Off & Between the Lines
“Children, we’re going to practice writing some letters today,” said Miss Kim, in great enthusiasm, as she held up Min’s exercise book, “I want you to write down all the letters that I’ve taught you in your exercise book.”
“Yes, Miss Kim,” all the children but Min chorused.
A droplet of water which was wobbling from side to side, as it made its way down the window pane, had taken the centre stage of her attention. To Min, it seemed like it was taking forever to reach the windowsill.
“Faster, faster! No quitting now, Mister Raindrop!” She pressed her nose anxiously against the window.
Miss Kim sighed and called out to Siti, a studious bespectacled girl who was sitting beside Min, “Could you ask Min to listen to me please?”
Siti nudged Min and pointed to Miss Kim who was tapping her red pen against the table, a gesture of marked impatience. Min’s eye lids fluttered and she rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms as if she had been roused from a deep sleep. She turned her neck to face Miss Kim and a dreamy smile emerged from the corners of her mouth.
“Now, my dearest Min, “said Miss Kim, in the sweetest voice that she could manage, “I’ll like you to help me to take these exercise books to the tables of your friends. We’re going to write some letters in our books.”
Under Miss Kim’s watchful eye, Min took the pile of exercise books from the teacher’s table and placed the exercise books with the red label on the red table and the exercise books with the yellow label on the yellow table. Soon, the classroom was filled with the sound of pencils scratching against the pages of exercise books.
Min tried her best to focus on the task when she got back to her seat. She knew that she had made a promise to her parents. What Min dreaded more than anything else in the world was attending a multitude of interviews, tests and check- ups. Unlike what her parents had insisted—their opinion swayed by Miss Kim’s remarks about the child during a meet-the-parents session—each doctor whom the family had consulted concluded that there was nothing wrong with Min.
After ten minutes had passed, Miss Kim began to make her rounds in the classroom with her red pen. Murmurs of “good try”, “write this again this way” and “try harder” could be heard as she went to every child to check his work.
Miss Kim always made sure that she left Min’s work to check for the last as the child warranted much more attention. She always prided herself on her seemingly everlasting patience with children. “Today will be no exception,” thought Miss Kim as she kneeled down beside Min who was smiling mysteriously to her closed exercise book, “Open the book, Min. Let’s see what you have here.”
“You must like me this time. My writing so pretty and nice!” exclaimed Min, with enormous pride, to the horror of her teacher when she revealed her masterpiece.
Four letters were placed in random on that very page of Min’s exercise book. Letter ‘d’, the first letter that Min had written, was resting on its lean and straight back. A bold, defiant stroke had emerged from its back and extended downwards before curling like the tail of a monkey.
“My favourite animal!”
Letter ‘e’ had been the second letter on Min’s mind. It was audacious, stretching across nearly three- quarters of the entire page, without a care for propriety. A purple daffodil protruded from its tip, attracting two bees that vied for its nectar.
“Sweet, sweet flower for my mama!”
Standing tall and solemn on top of letter ‘e’ was letter ‘F’. It wore a boot, thrice its size and as black as night at first glance, which dangled from its leg. If one had looked closer, one would have noticed some silver stars lining the edges of the shoe emanating fierce tiny sparks.
“Twinkle, twinkle little stars!”
Letter ‘Y’ was made up of three diverging fingers with scarlet nails. A mandarin orange was printed on each of the nails, its striking colour at terrible odds with the red background.
“Chinese New Year nails for you, Miss Kim!”
Miss Kim’s mouth began to recover from the stiff pose of the shape ‘O’ and she spluttered, “But, you… I… never asked you to do … art. What darn thing… I mean I said write!”
“I write so nice give you. You know why?” said Min, in the sweetest voice that she could manage, “cause I love you!”
Min turned away and attempted to stifle the giggle that was about to burst through her lips. Miss Kim looked like a poor goldfish out of water, gasping for air, or rather, words that eluded her. Just when Min thought she had succeeded in concealing her amusement, she raised her head to look at her teacher and erupted into laughter. The cherry lipstick on Miss Kim’s lips had magically enhanced their fullness. Now they assumed the form of Chinese sausages that opened and shut, and opened and shut, as she fumbled for the right words to express herself.
“You insolent brat! How dare you laugh when you are at fault! Look at Siti’s book!” hollered Miss Kim, as she shoved Siti’s book into the arms of Min, “See, no drawing of flower, hat whatnot. Just plain writing like I taught you!”
“No hat! Never draw that! Me so smart to write and draw same time!” exclaimed Min proudly as she returned Siti her exercise book.
“Young lady! This is the last straw!” spoke Miss Kim, sharply, “Now, off to the principal’s office!”
Miss Kim grabbed Min by the arm as the bewildered child shouted, “What lady? What straw?”