I think I’ve got a huge backlog of stuff going on in my head to process. It seems like everything is kind of half-processed, but not fully worked through.
I saw C yesterday. On special days, the boarders come down the hill in their school uniforms to the Holy Site and do rounds and pray and get blessed if a blessing is in the offing. I was thinking on Sunday, after our school program was finished, of going up to the school. Then Maths Ma’am said probably the boarders will come down. Oh, yes, that is true. I was kind of agonizing about it, and that relieved the agonizing.
Yesterday turned out to be more overwhelming than expected (a videocamera was involved—I went to the toilet and cried for a bit). I was thinking of just staying home. How much does she really need to see me? I’m tired. I’m not sure I’m coping that well. I was just sitting in a chair, staring, having decided it was okay not to go. Suddenly, something happened. I suppose I noticed something. Something being broadcast from the Holy Site or the quantity of the foot traffic walking down there. Something. Abruptly, I had the thought in my head: Go. Now.
I took a bath quickly (dirty hair), got dressed, and went down. C was with her friends gathered around a bench near the entrance. She was standing behind the bench when she saw me. She saw me right away. I think she must have been waiting for me, sort of secretly. And that was part of the thought about going. IT Ma’am has told me this before on special days, “She’s looking for you.” Yes, she is.
She smiled a little, but the look in her eyes was fear or maybe uncertainty. I am not sure. It was the same look she had at the hostel, when she had gotten close to me. Then, it made her drop her eyes down to my chest. I don’t know why she is so afraid exactly, but she is afraid of something when she sees me. It isn’t the shyness another child might feel meeting a favourite teacher. It looks different. Her look is truly fearful. It is probably, “Do you want me?” But I am not sure. I think it is actually a positive sign that she shows it. I think she felt it before, but she shut down so completely her face went blank.
She looked beautiful in her school uniform. It is almost another whole post just described how that felt to me, this clear and definite proof that she has reached the next level. She is in class 9 now. She is wearing different National Dress. It is pink and navy blue, instead of green and red, and it feels like a miracle to see her in it.
I think there is a lot to that moment for me, and it is going to take some time to work through it.
Anyway, I went directly towards her. She was standing, and when she saw me coming, she went to sit down. She looked at me uncertainly, and then sat down with her friends. I suppose she was wondering if I would come or not, or if I would walk by without saying anything beyond hello. I came and she slid off the bench immediately. Her cousin was sitting on the other side of the bench, and she scooted off too, so I was me sitting on the bench, with these girls clustered on the ground below me and I had this uncomfortable sense of being expected to tell a story.
Well, they are supposed to do that. A student cannot just sit with a teacher as though they are equals. This is part of showing respect. C is showing she respects me to me, but she is also showing that to everyone else. In other settings, she will sit with me, but not when the whole world has gathered and is looking and judging and discussing.
I tried to get her come back and sit with me: I don’t find it all that comfortable, even though I understand their intentions. I suppose when I do that, I am also showing my love for her. She insists on showing respect. I argue she can be close to me. Overall, there is an interchange of warmth and affection. I suppose.
I pulled on the sleeve of her National Dress when I did that. It seems to me now it felt unbelievable to touch it: the new fabric, still stiff with starch, still very thick. Completely unlike the sleeve of her old uniform, which was probably two years old and worn thin with weekly scrubbing. She’s really here. She really has a new uniform. I am not imagining this. I bought that uniform for her last Wednesday. I bought it at TD’s shop two streets up from me. I am not imagining any of this, or making any of it up. I cannot name why that is so emotional for me, but it is. After a while, I think I will know why. I will get it sorted, instead of just crying as I think about it. But for right now, it’s just emotional. It’s overwhelming.
