When I stood there in the classroom of Curson High Boarding School for the first time with 30 pairs of eyes staring at me and sizing me up, I could feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. My lips trembled as I responded to their mechanical “Good morning, Miss Kinjal” when Mr Pinto, the pompous principal, introduced me.
I was a novice, freshly graduated from teaching school and this was my maiden job. Would I make a good impression upon all those little imps who, I imagined, were raring to have a go at me? I hesitated about my approach – should I pose as a stern, no-nonsense teacher, a strict disciplinarian, or should I pose as the kind, gentle, understanding mentor, more a friend than a Guru? I decided to take on the latter stance.
The first few days as a class teacher of the fifth form were very tough. The children put me to the test; they played pranks on me, deliberately tried putting me off by asking the weirdest of questions and monkeyed about in general. Though rather shaken up I refused to buckle over. Instead I laughed with them, or at least pretended to, and at the same time, conscientiously steered them towards their lessons. By and by they began to form their opinion of me: ‘beneath all that milk of kindness, Ms Kinjal has a core of steel, she means business, no two ways about it’. One by one, they began to toe the line. All of them that is, except Tina.
Tina seemed to have determinedly encased herself in a cocoon of indifference. Her face wore a permanent scowl, her forehead furrowed, her eyebrows knitted together. As if the entire world had done her some wrong, she was at daggers drawn with one and all. Owing to her unsociable demeanour, the children avoided her as if she were the plague. She did not have a single friend.
Feeling sorry for her, I tried to smoothen out the ruffles in her life. But no matter how hard I tried it just wouldn’t work. I would look into her eyes with a kindly smile and try making contact but she just wouldn’t thaw. While the rest of the class would be in the grips of an interesting literature lesson, discussing animatedly, Tina would be staring fixedly out of the window at the water tank as if her life depended on it.
Having reached my tether’s end, I finally decided to speak to the principal about Tina. “She seems to be a problem child,” I told Mr Pinto. “What could be the reason? A broken home?”
“Miss Kinjal, I do not know anything about Tina’s family problems,” replied Mr Pinto, peering at me through his thick-lensed glasses, his wrinkled double chin hanging loosely like the crop of a turkey. “If she is a problem child, you’ll have to take up the challenge of winning her over. I am sure you can do it if you tried. Curson High has the reputation of churning out students who are well groomed, and capable of meeting success in every walk of life. Please see to it that this reputation doesn’t get tarnished.”
It was all very well for Mr Pinto to give his little speech, but little did he know how much I had tried and how frustrating it was. I stepped out of the Principal’s office feeling hopeless.
To soothe my frayed nerves I decided to go for a walk. Bordering the school campus was a stream. While I was sauntering towards this stream I heard someone singing. It was a pure, melodious voice, that of a child. Who could it be? A forest nymph? Taking care not to make any sound, I gently parted the leaves of the undergrowth to have a look.
Surprise of my life! It was none other than Tina. I had never heard her speak in all those weeks and so I hadn’t recognized her voice. And how different she looked! Smiling, radiant, happy. It was like a magic spell. And while she sang she was doing something.
She was crouched next to some tiny green shoots that had newly pushed their way out of the ground and was arranging pebbles around them. Was she making some kind of a magic fairy ring? Then, she got up and traipsed to the stream a yard or two away. Collecting water in her cupped hands, she came back to the ring and sprinkled it tenderly on the little greens. To and fro she went, making several trips until she was satisfied. Until she felt that the little plants’ thirst had been quenched. I could hardly believe my eyes. Was this the same rebellious, rude, uncooperative Tina? Her secret actions unfolding before me that evening proved that the child did have a heart. I had to reach out to that heart somehow.
The next day I gave the children some worksheets to do for their assessment. Tina was back in her role of being nasty and indifferent. While everyone else was feverishly writing she sat with her hands folded, a faraway look on her face. I went up to her. I could feel the tension mounting as the others followed me from the corner of their eyes.
“What is the matter, Tina?” I asked, resting my hand on her shoulder. What followed next was most unexpected. She pushed me away hard, toppling me over.
“Go away! I hate you!” she cried. “I hate all of you!” Everyone was stunned. I was smarting, feeling hurt, not by my fall but by her non-acceptance, her rudeness. Tears were welling up inside me. This was the last straw. I would stop caring about her or her attitude. I would give her the cold shoulder, just ignore her.
The next day another surprise was in store. I could see from the smug look on the children’s faces and by the twinkle in their eyes that they had something up their sleeves. Shailesh, the class monitor, raised his podgy hand.
“Miss Kinjal, may we be given time to complete our English assignment before we begin the new lesson?” he asked, a little too chirpily, I thought, tongue in cheek.
“Alright, you may.” I gave them the go-ahead.
