LEARNING CURVE*

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Cartoon-classroom-vector-blackboarddesks-and-chairsThe bell clangs loudly and I shuffle back into class trying to avoid the boys running in at dangerous speeds. I find my desk and sidle into place. I almost bump into Solomon. Solomon never studies, so the teachers always ask him to sit by me. All he does, though, is copy my notes. The afternoon sun sends bright rays into class and I inch away from him to find a cool spot on the tiny bench. The room smells of heat and dust, and I see particles floating. I feel temporarily dizzy.

I often daydream through classes. Things come easily to me, and I both know and doubt this. I am deeply suspicious that this will someday be found out, and exposed as fraud. So I am most always simultaneously attentive, and anxious at school. But daydreams come easily, because school is boring.

Solomon is gazing out of the window in his sleepy manner. Some day, I want to be Solomon, who is so cool, so uncaring, and hardly ever worried about the teachers. Mostly, it just seems to be that the world passes him by, and that he is on some other mission; something dangerous, and adult-like. I often see him hanging out by the school stile with the older boys. They all must know something about him that I don't, because there he looks happy, instead of sullen, and quiet. Solomon is really, really, dark and his white shirt often soiled. My blue pinafore, in contrast, is always immaculately pressed, its pleats like the lines of a ruler. Solomon's knees are scruffier than mine, and mine a little, only because I fell down the colony hillock last week. He never says anything in class, so I am not even sure what his voice sounds like. I imagine it to be deep. I often turn my eyes away when he looks at me. It's easy, because we sit side by side, parallel to each other, like the eyes of a cow. The only time he looks towards me is English class, where I cover my notes with my left arm, even as I can feel his eyes boring into my flesh.

Mrs. D walks in, brisk and monochromatic. She is wearing a beige sari today, and I stare up into her almost double chin. She is so tall and so pale. Her severe light brown hair is capped close to her head, but falls at her nape into a wispy ponytail. Her mouth is set in a straight line, but two front teeth escape and soften the severity. Her name is Roda, or at least, that is how I think it is spelled. I found it by accident, when Mrs.R called out to her in the teachers' room. She is pretty when she smiles. She might smile any moment, and she always smiles at me. The noise drowns as she commands us to settle down and hand in our homework.

It is usually difficult to overlook my notebook because it looks the neatest. It is shod in brown and plastic sheets, and my father writes my name in beautiful curlicues. It is a family ritual at the beginning of the school year for us to go buy notebooks, many rolled sheets of brown paper, and labels. This year, the brown sheets have produced a new, improved, version with plastic coating. As a result, my notebook stands out even more than ever. Today, I am slightly unhappy with my sense of stationery fashion, for I haven't done my homework, and my notebook lies tucked safely at the bottom of my schoolbag.

I have planned all morning the sequence of events should Mrs.D ask about this missing artifact. All morning, as we made the fifty minute ride in our dinky company matador with the other kids, even as our driver Apte honked his way through the dangerous NH-4 where we see an accident a day, even as the others propped their heads out of the window to catch cucumbers from a passing truck, I focused on the problem at hand. I even let go of my morning nap. I am therefore now in class, well prepared, having laid out in detail the landscape of the lie that I will produce in a neat algorithm. In my head, I am rubbing my hands in glee. Rohan, who never hands in his homework, will be the first to be chastised. Solomon will be next, and Mrs.D will look at him with that mixture of sadness, disgust and despair. Solomon will probably not even blink. My turn, should it come to that, will be next. I have decided that my parents will have to be blamed. My mother, in any case, had pulled at my hair that very morning, and my father had come home late from work the previous night, in spite of having promised to supervise my homework at seven.

“Why haven't you done your homework?” Mrs.D asks, in a loud voice. She is looking at me. I shuffle to my feet, hair feeling tighter and tugging at my neck. “No sharpener, teacher”, I offer. Rohan sniggers. “My parents went to Bombay yesterday, and left me at a neighbour's house, and my house was locked, and so I couldn't get my sharpener from home, and so I couldn't sharpen my pencils.” “Did your neighbors not have pencils?” she continues. “No teacher, none at all.” I lament. “No sharpener in the shops either?” she parleys. “We live in a remote locality teacher, and the shops were shut,” I throw back. Our remote location works as an answer to everything. I sit down. Her face softens.

“Crocodile excuses,” she thunders, with twinkling eyes. I wither under her crooked smile. My cheeks feel hot, and my eyes well up. “No, teacher,” I whisper, “I am not lying.”

*With grateful thanks to Dinty.W.Moore, Maggie Messitt, and my stellar cohort at the 2015 Kenyon Review Literary Nonfiction Workshop

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