The first thing I remember is that she was very small. I was 6 and she wasn’t much bigger than I was. The biggest boy in our class was bigger than she was. But she was very strong. Her hair was a round puff of black framing her petite face, always alive with feeling. It was a face that gave colour to stories and flavour to the year in the lives of those small children. And all 30 of us fell into line very quickly when she walked that first day around with her yard stick clicking in time with her heels ready to hit a number on the blackboard and demand an answer times 12.
She was the first person to pick dates off the massive palm that fell in the gales that year. We kids clambered over the side of the tree like the oppressed elves over a giant tyrant now felled to our will. She put the first date into my mouth and my eyes widened at finding so gorgeous a food on our very own playground!
That Commonwealth Day the country we represented was Brunei. The country was so far away that we had no idea it existed before she read to us and had us create little crafts and posters about the little island nation much closer to her island than to ours. Brunei had gained her independence only a few years before we sang and presented in unison before the whole school all that it represented to the Commonwealth in our little primary school uniforms.
I remember her sense of humour. There are jokes I am now remembering and only now getting. I would take her stories and warnings home to mummy and wonder why she was choking back a laugh. Like the story she told of earthworms. We had had tropical storm weather and it had rained on the playground making it a muddy mess. All the kids in other classes were digging and mucking about in the mud – the rain wasn’t keeping them off our turf. But no, the queen of our classroom headed us off that morning before we were let out to play with the story of how earthworms lay their eggs in the dry dirt and when the feet of small children walk in the mud the eggs stick and get sucked into the pores of the skin and travel up and up and up the blood stream and into the heart and into the brain and they worms crack out of their shells to take over the vital organs and kill naughty little children as they play in the mud.
I have never walked barefoot in mud since.
Embedded in the group of us from an early age was the image of the Philippines as the island home of a small and mighty race. The image stayed deep within me as my person formed and every one of her countrymen who presented themselves to me in life were met with expectation and respect. Prejudices were never allowed to form even with social unrest and stereotypes of strange diets and disingenuous subservience, mercenary anti-integration and a culture of remittances said to drain our economy. In the end they were her people, and she was my people.
There is a lesson in this for us all. Be kind to small children. They will see you as all that you are and all that you are and those like you will be seen by them with the kindness you yourself spent on them into their adulthood.