By Jesus Rafael B. Jarata
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:19:00 10/14/2008
Nobody in class likes her. Every time she asks a question, even if it can be answered by a simple yes or no, her classmates just rudely ignore her.
But Pornphan still tries to be in with the group. If her classmates laugh at some hilarious blunder or absurdity, she also giggles, unmindful that the joke and laughter would soon be turned on her. But even when she feels embarrassed, she still tries to flash a brave smile.
I don’t know what keeps her going. At her age of 10, she should be running in a playground with friends chasing her under the heat of the sun, or she should be in the company of kids dressing up Barbie Dolls and paper dolls, or in an imaginary parlor pretending to be little hairstylist or manicurist, or in an imaginary market playing the role of a chatty food vendor selling cold juices made from crushed red bougainvillea flowers and leaves.
But I also cannot blame her classmates completely for behaving so coldly and roughly toward her. After all, they are still children, and Pornphan seems out of place with her Grade 5 classmates who are quite surprisingly much too concerned with the Barbie culture: how they look in their uniforms, accessorized with colorful headbands and sling bags.
Pornphan’s family is poor and it is her bad luck to belong to a class of well-off, bratty children. She comes to school in a dirty white blouse tucked into a pale blue crimp skirt, with an ordinary rubber band knotted in her usually damp hair and in an old pair of leather shoes. And she has a cheap pink stroller bag and wears a cheap yellow rubber wristwatch. How could a prosperous kid of her age like her?
Her skin is dark. She has long fingernails accented by black grime hiding underneath them. She is so small that you could almost mistake her for a Grade 1 pupil. She is skinny, disheveled, undernourished and almost pathetic.
But her eyes never show hopelessness. Carefree and cheerful, she is active and lively. And she loves making fun of some things, as if the world never laughs at her.
Pornphan is smart and has a sense of responsibility and leadership. That is why the class adviser gave her the special task of looking after their “special” classmate.
I am amazed by how Pornphan and this special kid can get along so well. They are the best of friends, and the teachers admire Pornphan for giving up her own “normal” happiness to play with her “special” classmate all the time. In the classroom, they are seated together and Pornphan acts as her tutor. During lunch, they share each other’s meal. They seem to find solace in their special friendship. They live every day in their own special universe, out of reach of the menacing arms of normal and harsh beings.
For Pornphan and many others like her, life is a constant struggle not just for survival but to belong. It is always a difficult journey for someone who looks unusual, unsightly, underprivileged and neglected.
I feel sorry for Pornphan who has to endure living in a place where being different is, to some people, intolerable and unforgivable. I admire her for her audacity in always standing up after being pushed down by the crowd. And I adore her for her eagerness to please others and to belong even if her efforts always prove futile.
But I wonder how she can discover her possibilities when her peers won’t even give her a chance to establish a human connection.
Jesus Rafael B. Jarata, 21, is a teacher at Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University in Thailand.