One warm tropical Sunday morning eleven years ago, we were on our way to church in a battered taxi jostling aggressively for every inch of space between other battered taxis and shiny rich SUVs at a Jakarta roundabout trying to beat the traffic light. Just as we thought we’d made it, we came to a jarring halt when the driver of the car in front suddenly hit the brakes. My wife let out a protective scream, cradling our infant daughter’s head inches away from the window of the rear door, and I froze, my breath caught somewhere between my lungs and my throat. Our driver stepped out of his cab to assess the damage and waited for the owner of the car he’d hit to begin what I knew would be a long but not surprisingly civil negotiation about compensation. Neither party would want to get the cops involved; there were none about anyway.
I found my breath again when I checked that my wife and daughter were unharmed. I wrote this off as yet another traffic incident that we had grown used to in the years that we had lived there. I checked the time on my watch and thought to myself that we’d be lucky if we caught the tail end of the service that morning.
A sharp rap on my side made me whip my head around. Pressed against the pane was the face of a young girl, no more than eight years old, pleading in mute expectation for me to buy that morning’s edition of an Indonesian daily. She had a school uniform on – that white and rust that local schools make them wear. I don’t read Bahasa well enough to want to buy a paper, so I waved her on. She should have moved on immediately to snag the next car but she didn’t. In that moment, I looked straight into her eyes and I froze a second time.
Her eyes! Where was their innocence? And why wasn’t it there? Why was she in uniform on a Sunday morning? What was this child doing at a dangerous roundabout selling newspapers? And where were her parents? How could they?
Pinned by her momentary stare, I couldn’t make sense of these questions. I escaped only when she decided to move on to the blue Lexus behind us. I craned my neck as far as my seatbelt would allow me to watch her move purposefully on to the car behind the Lexus.
Our driver returned, visibly upset at the few thousand rupiah he has managed to gain from his negotiations, and we moved on. But I didn’t. I did, however, squeeze my wife’s hand reassuringly and kissed my daughter’s cheek like the relieved husband and father that I was.
But this is not about that unnamed girl with the eyes.
This is about Em. Today. In my class. In China.
At fourteen, she has ‘tude exuding out of her oddly bohemian dresses that only a fourteen year old can carry off. She is gifted with a beautiful mind; she works brilliantly alone on assignments but eschews group work with most of her classmates. She ranks at the top of her class and yet runs afoul of school rules frequently. The school, as I understand, wants to take her down for infractions of most of page 167 of the Student’s Handbook.
Her eyes. I have yet to look right at them. At every gentle attempt to speak with her, I find that they are always averted, resting on a stray paperclip on my desk or on her iPhone. But never at me.
And I wonder, just as I did eleven years ago.
What story lies in those inkwells? Is there any innocence left in them or has something caused them to dry out way too early? She texts on her phone every free moment out of class and yet stonewalls any attempt at conversation by her peers. Does she have a life out of school that consumes her attention to the point that she cannot function socially at school? Are her conversations on the phone with her parents, neither of whom have registered a presence at a school-mandated event? Has she slipped through their fingers? How could they?
Which brings me to the bigger question about teachers and parents.
Do we write Em, and those like her, off as none of our business? Do we adhere to the letter of Page 167 to a point where the spirit doesn’t matter? Do we judge her parents, trying to beat the chaotic roundabout of academic, and only academic, achievement?
Or do we let out a protective scream, cradling Em’s innocence inches away from that window of opportunity that is waiting to destroy her?