At the Happy Honey Bee, I was escorted into a green room decorated with English letters and seated in front of a pastry box filled with chocolate and non-refrigerable cheese.
“You just read the sentences and they will respond to you,” said one of the teachers, throwing a flap of her blue veil over one shoulder. She handed me a packet of questions, holding in her own hand a stack of evaluation sheets with which she would grade her students.
I was informed that I would be introduced to 30 children between the ages of 5 and 13, almost none of whom had experienced a single interaction with a native English speaker.
The door opened to admit the first test participant. He slid himself onto the stool across from me: six or seven years old, not more than 40 pounds. His superhero t-shirt hung loosely over his torso and draped across his dangling legs.
“Hello!” I said.
The teacher told me his name was Ijin.
Ijin looked like he was about to pee in his chair.
“Can you name five fruits?” I asked sweetly. As if taunted by a trolling riddle, Ijan glanced away and looked toward his teacher, who translated the question into Indonesian.
Ijin stared blankly at the corner, and the teacher shifted to smile apologetically at me. “Apple” Ijin responded at last with great effort. “Banana…” And the rest were lost to him.
Next up was Amalia, whose responses were slightly more than catatonic. Outside the testing room I could see her chasing the other children in a fury of glee, laughter escaping her mouth and resounding into the garden; but as soon as she stepped inside to meet me, her smile disappeared. She sat down, and I watched her eyes mist over as if she were dissolving into a better place.
“Chopsticks,” she said when I asked her to name several kitchen utensils. Despite being only eight years old, Amalia had already begun sporting the veil as a trend and wore a bright pink hijab that ruffled down to her sternum, polka-dotted with Hello Kitties that smiled to match the patches on her jeans. A rainbow shirt flowed from beneath her veil so from head to toe she looked like a tent for hippies high on LSD.
All bright things grow dim in the face of gravity. To Amalia, my strange voice and stranger smile signified questionable and looming intentions, like a doctor with a needle or a circus animal pressed up against its cage. In the time I waited for her to assemble the courage to speak, I watched the sway of the Eiffel Tower dangling from a bracelet on her wrist.
All afternoon it went like this, with children being led in to my shadow. Five minutes each. Sometimes they were brought in three at a time, leaving me singing the “A, B, Cs” by myself to eyes strung open to various intensities. They shoved their hands between the bench cushions for comfort and, when they breathed through their lips, nothing came out.
The braver ones spoke of Doraemon and fried chicken. They told me that they chose their friends because they were beautiful.
Others spoke with gentle urging from their teachers. Last year I interviewed an eight-year-old girl whose round face, I remember clearly, popped out from her shepherd-style hijab like a swollen moon. The girl’s teacher, a flamboyant college student studying English for tourism, crouched beside her for support. Upon being asked to describe a member of her family, the little girl blinked. Her teacher placed a hand on her back and told her exactly what to say.
“My mother,” the teacher began.
The girl took a deep breath. “My mother.”
“A fat body.”
“A. Fffat. Bodeee.”
“The whole sentence?”
“My. Mother. Has. A. Fat. Body.”
The beauty of freed speech.
After suffering through trials with me, the children were given candy and snacks. Each time the door opened to admit a new student, the other children swarmed to look at me, their mouths stuffed with chocolate and neon chips.
At last the school’s owner, Popi, sat down to discuss his students’ performance. I told him their major struggle was lack of confidence, which clearly didn’t surprise him. He smiled with characteristic Javanese ease and gazed through the open door to where the children ran giggling from room to room. “You know they’re rarely exposed to foreigners,” he said. “And at other locations in Indonesia, it’s even worse. Native speakers are hard to find, and when they come, they don’t stay long.”
Popi’s wife entered with their two-year-old daughter. Popi took her into his arms and bounced her on his knee. Like most of the students, Popi’s daughter carried excess fat on her little bones: a signifier of the upper class.
“It’s hard to give the right resources to all Indonesians,” he said, “but maybe in the future…” and he trailed off like Ijin forgetting his fruits.
Popi’s daughter, undaunted by my alien presence, opened her mouth to sing.
“Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?” she crooned into the otherwise quiet room: and just in time for the sun to sink. From the open window, in the time it took Happy Honey Bee’s students to remember their third kitchen utensil, the classroom filled with dusk.