At her desk, her favorite teacher paused from rustling papers, looking at the little girl who far too often sat alone, not reacting, not being a child. New to the village, Miss Ana felt there was so much more to each child here than in the pampered hallways of her previous school in town. She kept an eye on this particular one.
The bell rang, startling Andrea from her reverie, and she got up, banging her already sore hips on the edge of her desk. She winced and gingerly made her way out to assemble in the line by the door. Girls in their clean, pressed navy and light blue uniforms jostled quietly for a spot in line. The boys roughhoused, their light blue shirts already halfway out of their pants, some still in their knee-length shorts. Sweaty, energetic and far too loud, they had to be smacked into place by Miss Ana. She held her ruler, hitting lightly but with a firm face that belied just how very lightly. The boys, enamored of their young and pretty new teacher, found their good manners and lined up straight – well, most of them did.
Eight sets of two rows, starting from the upper level down to the babies, all stood at the ready for the usual Monday morning assembly. Even the rowdiest of boys found themselves standing straighter. The girls all faced forward, feet slightly apart to balance and avoid swaying. They knew the routine.
Their principal, a short, compact man with pants that shone from the many pressings it had received over the years, and threadbare, but pressed white collared shirt, strode out pompously to greet his many students. His hair positively gleamed from the thick layer of pomade applied religiously every morning into his coif, today, curled up into a poufy bouffant style. Already red-faced from exerting his power over the upper-level students, Principal was ready to take his anger out on the more helpless lower division.
Principal found his mark in Miss Ana’s class. One hapless boy didn’t have the chance to tuck in his shirt properly, and he was soon being dragged to the center of the crowd by the ear. Made to stand by the base of the flagpole, the Principal began his long-winded lecture. Cleanliness, neatness, respect, paying attention, patriotism – every possible issue he could talk about, he did. The helpless boy stood mortified while he was berated, palms twitching as he anticipated the punishment that would eventually come to him. Oh, the speech and humiliation was nothing compared to the famous “Principal’s Cuts”. Delivered with a wooden rod that was shiny with use, the ‘cuts’ landed with precision, loud and frightening, onto the open palm of the student hapless enough to get in trouble with the principal.
Andrea stood stock still, as did her classmates. They all watched as Principal lifted his hands and one of the Standard Six students went into his office, coming out wielding the piece of wood like the weapon it was. Holding the boy’s hand palm up, Principal swung the stick in the air, making it sing on the way down. The crack as the stick landed was deafening. Andrea felt a roaring in her ears as she shut her eyes against the punishment taking place. She counted till six, and then there was silence. Her eyes opened as the whipped boy made his way back to his line. His face was red from holding in his tears, but he only trembled visibly as pride stopped him from cracking.
Assembly continued after that, with the anthem sung, the national prayer prayed, and general announcements were made. By the time announcements were winding down, the crowd had grown restless again. Hell-bent on ensuring his kingdom was running to his expectations, Principal stopped halfway, and in the ensuing silence, everyone suddenly acutely felt the prickling of heat across their exposed skin. In a rant resembling a sermon, everyone learned the definition of reverence and respect, and somehow, on a Monday morning before the school week officially began, the entire school body had to work on a project about just those words. “Even if ants are biting your feet, and the sun is burning down on you, when your anthem is playing, you stand at attention. Do not move. Don’t swing, don’t move a muscle. You stay at attention.” With those words, everyone was released from their outdoor prison, and into their classrooms.
The boy who was punished still held his right hand at an angle from his body, and Andrea saw raised, angry welts swelling the hand. She knew he wrote with his right hand, so his punishment seemed doubly worse. She knew her own bruises were taking their time to fade, but felt relief that her writing hand was fine.
Then, just when she stepped into the classroom, he accosted her. Looking to take the attention away from his morning debacle, he began a series of cries and shouts, running around in circles in front of her. She knew then that he had been close by when her father had whipped her that weekend. He mimicked her cries, her pleas: at one point during her punishment, she foolishly ran outside to avoid the whipping. It had only incensed her father more, and not caring who was walking or riding past on the nearby road – he continued to whip.
With the typical cruelty of a child who wants to divert attention, her bully rallied forth, teasing mercilessly. Eventually, Teacher Ana got him outside. Andrea looked around at her classmates as they all stared, some of the boys smirking and whispering amongst themselves. Each one of them had suffered some type of lashing, and probably got yelled at every day. But none of them really knew what happened to her. Carla looked at her sadly, a small smile on her face. At recess she would try again to play with her, but Andrea would choose to sit inside again, doing and saying nothing.
The laundry business had paid out a few coins and a few paper notes. The paper notes quickly disappeared into Grandma’s bosom, but Eva had managed to sneak a few coins. Now, it was recess, and finally, she was able to buy one of those ice cold ideals she always craved, along with a soft biscuit.
She sat just outside the door, nibbling on her biscuit, trying to make it last and last. The sweet cold drink melted slowly, and as she enjoyed the treats – the sun washed on her. Alone she sat, in her cleanest uniform, handed down from someone – probably from sister – and for one blissful moment, she felt like she was just like any other girl in her class. She may have sat alone, but as she looked around, she saw the girl who sat closest to the door, her dress looked patched on the side. Another girl’s hair had been quickly pulled into a ponytail with no combing or greasing. Some of the boys had string tying their pants together. As she took the final sip of her ideal, she finally did not feel hungry.
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