same class. I spent my mornings looking at a yellow slide in the middle of the building that fell from the first floor to the empty space outside our classroom. No one ever used it.
There was a window at the back of our classroom which opened into a large garden. When the teacher was late to school, my mother and I stood on either side of the window, having long conversations. I had never seen a path leading into this garden, and was in awe of her for having found one. I don’t know what we talked about, but I remember feeling like I could stay in school if she stood at the window and talked to me.
One day, a boy was made to stand near the umbrella and water-bottle hooks on the wall, and I cried. But it wasn’t the teacher I was afraid of. I was afraid of the boy – afraid that there were boys who stood against walls when they were told to. I would not do that, I thought. Why did he do that, I wondered. When I came to this place, I called my teacher ‘teacher’, but Roshni told me that you called them ‘Ma’am’ here. That had already changed. Would I also learn to stand by the hooks on the wall?
I stayed in my next school for ten years, and was happy for most of my time there. On the first day, after pleading with my mother to not leave me there, I settled into a yellow plastic chair at a long orange table, and taught a few boys how to make paper boats. When it was time to go home, I left reluctantly, calling over my shoulder that I would teach them how to make paper planes the next day. We learned how to sing the national anthem from Ma’am B, who told us that it was very important that we didn’t move at all when we sang it, even if a fly were to sit on our noses. I looked around for a fly, but there were none.
On alternate Saturdays of the month, we were taken to the kiddie pool in the senior school garden, where we were allowed to splash around for an hour or so. Before and after our swim, we stood under a cold shower at the pool’s edge. Our time in the pool always felt too short, but the teachers would remind us that we’d come back the next week. When we were moving from prep to the first grade, Ma’am S sat us down for a talk. “You are going to be big students now, and you must behave like big students. You must make me proud,” she said. We only wanted to know whether we’d still be taken to the pool.
I learned to weigh rules against how they were treated by different parents. My own mother was a stickler for rules – at least initially – very stern about being on time, wearing socks the right way, signing all the notes my teachers wrote in my diary. Then a girl named Erica didn’t come to school on the day our class picture was being taken. A few days later, her father arrived with a big camera, politely asking if we would all stand for another one. I remember smiling smugly, thinking, “This is what happens when you don’t follow the rules.” But Ma’am B happily obliged, and I scowled as the flash went off, confused.
In my first ever student ID picture, I am crying. My hair, which used to be poker straight, is standing in a fountain – we used to call them coconut trees – above my head, and there are large tears like small puddles on my cheeks. The photographer looked distractedly from one person to the next, and my four-year-old self was convinced that he was an impersonator. Photographers were focused and didn’t talk to five different people at the same time.
I had to use the same ID for the next two years, and was never ashamed of my crying picture. I quickly grew older than the girl in the photograph, and showed it to my friends proudly, saying, “Look at how scared I was! I was so small!”
In prep, there was a boy named Craig who sat in front of me. He was a nice boy, and we got along well, but one day as he sat down in his chair his pants ripped loudly, and I roared with laughter. My mother was very firm about never making fun of somebody who might appear different than us, but she had never told me not to laugh if somebody’s pants tore. Craig sat down fully after that, and pretended for a minute that nothing had happened. Then he told the teacher, and joined in the laughing good-humouredly. I stared at him, because I didn’t know that people could react to embarrassment in that way.
We learned Bharatnatyam and a tailor came to school to make our costumes for the final performance. Mine was pink with a red border. On the day of the performance, I stood in my grandmother’s chilli garden as my mother put lipstick onto my lips and cheeks. If a burglar wanted to rob my grandmother, the hedges between the garden and the canal would not stop him. He would have a friend with him, and they would swim across the canal, vault over the hedges, slink into the dining room through the kitchen entrance, and steal my grandmother’s stationery, which she kept in the drawer of an ivory chest. The stapler would go first.
The other girls wore cardboard belts at their waists, but my father’s sister gave me the belt she used to wear when she was a dancer. It looked nicer than the rest, but on the day of the performance it hurt my stomach so much that I was doubled over with pain. I remember pulling things off of me. The flowers in my hair, the bangles, and finally, the belt. But the lipstick was the heaviest, as it always is, for some reason.
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