For a six-year-old who can’t spell, there are few things as frightening as an English exam in a Singaporean primary school: a classroom silent but for the furious scratching sounds of pencil on paper, overly zealous classmates protecting their answers from wandering eyes such as mine, and of course the bespectacled Miss Das at the front of the classroom whose patience I had exhausted that morning with my inability to tie my shoe laces. I looked at the fill-in-the-blanks section on the sheet in front of me. “Insert the right question words,” it said.
I knew what the right question words were, I just didn’t know how to spell them. But I knew someone who did.
“Miss Das… can I go to the toilet?”
The kids around me sniggered, unaware of my genius plan. Miss Das’ eyes met mine and I dropped my gaze, worried that she’d see right through them and read my thoughts. The sound of pencil on paper dimmed as Miss Das contemplated the question.
“Yes, but hurry up,” she said. I laid my pencil case on top of my sheet to mimic the studious lot and walked briskly out of the classroom, my shoe laces flying in all directions.
The school had a wall mounted telephone near the restrooms, and I pulled out from my pocket the prepaid telephone card I had been given for emergencies. I looked around to make sure I was alone. I then picked up the receiver with confidence—I was going to ace this exam!—and dialed my home phone number.
I heard a beep, but then nothing else. Had I dialed the wrong number?
I said the number out loud as I navigated the key pad to make sure I got it right the second time.
Again, a beep, but then nothing else. Was the line busy?
“Hey!” yelled a voice behind me.
I slammed the receiver down and turned to see Ajay, my nemesis. Just a week ago, I had been accused of stealing my neighbor’s eraser, and my claim that I would never steal a pink one did not fly with Miss Das. I later found out, when the pink eraser fell out of his pocket at the playground, that it was Ajay who had taken it.
“Who are you calling?” Ajay asked.
“Cheeeater,” he sneered.
“I’m not a cheater.”
“Do you want me to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheeeater?” he asked, an evil grin on his fat face.
I looked down at my shoe laces that lay sprawled on the polished floor. I didn’t know how to spell question words, my mom wouldn’t pick up my phone calls, and Ajay was going to get me kicked out of school. My life was over.
“Are you crying?” he asked with a laugh.
“I’m not a crybaby, stupid!”
“I’m going to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheater and that you called me stupid,” he said, walking back towards our classroom.
“I know the pink eraser is in your pocket,” I said softly, stopping him in his tracks. I blinked back my tears and walked up to him. “I saw it fall out in the playground.”
“My dad bought that eraser for me,” he said, his right hand slipping into the pocket that housed the stolen item.
“Your dad bought you a pink eraser?”
He stared, speechless, and I knew he was stumped. But within a couple of seconds, he was smiling again.
“We’re friends,” he said. “And friends don’t tell on each other.”
“I won’t tell Miss Das you took the pink eraser,” I said.
“And I won’t tell her that you are a cheater.”
“I’m not a cheater!”
“I saw you on the phone!”
“I tried calling… but my mom didn’t pick up,” I said.
Ajay commiserated with a sad nod of his head, and then said, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you out.”
“That’s what friends do.” He put his arm around me as we walked back towards our classroom.
“I don’t know how to spell questions words,” I admitted, now that we were friends.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Always put the ‘h’ at the end.”
“So, it’s W-A-T-H?” I asked.
My new friend’s face widened in a smile. He nodded and held the door open for me. I bent down, stuffed my unruly laces in the gaps of my shoes, and walked in with swagger.
I was going to ace this exam.