Mandy heard the alarm, stretched out her arm and turned it off. The alarm clock sat still on the side table, in complete mute, ticking away, as if protesting that its obligation being cut short. Mandy snugged deeper into her two-ply blanket.
I hate to go to work.
She could hear her housemates finishing up their breakfast, washing their mugs and plates in the kitchen. Somebody went into the washroom, it must be Cindy. She had to go to the washroom every time before she left the house. Mandy heard Lily and Joyce talking. The blankets and the plywood worked well like an insulator, concealing voices into mere mumbles. Then, Mandy’s bedroom door opened. Carol walked into the room, stopped by the dresing table and took in how she looked the last time before picking up her briefcase and left the bedroom again. Carol will be the first to reach the office, she held the key and she was the senior assistant. Mandy got out of her bed, eyes half opened.
It’s so damn cold.
She pulled down her towel and went to the washroom. She rolled up her sleeves, just a little bit so that they won’t get wet when she brushed her teeth and washed her face. She didn’t roll up her track bottom. But instead she tip toed into the washroom, brushed her teeth and washed her face in less than 5 minutes time. She tried to not touch the icy cold running tap water as much as possible.
I need water heater and I hate this place.
Mandy’s mind wandered a little as she brushed her teeth. She had white pearly teeth that she and her mother were proud of. Mother. Mandy sighed. She knew her mother was constantly worried about her posting in this place. She could still vividly recall the day she came reporting duty with her mother. Her mother had remained quiet the whole while, but Mandy guessed she knew exactly what was on her mother’s mind. It stilll amazed her how quickly the others adapted and got themselves totally absorbed to this environment, especially Lily. They were so at ease, they had no problem waking up early in the morning. They had no problem with the forced-vegetarian diet due to scarce resources. They had no problem taking bath and did their laundry in those freezing cold water. They had no problem living in comfort, doing away with Astro, satellite or internet access.
I’m wide awake now. No, no, more like a physical shock on my face due to the cold water. My soul is still pretty much asleep.
Mandy grinned a little. My soul is still asleep. Why had she come up with this idea. The soul can’t be awake or asleep. It had no physical attribute, hadn’t it? Mandy dragged herself back to her bedroom. Cindy greeted her but Mandy just murmured back a low growl. Joyce and Lily had apparently got used to it, and they just ignored her. Mandy didn’t mind at all. She felt awful, every morning, especially it was a Monday. So near yet so far. She thought of the shopping complex she went yesterday morning. Air conditioned, bright and happening.
What should I dress today?
Mandy opened her wardrobe, to be exact, zipped down the ‘wardrobe’. She had not seen this portable wardrobe for almost 2 decades. Primitive. It was as painful for Mandy to choose her attire as she dragged herself up every morning to go to work. In the end, she just pulled out a blouse and a skirt. Oh, never mind the hue. Who’s going to appreciate it anyway? Would they bother that the blouse and the skirt actually matched? Or maybe they were tailored out of silk or some delicate material? Or maybe the quality of the pair of Hush puppies on her foot? All these were of no significant value here.
As Mandy combed her hair, she heard a commotion outside. Duh! Must be Lily’s ‘kids’ or maybe Joyce’s. They always came to the hostel to help carry her colleagues’ belongings. From water bottle to trash. Mandy could never comprehend what’s the fun in doing it. She rolled her eyes and continued her daily ‘regime’.
Mandy was totally absorbed in the process of brushing on her mascara. Did she hear the kids just mention someone’s dead? Who’s dead? Oh well, these kids could make the biggest news out of a very ordinary matter. Sometimes, Mandy felt it was really pathetic. There’s nothing that could be done to rectify the situation. How could she ever make these kids understand they could be sharing songs on their ipod instead of rushing to the hostel to help clear the trash? Or that there was so much fun in watching Nickledeon or Rapuntzel in Cineplex? Or children go to theme parks to occupy their long school holidays with rides and games. Or children should eat pizzas, or Kentucky or Baskin Robbins instead of kasamand tempoyak.
The kids were getting rowdy and everybody was almost shouting at the top of their lungs. Mandy frowned. What’s happening? With the eye brow pencil on her right hand, she opened her bedroom door, poked out her head and asked Lily what had happened?
“They said Diana’s dead?”
“Diana? Diana who?”
“Diana, from my class.”
Mandy blushed a little. Though the girl was from Lily’s class, Mandy taught them English. And there was a total of 26 students in the class. She should have remembered her. Diana was also the school’s head prefect.
“How do you all know Diana’s dead?”
