MY NAME IS ARUPA
“No, I don’t think I’m that,” she answered neutrally as possible. She knew the slightest weight on any word or any part of a word might give her away, or cause embarrassment, if not for her, then for others.
“Well, if that’s not your problem,” said the teacher—she had identified herself as “Miss Nelson”—“then what do you think the matter is?”
The girl, only eleven by her Aunt Marta’s calculation, had never heard some of the “six-legged words” her father’s sister had warned her about, so “im-per-ti-nence”— which she counted as only four legs—did not appear to register.
“I don’t know,” she told Miss Nelson. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Miss Nelson, who appeared tall to the girl’s eyes, had a smooth, almost oily, complexion, as if she came to school after treating her skin with a substance, no telling what, and then there was her dismissive mouth, eyeglasses almost hiding her gray-blue eyes, a pitch in her voice that suggested contempt.
“So you’re here, expecting an education, and—”
Suddenly Miss Nelson looked around, her attention diverted by a tick over the intercom.
“MORNING RECESS,” came the droned male voice, as if it had been recorded a century ago. Indeed, the voice was called “Mister Pipes” by the pupils, if they thought about the intercom announcements at all, or talked about them. This was an adult world. “They” were in control, after all.
“I expect nothing,” said the girl, not realizing she was being defiant. “I am here because my mama drives me here every morning. I don’t know why—”
It wasn’t that the girl disliked school—she knew there was a lot to learn about growing up and being “big”—people like her parents, her uncles, her aunt, Miss Nelson, her homeroom teacher, Missus Helmond, and the adult world beyond.
“Your name, please?” asked the hall monitor under Miss Nelson’s supervision.
“My name is Arupa,” was the reply. “What’s your name?”
The hall monitor was a boy perhaps her own age but with white skin, blue eyes, and – she noticed especially—a polite manner. He had a clipboard, a sharpened Number 2 pencil, and a way of smiling that was both awkward and friendly.
“Joseph,” he replied, with the slightest of smirks, perhaps even friendly, she decided. Then he scanned the sheet on his clipboard until he found her name. He looked at her again, this time with an accepting nod.
“Arupa Gandhi,” he said, making a check with his pencil. “Okay. Good.”
The rest of the day was uneventful. Arupa had memorized her math tables, her lists for English vocabulary drill, and well knew the need of politeness to older people. Of course, her elders at home had drilled it into her, but she had never resisted. She also knew the construction of a sentence—subject, verb or linking verb, direct and indirect objects, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. Her diligence carried forth on tests, so much so that when Missus Helmond smiled politely, in contrast to Miss Nelson, Arupa was careful not to assign “prejudice” to the motives of anyone unless she knew. Even to Miss Nelson, whose demeanor was not as nice as Missus Helmond’s, there was what Uncle Abdul called “benefit of the doubt.”
She would refrain from “tattling” on Miss Nelson to her parents, her uncles and aunt. She realized the best weapon she had was doing well in school, but her refusal to be humbled by rudeness set her apart. She would persist. Miss Nelson was in her own cage of whiteness. It was not a better place. Besides, fifth grade would be over in three months, and then the summer—one day is not the world, she remembered gleaning from a nineteenth century Hindu poet, in a book lent by her uncle Melor.
“Let your mind and your gentleness be your weapons,” Uncle Melor told her. “If you do that, no one can touch you or hurt you.”
She knew he was trying to make her feel better after a long day at school. She looked at her mother, who nodded with the faintest of smiles.
“Your uncle is good for good advice, Arupa,” her mother said. “Come and help make tea.”