Everyone opened their desks to fish out their assignment and that is when I noticed all eyes on Tina, 29 children waiting with bated breath for Tina to open her desk. Out jumped a frog – a fairly large green frog with enormous bulging eyes. Tina was shocked out of her skin. Her eyes bulged out of their sockets; her jaw dropped, but soon she recovered composure.
“Oong, oong,” cried the frog as it hopped about from Tina’s shoulder to her head and back. It couldn’t go beyond as it had been tied by a string around its neck to the inside of the desk.
The children began giggling and chortling. It was their revenge on Tina, I realized. They were having their back on her, for being mean to me the day before. But strangely enough, she did not react the way they had expected her to. She was not the least bit frightened, nor was she squeamish, nor did she panic and scream, as most others would have done. Instead, she gently held the frog in one hand and untied the string with the other while the rest of the class got the last laugh.
Then, she looked at me, straight into my face, for the first time. Her angry mask had been shed. Her brown eyes glittered with flecks of gold and she looked beautiful.
“I am sorry for this commotion in class,” she spoke appealingly, still holding the amphibian. “But it wasn’t me. I hadn’t tied the frog in there.”
Her apologetic voice was music to my ears. All ill-feelings were shed.
“I know you didn’t, Tina,” I responded. “Well, anyway, class, why don’t we go for a walk outside? We can release the frog at the stream, where it belongs.”
They all jumped at the idea, most of all, Tina. The fresh air and sunshine seemed to do a world of good. Tina was in her element. She seemed to know all about the insects, birds and plants and pointed them out to the rest of her classmates, filling them with awe. She revealed strange secrets about the different creepy crawlies and the imposing trees, shedding new light and greatly intriguing the children and me. Out there in the field she had taken over as teacher and I was a mere student.
How excited we were to hear, on putting our ears close to the tissue paper – thin bark of the Ghost Tree, the gurgling of water as it rose through its trunk from the ground to the leaves.
We couldn’t stop gazing in wonder at the armies of Red Silk Cotton bugs surrounding the Silk Cotton seeds, jostling with each other to have a sip of the precious oil from the shiny black seed coats.
“Don’t they remind you of Hitler?” asked Tina. Everybody laughed. Indeed, each of the bugs looked like the face of Hitler, complete with the toothbrush moustache.
We came upon a Jewel bug that was about to shed its old skin, heaving and puffing with the effort. Everyone watched with wonderment and cheered when the bug had finally completed its task and stepped out proudly in its brand new metallic green skin.
I noticed that Tina avoided approaching her special green patch – the fairy ring of pebbles. Perhaps it was meant to be a secret. I decided to humour her and did not ask her about it.
With great aplomb we released Freddie the frog as was christened by the children, when at last we reached the stream. There it sat on a stone, shooting out its tongue in all directions to snatch at dragonflies, or was it to wave out to us?
Tina had become the well-admired hero of one and all. Whatever had been bothering the girl all this time seemed to have been forgotten. She was a new person – happy, carefree, friendly. It was almost as if the old unpleasant Tina never existed.
What had brought her out of her cocoon? Freddie the frog? Or her love to share with others the strange stories of nature?
Exactly three months after I had joined Curson High School, it was Teachers’ Day. The students were to perform plays for the teachers. My class put up a play called ‘The Forest Spirit’. It was about a Spotted Deer that had lost its fawn. She looked everywhere, braving the tiger, its predator. Finally, she found her baby sleeping contentedly in a patch of the most beautiful flowers. This patch was looked after by the forest spirit who sang to the flowers so that they always looked fresh. The role of the forest spirit, you can guess, was played by Tina and she sang exactly the way I had heard her sing some time back, alone next to the stream.
After the plays were over I retired to my room. I heard a gentle knock. It was Tina, come to wish me a happy Teachers’ Day, with a little bouquet of the most exquisite tiny blooms of various hues – red, pink, violet, and blue. They looked like babies wearing bonnets.
“Tina, these are gorgeous. I have never seen such flowers before. Where did you get them from?”
“I found them growing in a secret patch near the stream. I have been looking after this patch.
“Tina, you are a wonderful child. Your parents must be so proud of you,” I said.
“I have no parents, Miss. Lost them when I was very small. Don’t remember what they looked like. I lived with my aunt for some time, but she hates me and has sent me here to this boarding school to get me out of her way.”
This revelation explained her earlier behaviour. I put my arms around her.
“I often wonder what my mother must have been like,” she whispered, her eyes moist. “I would imagine her to be just like you.”
Katie Bagli is an avid nature lover and writer of children’s books. She has written eleven books so far, all of which revolve around nature. When she is not writing or illustrating her own books she indulges in nature related activities like conducting nature trails, wildlife workshops and storytelling – often through puppetry. She can be reached at [email protected].