There was definitely a trace of impatient and annoyance in Mandy’s voice as she attempted to cover up her careless remark. All the kids remained quiet, exchanging look timidly. Mandy realized that the children always stopped short whenever she asked them something, or talked to them, but never to any of her colleagues.
“Don’t go around create stories.”
Mandy could feel her temper rising. What’s wrong with these children? She was trying to be nice and caring. All that she asked for was just a proper response. She hated to be ignored.
“They are here to confirm what they heard from the villagers, Mandy. It is said that Diana passed away early this morning.”
Lily, the ever sweet tempered Lily, explained the situation to Mandy.
“Are you sure? I think Diana was in the class yesterday, alive and kicking. Unless, of course, she had an accident.”
The skeptical tone was hard to miss. Mandy walked back to her bedroom, leaving Lily to deal with the kids. “I’m sure it is just a rumor. Don’t worry Lily.”
Mandy knew how Lily took these kids, as if they were her own. Sometimes, she thought Lily just worried unnecessarily. These were someone else’s kids. In her bedroom, Mandy continued with her makeup. She could hear Lily talking to the children, but couldn’t quite make out exactly what she had said. A moment later, the main door was shut and locked, and the hostel remained calm and quiet. Everyone had left for the school, except Mandy. She took another 10 more minutes to finally get herself ready for school. It would take her 5 minutes to walk to the school, and she would reach the school 7.30 am on the dot. Mandy justified that she had never neglected her duty as a teacher, she was never late. Thus, she could never understand why her housemates cum colleagues had to wake up as early as 6 o’clock in the morning, especially Joyce.
The whole morning the school was blanketed with the news that Diana’s dead. Mandy didn’t bother. She did her work, made her coffee, read her novel and went to class as usual. She forbade her class to talk about the topic, as they could not give her a reasonable excuse of Diana’s sudden death.
During recess, Joyce chased all the children out from the staffroom and solemnly announced that Diana Anak Robert, a primary 5 student had passed away early this morning at 3.
What the …?
It was hard to describe the feeling, Mandy thought. Panicked maybe. In her 2 years of teaching, she had never handled similar situation. The news apparently had caught all the 12 teachers in the staffroom off guard. Being in charge of the students’ affair, Joyce also announced that Lily, Carol and she herself would make a trip to Diana’s longhouse after school to find out what had exactly happened and to pay her a final respect. An envelope was passed around to collect some money.
When the envelope reached Mandy, she pulled out a 50 ringgit note and quietly slipped it in. She knew she would be the one pulling out the biggest note among her colleagues.
I’m not showing off I’m rich. What can you get for 10 ringgit nowadays anyway?
The envelope continued to circulate among the teaching staffs. Mandy stood up and walked to Joyce’s desk.
“You know where is Diana’s longhouse located?”
“No, I don’t. The village headman is going to bring us there. He was here earlier on, and he was the one who told me Diana passed away early this morning.”
Mandy lingered at Joyce’s desk while the latter was busy arranging Diana’s documents, her report card, health card, textbook on loan form, library card and exercise books.
“What are you going to do with these?”
“We’ll bring them to her family when we visit her later.”
“So…how are you all going there?”
None of them owned a car or a motorcycle here.
“We will go in the village headman’s car.”
“I see… do you think I can tag along?”
While Joyce ensured Mandy she could join them later that afternoon, Mandy was not so sure why she had asked in the first place.
I am not a busy body. I just…I just…
Mandy could not figure out the answer.
The journey to Diana’s longhouse would take about an hour, the village headman informed all the four young lassies. Among all things, Mandy felt that the one thing that console her about this place was that the villagers here, including the village headman treated the young teachers with ultimate respect. Sometimes, she felt they looked upon them like goddess, descending from heaven to bring the villagers some hope or change. Mandy was not quite sure what the villagers were expecting of her, but she knew she was never short on Bario rice or fresh water fish for the past two years, though the villagers were of low income group.
The ride was bumpy, on the soiled oil palm plantation track. Mandy had gotten used to it.
Every week, they have to endure the same journey for about 90 minutes before boarding a boat to town, or back home. This is a small village sitting some 120 kilometers inland, by the river and has been labeled as hard-to-access location by the local district education office. Civil servants posted to this area receive hardship allowance from the government to compensate the fact that there is not treated water supply, electricity supply and only accessible by boat from the main city. All the students in the school come from nearby longhouses. Some of them stay so far away that every morning they could only reach the school by 8.30 am.
