The Pip Squeak Sikh
Several years ago, on the first day of school, a young child was delivered by their mother to the class of one of our veteran kindergarten teachers. The child had honey-colored skin, enormous brown eyes ringed with heavy lashes, was wearing a lavender-colored handkerchief over a small bun on the top of their head and a silver bangle on their wrist. The teacher put the child in the girl’s line. The mother delicately informed her that it was a boy.
“Have a look over there,” the teacher said to me later that day. She jerked her head in the direction of a particular table where the boy with the lavender cloth on his head was sitting quietly and politely with some other not so quiet and polite new students.
“Is this him?” I asked, pointing to a long name on my list.
“Yes,” she answered through pursed lips, “How do you think you say it? It looks like it has about 85 letters in it.”
I made a guess at the pronunciation of the first name, and then with certitude told her his last name was Singh, pronounced “sing” and if I had known it at the time, I would have told her Singh meant lion in his language. I did tell her he was from India and not to worry. He would probably be one of her best students.
Which turned out to be the case.
He was also one of my students, as English was not his first language, and I saw him often up in my room with a small group of other kindergarteners. It was easy to see why his teacher had mistaken him at first glance for a girl though if you watched him move, you immediately knew this couldn’t be the case. He had the jaunty stride of a little lad and marched along confidently with his hands in his pockets.
He was also a bit of a flirt, at the age of 6, and told the most charming and outrageous lies, that his sister’s given name was Strawberry, for example, or that he had gone to bed at 2 the night before when you knew perfectly well it wasn’t true. When the teacher next door recognized him and told me his father ran one of the local package stores, I was overjoyed. An entrepreneur!
One day, this same teacher came into my room.
“What does Mr. ____ buy at your father’s store?” I asked R. a bit wickedly.
He thought about it for a long time and then answered with a little grin, “Potato chips.”
We all loved him.
Within a few weeks his best friend was a little boy from Pakistan and I still have pictures of them sitting in the bus line with their arms around each other grinning into the camera. In fact, the little boy from Pakistan was a bit over-sensitive and often cried at some of the rough talk that was all too common amongst the children in our school. R. became his defender and from time to time I would watch him marching along beside his new friend with his tiny arm thrown confidently over the Pakistani boy’s shoulder.
I only saw him cry once, on a day out on the playground when one of the older boys pulled his kerchief off his hair. I put it back on for him and took him by the hand. Another child brought the offender over.
“Why did you put your hands on him?” I asked sternly.
“Why does he wear that thing on his head?” the perpetrator countered.
“It shows his respect for God.”
The boy went quiet. All the children did.
Towards the end of the year, his family moved, to have their home closer to R.’s father’s place of business, and this meant that R. had to go to another school. The teacher who had not known what to do with him back in September was devastated.
“All the good ones leave,” she sighed to me, “he’s so far ahead of all the others and he doesn’t even speak English properly.”
“What am I going to do without you?” I asked R. with an exaggerated sorrow that the 6 year old took entirely seriously. He drew himself up to his full height, as if he were going into battle, and then told me gravely, “I have to go.”
And he did, and the years have passed and I know he must wear a full turban now. Last year, I read in the paper that he had won a scholarship to a prestigious private school in a neighboring town. He’ll start high school this year.
And fortunately he lives in Connecticut and not Wisconsin.
Though I fear for him. For it seems the done thing now that whenever anyone is upset about the world, they march in somewhere and start shooting. They mistake Sikhs for Muslims. They blame Muslims for everything. They fear what they have not troubled themselves to understand.
How many other little lions were in the temple that day in Wisconsin, I wonder? How many young Sikhs now walk our streets not quite so confidently? How does R. walk? Is he as jaunty as he was when I knew him, or does he now look over his shoulder as he goes, wondering what crazy fool will be out that day and start shooting at him because he wears a turban and a bangle?