| EXCHANGE OF IDEAS
Mustaq had unkempt hair and smelly feet, and a torn and perpetually dirty schoolbag holding equally dirty notebooks and textbooks. There were frequent, sniggering remarks made about him by other students.
“Does he ever bathe?”
“Ugh! I wish he were in some other class!”
“Why does the school allow him to be here?”
In India, we wear school uniforms up to grade 12, and when I was in grade 10, Mustaq wore the filthiest uniform I had ever seen. He sat alone on the first bench on the left side of the classroom and mostly looked out the window in between classes when the rest of us would chat and laugh with one another.
No one talked with him, no one bothered. He looked a rather forlorn figure, alone on his bench.
Not only was he smelly and dirty, but it didn’t matter the subject—math, history, geography, or language—Mustaq needed double the assistance from our teachers. We wondered if he would make it through high school.
Mustaq was the saddest in English class—I believe he hated poetry in particular. And reading aloud. He was terrified when he had to, because every time he mispronounced something, our class broke into muffled giggles and continued until our teacher sternly shushed us and threatened detention.
One afternoon I saw him rooted to his bench, preparing for a test. I approached him and asked if he would like help.
As line by line I revealed the poem’s meaning, suddenly my eyes were drawn to a torn page stuck with some awfully thick gooey stuff.
“What is this?” I exclaimed.
He hung his head in shame and, in a barely audible voice, confessed, “It is cooked rice. I can’t afford to buy glue. My mother and I are very poor,” he went on, “and these are old discarded textbooks a retired teacher gave me.”
Stunned, everything finally dawned on me. I told my friends about his plight—he had only one uniform, which he hand-washed; his uneducated, poor mother earned so little they could barely buy food.
One morning, when Mustaq walked to his desk, he found a large new glue stick, a pencil box, a pair of socks, new blank notebooks, and a neatly folded, ironed uniform. Too overcome, he gave me the look of someone betrayed, and fled the class.
We found him sobbing under a staircase. “Thank you,” he choked. When we returned, two other classmates were sharing his usually vacant long bench, and he smiled through his tears.
After that, every now and then, classmates surprised him with things he needed, including a new red schoolbag. Mustaq had changed for the better—he smiled frequently, lost his stammer, and no longer stared out the window.
But he had changed us even more. He had made us realize our own blessings and how we took them for granted, and the need for us to show compassion instead of judgment—not to be smugly wrapped up in ourselves, our activities, our plans.
We had discovered he was poor, materially. But we discovered we were poorer—in spirit.
It was a lesson we badly needed to learn.
—Sudha Khristmukti, Gujarat, India