At one of the places where I teach, the children come from humble backgrounds, brought up in the belief that the teacher is next to God. They are silent in class, not bold enough to speak, rarely confident enough to tell me that they did not understand something. It’s a huge obstacle I have to surmount with each new student.
Thanks to this, and because of the fact that punctuality is the responsibility of the parents of a seven-year-old and not the child herself, I didn’t say anything to two children who were repeatedly late for my class. One day, the children, accompanied by their mother, came fifteen minutes late, and I seized the opportunity to tell the mother that this was not acceptable. Duly apologetic, the mother promised that it would not happen again.
I thought the matter was over, but sensed undercurrents of something I could not quite place. One girl, not one of the late-comers, glanced nervously at another, and back at me.
“What happened?” I asked, gently.
First, she shook her head, and then after a few seconds, burst into a passionate defence. “Our school gets over only at 3, and we get home by 3:20. We just change, don’t even have the time to eat anything, we leave immediately and come here to reach in time, so we sometimes get late.” This girl was never more than three or four minutes late, and I never realised the trouble she took to ensure that.
I nodded, understanding. “Okay, if you come late, I won’t say anything.” I turned to the late-comers, ready to apologise to them, and ready to thank the girl who had provided the defence.
The two girls looked sheepishly at me, recognising the courage it had taken to defend them. “We don’t go to the same school,” they confessed. “We were sleeping, that’s why we got late.”
The expression on the brave defender’s face was classic; I could have reached out and hugged her, except that I know she would be even more uncomfortable if I did that.