There wasn’t much to see along the way except for thick short palms. Everyone remained quiet the whole journey. Mandy was not sure what was on her colleagues’ mind. All four of them had been college mates and were posted to the same station 2 years ago. Mandy was quite sure Lily would be feeling sad and crushed. She had always had a soft spot for these native children, especially when she was the form teacher for Diana’s class. Maybe it was because her father was a priest, but also maybe because it was her nature. She had constantly shared that she had wanted to become a teacher ever since young. And it would be the last thing on my ambition list, would be Mandy’s response.
Mandy could feel her hair weighed down by the dust.
Well, nobody cares about vanity right now, relax, Mandy.
The village headman’s jeep came to a halt. It was a 100-door longhouse. Mandy had heard from the students that Diana was one of the ‘rich’ girl in the village. Her father worked on an oil rig and she always came to school in very neat uniform, the one that had been pressed and washed properly.
The village headman took the lead and walked up the carved tree trunk. At the sight of it, Mandy wondered how she would be able to move up there on her heels. Her colleagues made a bee line to climb up the tree trunk. Mandy had intentionally made herself the last in the queue. When it was her turn, she kicked off her heels and climbed the tree trunk, literally. No one paid any attention how she got up to the ruai tamu, as everybody was standing solemnly, waiting.
The village headman went to inform Diana’s family while Mandy spotted some curious heads bobbing through windows and creaks of doors.
“The village headman said Diana’s parents are on their way back. She was with her grandparents.”
Joyce told her girlfriends.
Then they saw the village headman signaling to them from one end of the longhouse.
Joyce led her colleagues.
As they moved nearer, Mandy heard it. The heart piercing wailing of a granny who had lost her favorite granddaughter. It was distressing. In between, Mandy could make out the granny was talking to her granddaughter.
“Oh, Diana, my poor Diana.”
Mandy felt her eyes welled up instinctively. She quickly glanced at her colleagues, their faces were expressionless but none was crying. Mandy held back her tears, forcefully.
Oh comm’n, don’t be a weakling. Nobody’s crying.
“This way, cikgu.”
The village headman invited all of them in.
Once in the room, Mandy saw her. Pale and gaunt, motionless and lifeless. She was covered with a piece of white cloth. At the sight of Diana, Mandy felt her cheeks wet by her tears.
“Wake up Diana, you see, your teachers are here to visit you. Oh my poor Diana, she is a bright child.”
The old granny was mumbling to her granddaughter.
“Wake up Diana. Your teachers are going to teach you, teach you all the knowledge you need to learn, to be clever and intelligent.”
“You will go to school and you will be a useful person in the future.”
“Wake up, Diana.”
Mandy broke into muted sobs. She felt something breaking inside.
No, no, it’s not true. The teacher has failed in her duty. The teacher has taken lightly in her job. She has hated this place and the students.
Joyce handed over the envelope to the village headman.
“This is from our school’s teachers.”
The village headman gave the envelope to Diana’s grandpa, who was rooted at one corner.
“Thank you, cikgu.”
The village headman then invited all the four young teachers to sit down. The grandfather recalled how Diana had complained of a severe stomachache yesterday afternoon.
“She had been having stomachache for quite a while.”
Lily remarked. Her voice thickened with sadness.
“We sent her to the general hospital several times, but they said there was nothing wrong with her.”
“She was complaining of severe stomachache yesterday, and could not take her lunch after coming back from school. I made her drank a glass of milk and she went for a nap. Later in the night, she woke up all pale and cold, she threw up and went back to sleep. Then …”
The old man’s voice trailed off in sadness. He chocked on his words and was swallowing hard. After what seemed to be an eternity, he told the young teachers that they were waiting for Diana’s parents to come back before sending her to the general hospital for an autopsy.
“Her father had insisted to have an autopsy. He sounded disorientated when he heard the news.”
Granny whimpered hearing her husband’s remark.
“She’s a good girl. She’s even the prefect. She has such bright future…”
Granny’s mourning pierced Mandy’s heart like a pointed dagger. Deep and painful. Mandy could not comprehend why was she feeling…remorse, or maybe guilty.
“She had been constantly complained of stomachache, even in school. She said it was gastric.”
Being the form teacher, Lily provided additional information. Upon hearing the Lily’s comment, Carol and Joyce made small talk, speculating what could have been the cause of death. Certainly an ulcer in the stomach would not cause death.
“We should make a move. It’s getting dark.”
Carol led the girls, bidding the grandparents goodbye. The village headman dutifully brought all the young teachers back to their hostel safe and sound.
“Thank you so much, cikgu. It means a lot to Diana’s family for you all to pay her the visit.”
Mandy lost her appetite for dinner. Not that she was not looking forward to the all-vegetarian meal either all these while. No one mentioned about dinner. When the sun had completely set, all five sat around the dining table. It was their only recreation. Exchanging thoughts, opinions and dreams at dusk. Mandy had, for once, not stayed in her bedroom reading or writing, but to join the small community.
