By Tania De Rozario
I find myself at a hawker center today sitting by chance next to one of my students. She is at the table next to mine, eating her noodles as carefully as any fifteen-year-old female might. She sits with two friends I have never seen in class. They are the kind of boys I used to always look at when I was her age; short-haired girls who wore skirts to school and trousers in public. She sees me with my partner and smiles bashfully, trying to hide both her curiosity as well as her cigarette, keeping her composure as she continued on her noodles, unfazed.
I see her once a week in the secondary school I teach drawing at. I pop into her class for an hour and pop out promptly, popping quickly into the class next door. The motion is repeated several times before I eventually pop out of the school altogether until the next week. I use the word "pop" intentionally of course; its triviality attracts me. It is relevant to my job... my trivial job; the job in which I pop up for an hour and leave afterwards. There's only so much to do in sixty minutes with forty teenagers so I try not to romanticize it.
Her name is Madeleine and she sits on the far left in the second row with her friend Ben. They find speaking English hard but make the effort for my sake. They are the only two kids in a co-ed class of more than thirty who sit next to each other despite the gender difference. It's quite obvious that there are reasons for this; Ben is not a boy's boy and Madeleine is not a quite a girl's girl. Ben is a tall slender number as flame as flame can be and Madeleine... well Madeleine is kind of plain and does not really give a rat's ass about the things the rest of her female classmates find compelling; namely shopping and hairclips.
When I first asked the class to get into pairs and come up with a character for a cartoon strip, the boys gave me variations of demon-slayers, star basketball players and rebel skateboarders. The girls gave me pixie faeries, anime-inspired schoolgirls and innumerable visual adaptations of Ayumi Hamasaki. Ben and Madeleine invented Santa Claws; a little green creature with unevenly sized eyes, who hops around in a Christmas sock dispensing presents to kids who were left out at Christmas.
It's amazing the kind of view you have standing in front of 30 human beings who are forced to be together day in and day out for an indiscriminate number of years. It's remarkable the kind of dynamics you become aware of. Ben is obviously not very popular with any of the other guys but it doesn't look like he could care any less. It's difficult dealing with gender roles at adolescence, but dear Ben, he makes it looks effortless. He's a modern day camp hero in a sea of Ah Bengs who I can tell would like to pummel him to bits at any given chance.
During one particular class, someone yelled something in dialect at Ben from behind: a tall, scrawny boy who, much like the tall scrawny trouble-makers in cartoons do, hung out with a broad, tubby guy who thinks it cool to clout other guys on the head in between periods. I did not understand what he said but I understand without a doubt, the language of a body in rage. Ben stood up with a meditative blink even as Madeleine tugged on his sleeve and spun around to face his assailant. The class became quiet, some blatantly staring, some pretending they were not there, some enjoying the moment as if it were precious. Ben went off on a string of sentences, his tone one I had never heard before. He was not merely angry; he was offended. It became clear that Scrawny had either said something really nasty about him or even nastier about Madeleine.
Ben let the guy have it; his tongue razor sharp in a dialect I did not understand. It was clear that Scrawny was getting worried. Ben may have lacked in brute force what he didn't in vernacular, but it was very apparent that his intensity alone would beat them at any fight. I could tell from the way he moved, the theatrical way in which he gestured and the refined awareness of his own body that made him almost feminine, that he was the guy boys loved to make fun of. The look in his eyes however, dictated to anyone with half a brain that doing this to his face would have been a stupid idea. You may not have needed much strength to beat Ben up but you would have had to kill him before he stopped fighting back. What you could do with force he would undo with determination; an attitude of having nothing to lose that would scare even the strongest of men. What do you do, after all, with someone who will not go down? Beating Ben up would have meant you would have to follow through on your actions. One punch would not suffice. Beating him up would have meant beating him unconscious - beating him to a pulp.
And no one who made fun of him possessed enough conviction to do that.
I asked Madeleine what was going on as I eyed him, this boy who acted like he had an army behind him. She refused to look at me as she shook her head. I looked up at him and for a second, was worried. Tubby had stopped grinning at the conflict his chum had drummed up and was gearing up for any violence that might ensue. Should it reach that point, I would be in trouble. Every boy in this class was larger than me and I would not have been able to physically break up a fight. I looked at the rest of the class for any signs that I should be getting the situation under control.
Control. We try to have that everyday in our classrooms don't we? We demand our power in a series of commands. Cut your hair. Button your collar. Lengthen your skirt. Tuck in your shirt. Keep quiet. Behave yourself. Line up. Sit down. Stand up. Open your books. Greet your teachers. Study hard. Study hard. Study very, very hard. What do logarithms have to do with what you want to do with the rest of your life? Everything. Everything here can be divided, squared, fractioned and portioned. Just control yourself. When you're out of school you can do what you want. For now, just sit down and behave.
A teacher of mine once told me that it is that which cannot be defined that needs to be controlled. But how was I supposed to get control over a situation I did not understand? I didn't even understand the language they were speaking in. And had I asked, everyone would have fallen silent, eyeing their tables. I was beyond the age of understanding. They would have looked at me and felt sorry for me, knowing that I must have been feeling awkward. They would have looked at me and wished that I was not there. There were things that they knew that I didn't. It wouldn't have made a difference had they been conversing in English. They were fifteen and they existed below my radar. I try to remember what it is like to be fifteen and that is exactly what happens; I remember. I recall it in my head but it is nothing but a memory. They had a handle on a time slipped clean through my fingers as I reassessed the benefits of age.
The situation eventually settled down and Ben, my hero, returned to his seat. I asked him if everything was okay and he flashed me his winning smile. Madeleine, who still looked mildly uncomfortable, rolled her eyes and grinned as he pinched her cheek. Scrawny started to doodle with his pen and stared at his paper in a manner of rehearsed nonchalance. The class went back to its normal interval of silence before the sound of the next bell. Everyone allowed me the luxury of going back to pretending that I actually played a part in this hour of education. For the next half hour, they let me think that I was the one in control. They let me believe that my presence amongst them was something more than a mere intrusion.
They are dangerous, these kids, these not-quite-adults, these fully-grown people that they almost are. Dangerous because of the power they don't know they have; an invincibility complex that would render any good, practical, life-loving adult self-destructive. No wonder we want to control them. What if they discover it? They would and they just might change the world. Change it in the way I cannot, simply because I am too old to believe that I can. The world is fully formed to me. The world to me is a non-amorphous place. I walk into the class. I try my best. I leave and I am gone. That is all there is left of me in their time that is forever. That is all there is left of me amidst infinite eternity.
As Madeleine leaves with her anonymous escorts, she spares a glance for me, smiles a smile signature to the immortality of being fifteen and walks away without a word. As I watch her go, I finally understand the cliché of mourning one's age. The evening is young and so are they and its arms lays a thousand possibilities that have yet to take shape.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006