Sun, 01 Oct 2000

Teacher, Promise

By Savithri Narayanan

Jim was just a name on my class list for the first three months of school. "Where is Jim?" I asked the class one day after taking attendance.

Usually if you ask such a question to a kindergarten class, you will get a variety of answers like "I saw him flying kite in the gardens", "When I went to the Ash market with mommy, I saw him, he had a balloon in his hands", or "He has fever and has gone to the doctor." Children were good at keeping track of their friends, especially in a small residential colony like ours.

But none had news of Jim.

I made inquiries with the school office. "I have no clue; the fees for the year have been paid; so keep him on your list till they take the leaving certificate! Why are you bothered?" grumbled the graying cleric engrossed in his files.

"They used to live in the next block. We were told that they have gone back to their village," said a lady from the neighborhood.

"I too tried to trace him," said the previous year's class teacher. "He never came to school the whole of last year. I still wonder what happened to him."

As we got busy with the school work, I too stopped making inquiries about Jim.

Then one day, Jim came to school. We had just finished the art class. We were surrounded by paints and brushes, glue and paper. The children were running around helter-skelter, excited about the outdoor play time.

"May I come in ma'am?" A dark complexioned woman with oily, curly hair stood at the door. "I am Jim's mother" she said.

"Oh, there you are," I said. "We have been wondering where Jim was!"

Then I noticed him. He stood beside her, holding on to her finger, an amused look as he watched the other children with interest. I extended my hand which he readily took with a shy smile.

"He has missed so much school," said his mother. "Please help him catch up."

"Sure", I said.

"Can he come to school from tomorrow?" she asked.

"He can come right now," I said.

"We've got an appointment with the doctor at four o'clock," she said. "He'll come tomorrow."

The class welcomed Jim with open arms. They went out of their way to make him feel at home. "You be first in line," they said, "You choose a toy first", "You decide what game to play!" And Jim enjoyed all the attention.

One afternoon Jim's mother came to school to meet me. "He won't come to school tomorrow," she said. "We have to go to the doctor."

"What's the matter?" I asked her, and she burst into tears.

"He keeps falling ill, on and off -- all the time. We've taken him to several doctors. Nothing helped. So we went to the village to try herbal medicines. We have to go to Tata Institute tomorrow ... every month he has to go for tests." The name of the most well-known cancer institute in the country dropped like a bombshell.

By the time I could think of a response, the mother was gone. The next day I had difficulty meeting his eyes. But he was beaming with joy as usual.

Slowly the news spread in school that Jim had limited time to live. The woman who served snacks always gave him a large helping and a special smile. Teachers who never noticed him beforehand, would pat his cheeks or ruffle his hair as they passed by him.

In my own way, I too found different parameters for Jim. If he scribbled while others wrote their alphabet, it didn't matter. "He missed so much school," I justified him to the class. "His house is far away," I would say if he was late for school.

Every now and then, he had to go to the hospital for checkups. Often he came in straight from the hospital. "He didn't want to miss school," said the mother by way of explanation.

"Is it Jim's birthday today? Why isn't he wearing his uniform?" the other children would ask.

"Jim missed so much school, so he can have more birthdays." How could I tell them he didn't have many birthdays left to celebrate?

Jim's absence from school turned more and more frequent. "He has to be admitted into the hospital for tests," his mother said one day.

"I'll be back on Wednesday," he said. "Don't go for the picnic without me!"

The class agreed. "Teacher, promise you'll wait for me," he said as he reluctantly walked away with his mother.

Wednesday came but Jim did not come back. No one was answering the phone at his home. I made inquiries with other parents but they didn't know either.

"Jim is in the hospital and is asking for you," a parent told me one day.

I picked up a basket of fruits, half a dozen storybooks and a box full of crayons and hailed a cab.

"Visiting time is over. Please come tomorrow" said the receptionist.

"Please ... I must see him today!" There must have been something pressing in my voice that made him concede. "Come down fast," he said, as I pressed the button for the lift.

Jim looked so slender, tucked in between the white sheets.

"He needs more blood for transfusion," his mother said with a blank look. "His papa has gone down to call up donors."

"Jim," I called softly, patting his forehead. His eyes were half closed, but a smile flickered across his face.

A nurse came in with a syringe. His arm was full of pin pricks. With dismay, I watched her struggle for a drop of blood.

"He has been like this for a week," said his mother. "But since this morning he is looking better."

The nurse went away with the syringe. Jim turned his head toward the blank wall. I sat beside him, holding his arms praying for a miracle. A shiver passed through his arm. "Call the doctor," I told his mother. Instead, she bent over Jim. "What happened, son?" she asked. There was no response.

I ran out, screaming for the doctor. The next few minutes seemed like someone had pressed the fast forward button.

First came a trolley with an oxygen cylinder, then came the white screen, which cordoned off his bed. The doctor rushed in putting his mask in place, followed by two nurses, who ran to keep pace with him. Soon came the father, followed by a priest, clad in spotless white. The mother's hand went limp in mine. My mind went blank.

The next morning, when the class assembled, I told them, "Jim has gone to God. Let us say a prayer for him."

"Won't he come back to school?" they asked in unison.

"No," I said, but he'll be happy wherever he is."

"What about his crayon box? How shall we send it to him?" asked Shaan. "And what about his chocolate? He asked for it, so I brought it for him," said Nikki. "I have his sharpener, I want to return it to him," said Anne. "We will take care of all that," I said, trying to hide the tears in my voice. "Now is the time to pray for him."

As the months passed, Jim became a memory, a name permanently struck off the class list.

In retrospect, Jim left behind so much joy and sunshine. It is his irrepressible spirit that lingers on in my memory. Surely he must be spreading sunshine wherever he is with his cheerful smile.