My boarding school would take in students throughout the year. One day an Italian boy joined school. He was blond with curly ringlets falling into his eyes. His smile held a thousand promises of mischief and mayhem. He spoke only in Italian and this made all the girls want to teach him English. He was chased by us through the school corridors, accosted in the dining hall and smuggled into classrooms during free periods. A smile from him or a word spoken by him, especially if it was a recently taught English word was all that was needed to make our day.
He was only three when he joined school. His parents wanted him to get used to India, especially Indian food. In the first year he did not need to attend any formal classes. The headmistress would make him sit in her office for an hour and teach him English. For the rest of the day he was free to do whatever he liked. A lot of his time was spent in the dining hall and rice and rasam soon became a favourite with him.
When he was not eating, he would go from class to class, peep in and smile. Then he would stand and wait for us to squeal in delight and call out to him. Sometimes he was met with absolute silence and no amount of waving and smiling would help. He would then step in and in a flash disappear when he saw who the teacher in class was. Most of the time it was the math teacher. Even he knew that math teachers are a terrifying species that all children should keep well away from.
One February when we were studying for the tenth grade preliminary exams he ran past our class. We had a free period then and he was immediately caught and dragged into class. He was delighted to discover that this was the class of his friend who had an endless supply of scented colourful erasers. She sat down on the floor with him and spread out her treasure. Soon we all were pretending we were in a forest and on a mission to ambush and kill enemy soldiers. Compasses made deadly weapons and the dismembered bits of eraser flesh made a little blond general very proud.
We lost track of time. Suddenly a classmate ran up to us breathless. The bell had rung, did we not hear it? Now the Sanskrit teacher was on her way to class and it was too late to send him out. He was trapped. Quickly through frenzied gestures and broken English we told him that he had to hide and wait till he was told to come out. The enemy had got powerful and he could get killed. We more or less threw him into a gigantic carton box and threw in bits of paper and anything else that we thought would serve as a camouflage.
Within seconds we were back in our places and the classroom was completely silent. The teacher, as she entered must have felt proud. Here was a class that was serious about doing well.
Minutes ticked by. Someone coughed. Then someone else. Soon coughs were answered by many other coughs. Someone sneezed. Two girls hid under their bench, buried their heads into their skirts and laughed.
The teacher looked up and a subtle change in her expression that we all knew so well made us quiet for a while. Then the coughing began again. One brave girl asked to be allowed to go to the restroom. She barely made it outside class before she fell down laughing.
The teacher was very annoyed now but there was nothing she could do. It was winter, coughs and sniffles were normal. A weak attempt at asking what was going on was answered with a wide eyed innocent “Nothing Miss!” But she knew something was wrong. It frustrated her. Her hands itched to punish. It was torture not to be able to do anything. There right under her nose we were clearly laughing at her and she could do nothing. Nothing until…..
Out he popped, the little Jack in the Box. “I’m hungry!” he wailed, the only fluent sentence he knew in English, with perfect pronunciation.
For a few moments nothing happened. The teacher had frozen. Her mouth was open and a hundred expressions all competing to get out had frozen with her. Even he remained in the box, eyes wide, and his body ready to bolt on cue. We waited. Still. We were seconds away. Then it came. A torrent of fury.
She had never seen such a shameless class she said. Hiding boys in class, whatever would we do next? It is not good for girls to talk to boys, did we not know that? So shameless she said, she would tell the headmistress. This was what we were doing when the exams were so near. Did we want to bring disgrace to our families? How could we do this being students of such an institution? We were just like the girls from the bad “outside” world. Here our parents had sent us to learn good values and this is how we were letting them down.
Meanwhile he continued standing in the box with his eyes growing wider and wider. He was very scared. Finally she turned to him and told him to get out. He did not need to know English for that, he ran out but not before yelling rudely at her.
For about a month we were the talk of the staff room and the teachers made it a point to tell the other classes not to follow our bad example. The headmistress threatened with expulsion any girl who was caught talking or even looking at the little three year old charmer.