Once upon a time, long long ago, in a land far away, ….. ( My 4 year old niece tells me that this is the ONLY way to start a story .)
Actually, it was not all that long ago. The year was 1995–96 and the “land” was a school in Kerala.
But yes, this story took place at a time and place,
“ when mobile phones had yet to invade our homes
When “Chitrahar” was the highlight of a teenager’s week”
This story has a heroine. Let’s call her the “Senior Girl”. In 1996, she was in the final year of her school.
Our “Senior Girl” was quite a popular kid. School Head Girl, Team Captain, always in the limelight representing the school at one event or the other….. Ok, sorry. I know you might be getting nauseated by now. But the Sr Girl was actually quite an OK kid, She was popular among her classmates. Not at all a bully. Junior kids liked her well enough. Got into enough scrapes at school but these were innocent enough so the teachers usually indulged her.
But our Senior Girl had one big flaw in her character. A secret vanity.
As with most of the schools in the state, this school too dedicated a few days every year to organize “Cultural Competitions”. The whole school from the 1st grade to 12th would be divided into four teams called “houses”. Each house competed against the other in a series of events ranging from dramatics to music to various forms of dances and a series of “literary events” which included debate, elocution and ……. the one event where the weak of the heart never ventured out to….(drum-rolls please) …. Extempore!
An extempore speech competition is an exercise in public speaking where the individual student is given the topic and just about 2 or 3 minutes to prepare before you “deliver” the speech in front of the judges and the audience.
In the school where this story took place, this particular event was always organized in the main school auditorium — if the event was not scary enough by its very nature, let’s make it more unnerving by allowing you to make a fool of yourself in front of the whole school…someone must have thought.
Now let’s get back to the “Secret Vanity” which was a blemish in the otherwise innocent make-up of our heroine.
Our girl had won the 1st prize for this particular, nerve racking event for 3 years in a row. And as with all “meaning well but let’s-just- kill- her- with- the-pressure” notions, her classmates had declared that Senior girl was the winner of this event , this year too. It was a foregone conclusion to them.
The D-Day Arrives. All the contestants are huddled into a classroom, far away from the venue. One by one, the contestants go out, they get the topic and go onto to deliver their speech.
The last one was our Senior Girl. She gets the topic and for the 1st time, an element of self-doubt creeps in. The topic was, “ How can we further the cause of sports in India”.
Her mind goes blank akin to a windows laptop that stops working for no rhyme or reason.
If there is one topic she cannot talk about it must be sports. Her 3 minutes are up. It was a pleasant evening in December but she was sweating bullets. Her reputation which she thought was built entirely on her ability to win this competition was at stake. Her classmates , her team members… everyone was going to be let down.
Our girl walks up the stage. She was a few steps away from the mike. Almost like the unrealistic climax scenes of bollywood movies , our girl suddenly recollects an article she read in one of her Mom’s magazines … an interview of an athlete who spoke about “sexual harassment” that occurs in National Sports camps. Phew… that was the straw she needed to save herself.
Or so she thought. You see, our far away land was actually a very conservative school. The audience was filled with kids who had yet to hear any words that started with”s.e.x…” ( this is 1995 in Kerala, people). And worse, our heroine herself wasn’t fully clear on what the implications of sexual harassment were.
Let me save the Senior girl the agony of reliving that infamous moment in her otherwise sparkling “public speaking” career.
When the prizes were announced at the end of the day, our girl did not even make it to the 3rd place. While our Senior Girl was not surprised ( she was a fair kid who knew she had botched up) , she was heart broken. This was her final year in school. There are no more chances to reclaim the lost glory. Now you may think this is a small matter in the bigger scheme of things. But please keep in mind that our girl was only in her teens. And her whole identity ( at least a significant part of it) as the undefeated champion of this event was destroyed.
She sat alone in the school playground waiting for her pick up ( which was unusually late). Her friends had left. There were a few younger kids playing in the ground next to her.
She sat in a corner, with tears rolling down her cheeks. There is possibly no bigger pain than an ego getting shattered at this tender age.
A ball came flying across the playground and hit the Senior girl as she sat wallowing in self-pity. Even at that young age, our girl hated anyone see her cry. She quickly wiped her tears on the sleeves of her school uniform and picked up the ball to toss it back to the kids. She could see that one among the group had come running towards her to collect the ball.
Our Senior girl picked up the ball and looked at the smiling face of this little girl . She may have been in 1st or 2nd grade. A thin frail child. But she had such a big, happy smile as though all the joy in the world shone through her bright little eyes.
The Sr girl stooped a little low and extended the ball into the arms of the youngster. And that’s when she noticed the youngster properly. The girl with the sunshine smile only had one full hand.
Not recognizing the fact that the brain and mind of the senior had frozen , the little one grabbed the ball with her one hand and ran back to her friends.
In our lives, there are moments when God decides to intervene directly and teach you a small lesson,with all the love and affection only a parent can give a child. This was that moment.
As some of you may have guessed, I was that Senior Girl.
As I sat down on the steps of the playground, I could still feel warm tears gushing down. But this time it was not over my fragile vanity. I experienced a cacophony of emotions. A bit of shame over my self-pity. That unexplained and poignant feeling when you know that you have been touched by the hands of God. That moment when you know that you have grown up a bit. A lesson in perspectives. All that and lot more.
When I go home, I used to spend a good one hour with my Mom in her kitchen telling her everything that happened during the day. That day I could not share this with her. After two decades, I still cannot find the right words that would do justice to what I experienced in that moment.
But ever since, whenever life strikes me down with a crushing disappointment, I think of the little girl. It always serves as a gentle reminder of what is important in life.
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In May 2017, I wrote and published “One Day, One Blog” on Medium. I am exporting some of the old favourites here.
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