I asked C a few questions. How is the hostel? What elective did she choose? What section is she in? She said the hostel is okay. I think she lied about her elective, but I don’t really know. It seemed like she had her lying voice on. I am not sure why. Maybe she thinks I might disapprove. Anyway, that used to really trigger me. Now, I am okay with it. I understand, for one reason or another, she might have gotten very scared. Either she thought I wouldn’t like the elective or her friends would criticize it, and a lie just came tumbling out. Later, when she is not scared, she will tell me the truth. Whatever the truth really is. I don’t need to get upset over it. So that is one very good thing. I just looked at her and said, “I’m confused.” “I changed.” Okay, fine. “Confused” is a good de-escalating word. I wish I had remembered to use it when we had the conversation about whether she needed to buy a new uniform. Because I think she knows I am getting distressed. My distress will make her distressed and, if she is lying, it’s because she already feels distressed. “Confused” gives my distress a name. No, I am not angry at what you are saying. I am confused. Words are really helpful, and I should probably make better use of them.
They were talking about getting lunch. I caught the word for money, and it seemed they must be talking about food. I was quiet now, just listening to them. They had stopped looking at me expectantly and had moved on. I think I often have a way of talking to C that feels very private. I am not including anyone else in the discussion, and their opinions and experiences are not called for. I think it has to do with the intensity of my gaze on her. It is the way a kindergarten teacher looks talking to a small child, like no one else exists in that moment. If I am talking to her friends, then I am talking to the group. If I am talking to her, I am talking to her. Or maybe it’s the intensity of her gaze back on me. Anyway, I had been talking to her and they were excluded from that. They began their own discussion. They were discussing lunch and money and then someone on my left side—it might have been C—said, “Amma shekpala.” Which means mother is here. More discussion. Her cousin said, “Amma shekpala.” More discussion. “Amma shekpala.” They talked about other things after that—somebody’s kira, somebody’s dad. They were looking at the crowd walking by and making fun.
It didn’t register until I got home later they were talking about me. It didn’t register that a shift had occurred in C’s language, and she is not talking about me as “madam” anymore, at least not among these particular friends. In the past, I would certainly have heard, “Madam shekpala,” or at the very least “Roka shekpala,” (which is just she is here). It didn’t register either that she didn’t address me as ma’am at all. I am sure I will have some thoughts and feelings about this, and these will need to be worked through. Just now, it’s not really happening though. I only know that something important has happened.
I wanted to give her money. She has money. Someone sent her to Y-town with 1000. When I left her after the shopping, I gave her 300. She still needed to buy her notebooks which would cost at least 200, and she had school fees, which are 400. She might have 5 to 700 left. The girls wanted to buy momos, which are 50 a plate and C can easily eat 2 plates of them. She has enough for momos, for sure, but I feel better if I think she doesn’t have to ask, because maybe she won’t ask. Maybe she will feel too shy to ask me. I mean, maybe later she will run out of shampoo and just borrow from her friends until the next time I give her money. It’s not really that rational, but I feel that way. I feel better if she has money.
Nonetheless, I am not that comfortable giving her money in front of her friends. I am not sure why. I guess I don’t want them to think, because of me, she is rich and they can start expecting her to give them things or treat them to lunch all the time. I want it to be something she can decide for herself about, because she is not the kind of person who wants to flaunt wealth to other people. She doesn’t demand things from her parents the way her sister does. She isn’t a flashy kind of person.
I told her to come with me, walking around the Holy Site. She didn’t seem to understand at first, or maybe she didn’t hear. She looked at me uncertainly. “Goodbye.”
“I said come.”
I looked at her.
There was more discussion. C said something like let’s do one round and go. So they all came together, C arm-in-arm with 3 of her friends. They walked just behind me. I am a teacher. They are not supposed to walk next to me, like we are friends. My students do sometimes: I went on Saturday, and my students from last year all came running in a group to walk with me and we discussed their classes this year, which teachers they have, and someone’s brother who is in Class 3. But they are younger, and less aware of eyes on them and what other people are thinking.
After a while, we ran into C’s old neighbours, her two best friends, so she ended up breaking away from the group of hostel friends and went with these two friends. We said a few things, her friends and I. Then they saw a woman they knew in the grass. I have no idea who she is. We were not introduced. I sat for a while as the woman and the three girls talked. Then I began to talk to C. There were things I wanted to tell her, and I had been waiting for the right moment. It seemed perhaps it had come.
“C, VP Ma’am was telling you I am doing a lot of things for you.”
