On a warm August morning, the four of us – Baba, Ma, Ton, and I walked into the counselor’s office. Mr. Funk stood tall at nearly six feet with silver-white hair, slight wrinkles on his forehead, and a warm welcoming smile. Baba explained to him how it was imperative that I get admitted into 9th grade so that I could finish high-school by the time we were to return back to India. I had completed my 7th in the spring of that year, and most of the summer afternoons were spent with my teacher Jayati di completing my Maths and Science curriculum for 8th.
I can’t recollect my admission test save for reading words off a blue orange card they had handed me. I do however remember reading ‘deny’ as ‘denney’. I was so skilled at mispronouncing that I could have diffused the Cuban missile crisis simply by trying to speak in English. When the results came, my Maths and Science proficiency was in class 10, and English in class 6. A compromise was made and I was admitted in class 9 in Balboa High School, Panama.
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The first class I attended was Health. My teacher who must have been in her third trimester of pregnancy introduced me to the class with my ‘daak naam’ Tito. I had noted earlier that Indradeep was a mouthful for the American accent, and Tito was more fitting of the scene than Indradeep.
I shrank into my chair as we discussed the topic of the week – teenage pregnancy. We were shown a film on child delivery to make the surrounding young women with raging hormones aware of the consequences of unprotected sex.
Back home, we had a chapter on reproductive organs in our class 8 textbook, which was conveniently ignored by the science teacher. We never talked about this. I was not even thirteen. I had not yet hit my puberty. I did not belong there.
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Trying to assimilate what I had just learned I walked into my Biology class. The classroom was a lab, and I climbed a high stool to sit at a large lab table shared with a few others. A black student walked up to me wearing a jersey, and a red baseball cap that sat on his shaved head in a delicate balance. “Hey, you from India man? You guys got them ‘beedis’ I hear. You got any on ya?”
It took me a minute to digest that my fellow classmate was asking me for a ‘biri’. Back home, the rickshaw pullers and those of minimum means smoked biri. Seeing me speechless, he exclaimed with a sigh “Never mind man, you get me some next time you go back home.” I nodded in compliance, unable to place with certainty if what was happening around me was even real.
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Ma, as she had since my first day of school, had packed me lunch in my little blue tiffin-box. The contents were the familiar staple butter-sugar toast. I found myself in an isolated hallway and walked back and forth as I ate my lunch, so as to seem occupied in some deep thought to a passer-by.
Deep within, my heart ached for the comfort of the desk in my old classroom where I’d open my tiffin box with the others in my class, and stuff our faces as quickly as we could to get to the playground. The hallway was my lunch-table for weeks to come till I made my first friend, who I shall introduce to you shortly.
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In the afternoon I was allocated a locker. The sight of the hallway was unreal with kids making out in corners, girls in their tank tops and mini skirts bent over to retrieve books from their lockers as crowds of onlooking boys fueled their new-found fire of femininity. Much later when I started watching American films, I realized how accurately the movies have painted high-school life.
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The final class of the day was English. It was a corner room on the third story of the three-story school building that was well over fifty years of age. Large side windows filled the edges of the hallway with daylight while the mid-section remained dressed in the dim yellow of filament bulbs. The mid-day sun scorched the tropical canopy, and the overenthusiastic air-conditioning system kept us wrapped in over-shirts and jackets.
Unlike our school in Kolkata where we remained stationary in our classroom and the teachers rotated between lessons, we changed classrooms every period. As the teacher finished attendance, I realized that in the rush of navigating the uncharted maze I had forgotten to relieve myself. No matter, I had to endure just thirty-five more minutes…
Five minutes later, I found myself with my hands raised exclaiming – “Murrum, may I go to toilet?!” Now that is how we sought permission for a restroom break and I was simply following the protocol I was used to. My teacher paused mid-sentence and with a perplexed smile, she approved. I was counting seconds as I made my way, completely unaware of the awkward glances ushering me to the door.
Another five minutes later, I had my biggest smile on as I stood by the classroom door. In my oversized T-Shirt, hair neatly combed with a parting to the left side, and jeans that were stitched to last another year of teenage growth, I was the epitome of the stereotype, ‘good Indian village boy’. With sheer exuberance, I held my hand out straight, just as we used to. “Murrum, may I come in?”
Silence ensued. All the eyes were upon me. Time held still. And in the next moment, the class broke out in uncontrollable laughter. My teacher, struggling to gather her compassion, gestured me in. With eyes low and my heart in my mouth, I sank into my chair in embarrassment as my fellow classmates struggled to compose themselves.
Later, as I recollected the sequence of events, I realized that I had managed the worst that could possibly be. This relieved me of the anxiety of being obnoxious. I was already labeled, and so, I wore my label with pride.