I don’t know how Mariana, my classmate, could have sat still when the entire classroom bullied her. She stood still when Lan, a polio-ridden boy, hit her upper arm seven times—I counted. Because I sat two rows behind her, each blow felt like it had been aimed at me too. I cringed, while rubbing my own upper arm, somehow sharing her pain.
The teacher had been absent during that particular period, so everyone in my classroom was busy teasing each other. The subject of that day’s tease was Lan. He was said to be in a relationship with Keti Clara. Upon hearing this Lan threw a rage and asked: “Who told you that?” As a joke, nearly everyone pointed at Mariana, who kept her head down and who seemed preoccupied with her own writing. She was finishing a story titled “A Sad Tiger in the Forest”—or so I assumed, because several times during recess I had caught her scribbling in a notebook, and at the top of the page was the title of the story. It upset me that Mariana would not stand up for herself. Why didn’t she tell the classroom it wasn’t her who started the rumor about Lan and Keti Clara? Why would she let everyone play a joke on her like that? Her silence aggravated me. There was another time when Keti Clara—the daughter of our PE teacher—said, “Hey, Mariana, why don’t you write a story titled ‘The School Janitor’?” and the classroom erupted in a mocking laugh. Still, Mariana kept her mouth shut. My ears burned at each comment thrown by our classmates; and I felt like I should have stood up for her, but I was afraid they would assume I had feelings for her.
Mariana’s father was the custodian of our elementary school on Kalipokan Island. My father worked at the same school teaching Bahasa Indonesia. We came from Donggala, but my father accepted the offer to be stationed on Kalipokan Island, so we all moved there and lived in a residence provided by the government. Mariana’s family also lived in the same complex, but the house she lived in was old and in need of significant repairs while the house my family lived in had recently been renovated. All the teachers who were not native to the island lived in these new homes, and you could easily spot them because their walls were painted bright green. Mariana’s home stood out because it looked dilapidated compared to the other houses in the complex. She couldn’t even use the restroom in her house to defecate. So, every morning at five I would look out the window and find her walking down the road with an oil lamp in her hand, heading for the school to use the public toilet at our school.