On Saturday, Class 7 and 8 students have their maths exam. Nearly all of Class 7 are my old students and 1/3 of Class students are. So I feel worried about them. How are they doing this year? And I go early to school. I know they will all have questions, and the thing is at the last minute, they can’t learn very much. It might just make them more confused. But it can also give them more confidence, to have that last question answered before they have to face the exam.
I am there, just walking around, and answering questions. C had a question. I answered that. Maybe ten other students had questions. I answered those. When it is just about time to go in, I run into C again. She is brushing a white powder off her National Dress and I see it is also on the sides of her face. She was playing.
So we are talking, I help her brush the powder off her National Dress and try to wipe it off her face for her, but it won’t come off. I would need to do the spit-clean face wash, and that is just over the line in my head.
I ask her something about maths. I tell her there two topics she doesn’t know. They are important. It won’t matter for her exam, because she has memorized the questions that might be on it. She knows how to do exactly that set of questions, but it’s going to be a problem in the future. And I ask her when she will learn them. I think she is startled by this, but it is just how I am: This is the problem. What is your plan to fix it? I won’t impose a plan—it’s not my problem—but I am not going to make vague hints about it either.
She says after the holidays and I say, “Can I help you?” Then she tells me she wants to go to boarding school after midterm. She can’t study here. There is always too much work at home.
Then it is time for her to go in to her exam hall. Someone shouts something at her in the National Language—I don’t know what. And it feels to me we are in the midst of something. She answers him, and I’m sort of waiting for the something to continue. I don’t really remember what we were saying, but there is the sense that it was her turn.
Anyway, she just stands there in the doorway for a second, looking at me, and I am thinking about where we were and she is thinking something else. “May I go in?” Oh, yes, I need to give her permission to leave a conversation with me. I forgot about that. She cannot go into a classroom that she is, in fact, expected to go into until I tell her she can, because we were talking. Not all of the students are that polite, but this is what is expected. This is appropriate behaviour. I don’t really like it. It gives me way too much power.
I go back into the staffroom and try to get some work done, but I am rattled. Not that she needs permission—I don’t like it, but I know that. I just forgot about it. I am rattled that I might not see her again after Tuesday. It’s tied up with all kinds of other, more serious losses that I can’t sort out, and maybe that’s the main thing, but I’ve also gotten used to her being a part of my world.
I do get some work done. I feel very restless, but I get some things done. In between, I go to some of the exam halls, and my old students have questions, and I answer them in the way I usually do during exams, which is mostly, “What do you think you should do?” And “Does that makes sense?” The help is mostly psychological. I am standing there. They feel they can do it.
After a few hours, I feel unbearably restless, and I go down by the exam halls again. The students are starting to finish, and I ask them how it was. One of C’s friends says, “Oh, Ma’am, horrible. I failed.” Something like that. So we look at her paper. C comes and we discuss them, but she makes some very unreasonable choices on the multiple choice section and I tell her that. I explain why it’s totally unreasonable. She’s crushed. I didn’t expect that. She seems like such a sturdy child—she tells the other captains what to do so fiercely—but she’s trying so hard to do well in school, and here it sounds like I am disappointed in her. And I can see it. I can see her face absolutely fall. She stands up—we’ve been sitting—and turns away from me. It seems to me she’s probably crying or trying not to cry, but her friend is there. Her friend is still talking to me. I need to keep talking to her friend. So I let C stand there, maybe crying, and I try to concentrate on talking with her friend, but I am horrified with myself. How did I forget she isn’t sturdy inside?
Then some other friend comes along and they walk away together. When I have wrapped things up with her friend, I head off in the direction that C went. She’s sitting alone in the grass by the road at the edge of the campus. I feel very much that she is waiting for me. She knows I know she’s upset, and she knows I will come and talk to her. Maybe. Or maybe she is just sitting there.
But I sit down beside her. I put my hand on her shoulder. I don’t really know what to do or say. I suppose I say something. She tells me her eyes are blurry. I don’t say, “Well, you’re trying not to cry. They’re going to be blurry.” I talk to her about her eyes. There is water on her cheek. Maybe it’s a tear or maybe she has gone to wash her face—the white powder is gone. I brush the droplet away.
After a minute, she seems to be okay, so we talk then, about other things. Eventually she asks if she can ask me something. She wants to know why I am not married. I tell her something close to the truth, that when I was very young I loved someone and that person died and then I didn’t want to marry someone else. I mean, there is this whole string of broken relationships between Nata’s death and the present, but such a big factor seems to have been I didn’t really want to be there. I didn’t want to be in a relationship and maybe because of that I chose badly.
C wants to know what class I was in and I tell her—it is the same class she is in, that must have struck her. We weren’t the same age, but C probably assumes we were, and I don’t tell her I was even younger than she is. It seems like that would be impossibly shocking. She wants to know if he loved me, and I don’t correct the pronoun. I just say he did.
I’m not prepared for how it feels to tell someone this. Someone real, sitting in front of me, someone who is Nata’s age when we first fell in love. I am shaking, it frightens me so much to talk about. I don’t know if she can tell or not. I am hugging myself, and she’s not really looking at me. She is looking down at the twig in her lap she is stripping away the bark from.
We sit there together for quite a lot longer—maybe fifteen minutes. It seems we sit together for at least half an hour altogether. I’ve never talked to her for so long before—I’ve never spoken to her for more than five minutes.
We talk about other things, and sometimes nothing. But she is the last student to leave. Absolutely everyone else has gone. When she sees the staff leaving, she finally says, “Ok, Ma’am. Let’s go.”
It’s a very odd experience, and I can’t process it. I can’t process it at all, because I can’t process telling someone in person that Nata is dead, even if I didn’t exactly say that. I can’t process that I told someone she was ever alive, or that she died, or that her death completely devastated me.
I go for tea at a friend’s house afterwards, but I don’t really say anything. My mind is almost completely elsewhere. When I come home again, I am in a state. I can’t seem to get out of the state, and I don’t sleep until way past my bedtime. I wake in the night and I am in a state still. I do sleep eventually, after maybe an hour and it is light out when I wake again in the morning.
There are about 100 pieces of this that I have to consider. It’s 30 minutes of my life, and it leaves me with so much to process I cannot even calm down enough to process more than the surface of the conversation. I find this almost unbelievable, and yet this is how life is for me very often.