“So how was the visit? Did you all get to know the cause of death?”
Cindy had been teaching in the school for 5 years. She was also their senior.
“No, we didn’t. Guess we would have to wait for the autopsy report.”
Joyce summarized their activities in the longhouse. Lily had remained silence all the while.
“Cindy, have you encountered cases like this before? I mean for the whole 5 years you teach here, have you had any of your students passed away?”
Mandy finally broke her silence.
“No, I don’t. But I guess I do now.”
“It’s a pity Diana passed away.”
“You bet. I am sure she will be dearly missed.”
Mandy excused herself. She said she was too tired and needed to go to bed early. Nonetheless, she could not put herself to sleep the whole night.
Your teachers are going to teach you, teach you all the knowledge you need to learn, to be clever and intelligent.
You will go to school and you will be a useful person in the future.
Oh Diana, yes, there are so much more for you to learn.
There are so much more that I have not taught you.
There are so many things that you have yet to learn.
The night was long.
* * * * * * * * *
It always amazed Mandy how one’s biological clock works. She remembered the time when she was celebrating her birthday party with her friends, throughout the night. It was 3 in the morning and she had to attend the new year mass at 6. She had felt the least fatigue with sleep as short as 2 hours. Though it was rare, but Mandy had insomnia the night before, she was the first to wake up the next morning. She cooked her breakfast, cleaned herself and got herself ready by quarter past six. By then, all her housemates had gotten up, and were pleasantly surprised to find Mandy had actually cooked their breakfast too. All tried to be at ease and took things in as they were. For 5 years was a long time for them to know Mandy inside out, they had stayed together since college days. To Lily and Joyce, Mandy had finally found the passion in her. She was once again the enthusiastic girl that spent hours into the dark night, composing and constructing the best teaching materials for her students. She was once again the one that earned her ‘Best Practicing Teacher’ in her final year. To Mandy, it was an awakening.
There are so much more that I have not taught you. There are so many things you have yet to learn.
It was two weeks later when the school finally had the village headman visiting the school and told them the actual cause of death.
“It was appendicitis.”
If only we know.
Mandy could sense her eyes welling up again. She tried to stop the tears by looking up, only to meet Lily’s tearful eyes.
If only we know.
“The doctor said her appendix must have been inflamed for some time before it finally ruptured. And because it was untreated, it increases the rate of mortality.”
The village headman plainly narrated what he was told.
“Her parents were feeling very bad, especially her granny. She thought it was her negligence and she had caused Diana her life.”
I could have done something if I have been more observant.
“But I guess it is fated to be. Maybe God find a better place for her. And it is meant to be for her to pay such short visit to her family and friends.”
Mandy was quite sure the village headman must have used the same line to comfort Diana’s granny. His words, somehow did not help to ease the choking sense of guilty responsibility within Mandy. Not only because she had ignored the constant pain of the student but also the fact that she had loathed to go to school and teach with her soul and mind. What was her oath to the teaching line? What was the essence of the National Educational Philosophy? Mandy just crossed her fingers that it was still not too late.
* * * * * * * * *
What will be your response if one of your students come and tell you that she will be gone forever the next day? Will you start to busily scout through the pile of unmarked essays and try to find hers, struggling to get all her works marked and return her all her works before she is gone? Will you panic because you have lagged behind in your teaching plan, missing out important lessons and skills? Will you question your own integrity as a responsible teacher? Will you be anguish of the harsh words you had used unintentionally and that you still owe her an apology? Will you be remorseful because you had not spent enough time trying to figure out how to best help her in her studies? Will you feel guilty because you had neglected her welfare?
What does it take to be a ‘teacher’? To impart knowledge in a very detached manner or to cross path with someone and bring changes into his or her life? To be involved at a more personal level, anticipating the encounter whole heartedly, soul and mind?
“Do you want to talk?”
Mandy started a little and looked up with a pair of delirious eyes. It was Lily. Mandy shifted to a nearby chair, she had been standing beside the window for hours.
“You… have been different, ever since the incident. You want to talk?”
Staring into her friend’s caring gaze, Mandy had told Lily everything, everything. Maybe it was a confession. Maybe it was a renounced faith. But both young teachers knew, after that day, everything was going to be different. They had experienced “teaching” in the very raw form. It was how “teaching” had been looked upon as a sacred and noble profession. It was something that would be the young teachers’ guiding light in their future career path.
Second Prize, State Level Teacher’s Day Creative Composition Award, 2011.