She smiled a little. It must have made her happy to think about it.
“So now you need to prove you are worth.” (Country X has made many a transitive verb into an intransitive one. Don’t get upset about this. Just go with the flow here.)
She looked apprehensive.
“You don’t need to prove anything. You are worth.”
I didn’t think she had quite taken that in. She rejoined the conversation with her friends.
“C, look at me.” So she did. She looked directly at me. “You are worth. Just try your best and it will be enough.”
That seemed to make her feel a little bit lighter. I think I stroked her hair. “You are worth.” I might have said it again. I am not sure. I remember stroking her hair though. Maybe not at that point. At some point in this short little exchange, I did. I usually do, and I hadn’t. Her hostel friends were there. I didn’t want to treat her like a baby. It’s a weird balancing act. She needs these things, but she also needs to be treated like someone on her way towards adulthood. I think she loves being treated like a baby, but not in front of other people. She has her pride too.
One thing about Country X is that adults are not autonomous here. Teenagers are not aspiring to have their little separate bubbles like teenagers in the West do. They are not wanting Western adult rights to independence and autonomy, because they will never have them. They will always be deeply embedded in their families, and they will spend half their lives being told what decisions to make. They will be in their fifties before someone stops telling them when and how to make dinner, who to marry, what jobs to take or not take. But teenagers still want mastery. They still want others to appreciate they can do things themselves now. It’s an odd balance for me to grasp and keep.
When kids are little, we instinctively understand how proud they feel that they can button their own shirts or tie their shoes. We encourage their growing mastery over their worlds, but teenagers scare us. It’s a different kind of mastery, maybe, and one with greater consequences when they make mistakes. No one dies over a mistied shoelace, but car accidents can be fatal when a teenager makes a driving error.
Anyway, it’s something to think about. C has her pride, but she wants so much to be babied. She didn’t get to be held and cuddled enough when she was little—I feel sure of that. She needs it now, both physically and more symbolically. But not in a way that makes it seem she can’t take care of herself emotionally. The cuddling cannot be there for everyone to see.
I remember the first time I touched her in a really intimate way. It was back at the end of September, the first time I went to her house, but before I had met her mom. Her mom had gone to Timbuktu to help her dad set up the new house there, and C was taking care of her sisters alone. I stood in the doorway, about to leave, and I turned back and stroked the side of her face. As soon as I did that, I panicked. What am I doing? She’s a student. I think I hadn’t adopted her yet, but certainly it could be misinterpreted. I asked her about it later, something about whether it was okay to do that. I couldn’t really get a clear answer from her: I made the mistake of describing it in a negative statement, and it was impossible to figure out whether she was agreeing or disagreeing with what I had said. But I called her, and the tone of her voice, in retrospect, was very clear. She loved it. I have asked her how she feels when I hug her. She says, “soft.” “I mean, how does your heart feel?” “Soft.” She loves it. But she has her pride too.
We talked a little bit after that about my coming on Sundays to teach her. I explained that she can get passing marks without my help if she studies (I hope this is true), but that if she wants good marks, she will need my help. At the same time, I don’t want them to tease her that I am always there. If kids are teasing her, she is going to get really stressed and that will make everything worse, which is part of what happened last year. She felt better I was there, and also more stressed because kids were teasing her. It probably about balanced out to 40s (barely passing).
We agreed I would come on Sunday in the afternoon. I told her to tell me her feelings though, as time goes on. I said I won’t be hurt.
The thing is on Thursday when I went to the school to see the admission committee, some of the Class 9 boys were really rude to me, like greeting me in a very joking and rude way. And I thought right away, those boys will tease C. They will be merciless. And I felt I wasn’t sure what to do.
As I sat in the grass with her, I quietly got money out of my wallet and handed it to her. “No, I don’t want.” She jumped back a little. I looked at her and she took it. Then I left, making an excuse about meeting a friend—I did actually want to meet that friend, but as soon as I left, I decided not to look too hard for her. I hadn’t seen her. She was probably busy. She often is at these things. And I was tired.
That was Monday. Today is Tuesday and still a holiday. Wednesday we have school again.
It’s so many things.