Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
Both Matt and I were new to the school. As we were scanning the programmes for Grade 10 in the week before school began we came across a reference to a field trip destination: Tioman Island. “Perhaps it’s an island in the Buriganga River, “opined Matt. “Yes, probably a toehead in the river just south of the city,” said I. Matt looked it up and exclaimed, “It’s in the South China Sea! That can’t be right!”. Turns out, that’s exactly the destination of the fieldwork excursion for Grade 10.
Last week, I accompanied the entire cohort (45 students) to Pulau Tioman, off the coast of peninsula Malaysia for a whole week. This is your veritable tropical paradise: rainforest on an extinct volcano, right down to the fringing reef at seashore. More of Pulau Tioman another time, but the trip gave me a chance to see the Bangladeshi kids at closer quarters, as it were. It’s been a wonderfully revelatory week.
The group demonstrated remarkable camaraderie, both boys and girls. Having been together as a cohort for ten years, they get along very well. Typically, they occupy themselves productively and sensibly without direction or supervision. They laugh easily and have a contagious sense of humour which is built on the incongruous rather than silly faces or unusual noises. As well, they do not play practical jokes but are openly willing to deprecate themselves in the interests of entertaining their confreres.
Most of them are very well-travelled but not world-weary or arrogant. They enjoy learning with wide-eyed enthusiasm and have no qualms about exhibiting a strong work ethic. At the same time as being quite innocent, they are fairly forthright about their convictions, including those rooted in Islam. Also, they tend to be group-minded rather than loners, often openly but respectfully revelling in each other’s company. They are irrepressible, responsible, confident and compliant. One of their greatest attributes is the way they uncomplainingly accept their lot. This is not a product of the fabled sub-continental casual attitude to time (yes they have that in spades, too) but more of a deeply ingrained respect for authority. They are fastidious self-groomers.
Almost everyone apart from the rickshaw wallahs in Bangladesh is well-dressed. The kids are used to tailor-made clothing, including their school uniforms. They share most of South East Asia’s ability to see the beauty in the small things eg. the flowers hanging from the taxi mirror in Thailand, the decorously painted trucks in India go neatly with the beautiful, colourful sarees here in Dhaka.
These are obviously generalisations, but the kids at our school are genuinely likable characters with a lot going for them. Both Linda and I are enjoying the interaction. (Linda didn’t get to attend the Tioman excursion, I’m afraid.)
adults in the making
The students had some work to do on the island and tackled it with studious zeal. It was great to behold, really. Their enthusiasm for their scholastic endeavour stems partly from parental expectations but is also borne of a natural yearning to improve themselves. They are apparently quite self-aware at a very early age and are genuinely adults in the making exhibiting responsible and mature conduct at all times. One of the boys showed genuine remorse after accidentally treading on a piece of coral and innumerable queries betrayed a strong determination to succeed at school.
Mansoor and the coral
Perhaps the story of Mansoor illustrates the experience better than any other. Dear readers, please read on. Mansoor is a solid boy of manly proportions and quiet disposition. On the bus to the airport – before we had even left the school in fact – he informed me that – since he was in my allocated group – I was his ‘father’ for the week. Fair enough, in loco parentis, of course. But Mansoor saw the relationship as something more than I did. One day, he reported an activity-curtailing injury, sustained from a brush with the deadly coral. In reality, it was a barely visible abrasion on his calf. I think he was terrified that the blood (there was none) would attract sharks and that the coral was going to give him tetanus.
three telephone calls
Mansoor was not the only wimp among these kids. Others complained of similar slight cuts and seemed astonished that I would sustain such minor abrasions and not be fazed by them. I suspect they’ve been in cotton wool, these lads. That night I took no fewer than three telephone calls from Mansoor’s father, who had been informed of the injury. The father conveyed genuine fears that Mansoor’s 2 cm injury would transform into a case of tetanus. I eventually assured the father that all was well. Anyway, next morning I lightheartedly invited Mansoor to seek a second opinion from ‘Dr. Phil’ (kiwi, Phil Graham, supervising teacher). Phil gave the same dismissive, unsympathetic Antipodean response as I had. Later – in Mansoor’s absence – Phil mocked that we could expect a hovering helicopter at Dhaka airport upon our return. The hilarious thing is that this is not totally out of the question, such is the protective devotion of these parents (remembering that they have enormous resources at their disposal and a quick willingness to deploy them).
There’s a sequel to the Mansoor incident. On the last evening, Mansoor sidled up to me in the circle surrounding the bonfire and informed me that he loved me this much (stretching arms left and right). “This is not sufficient to show it,” he said.
The excursion to Pulau Tioman has been a great chance to see these Bangladeshi kids at closer quarters. As a teacher, it no doubt helps get a better insight into what makes them tick. Ateef sidled up to me at the water fountain on the last morning and said (unsolicited), “It’s been a great week. You made it so. Tell the other teachers I said that.” Shafaquat said I was “the best teacher” and countless kids wanted their photographs taken with me. It’s so nice to finally (without any doubt for the very first time) be appreciated for who I am (in an educational setting, that is). These people are really wonderful.
khoda hafez from Dhaka, after a tough week in the tropics,