No one knew when Joseph was born, neither the day nor the year. He was certainly the oldest kid in the school, at around seventeen. Tragically, his parents had left him to move to the city, and I got the impression his grandfather never took a great deal of interest in him.
He was by far my worst student, and by far my favorite. He never paid a shred of attention to my lessons. He’d sit at his desk all day staring into space, sliding his ruler wetly back and forth through his mouth, and then, rubbing his head, would make little yellow balls of dandruff rain down upon his exercise book. I couldn’t help but harbor a moderate disgust for him at first, but he grew on me very quickly, like mold on bread in that damp tropical air. He was just so good-natured.
Sometimes, in the middle of class, Joseph would stand up on his chair, throw a fist into the air, and shout, “I am king of the world!” He was half-rejected and half-revered by his peers. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person as angsty or as goofy.
Joseph would, inevitably, spend many a lunch hour hunched over on the concrete floor of my verandah, writing lines. I’d often cook an extra plate of rice for him, as he scarcely ever brought food to school, and no one else would give him any. One day, about half an hour after all the other kids had been dismissed, Joseph lost patience with his lines.
“Teacha, I will go home!” he shouted.
“Have you finished your lines?” I asked.
“Finish your lines, buddy.” I came out onto the verandah. “And then you can go home.”
“No Teacha! I will go home and I will not school tomorrow!”
“Come on, my friend. Look, you’re almost done. And come to school tomorrow.”
“No, Teacha! I will go home now! And tomorrow…” – and here his eyes clouded over dreamily – “… Tomorrow I will school in Vila.”
Port Vila was 260 km away, and I knew Joseph didn’t have any money for a boat. It would be a very long way to swim, particularly in time for class the following morning, so I wished him luck.
One morning, near the end of the first term, I was preparing report cards while my students were doing an English exercise. I was asking them about their medical histories.
“Joseph,” I said. “Come here please. Were you born with any medical problems?”
“Teacha, my toot hurt.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Joseph, and you really should brush your teeth more often, but were you born with any health problems?”
“Teacha, I tell you my toot hurt!”
“I know, Joseph. But aside from your tooth, you’re a healthy guy, right? Have you ever been really, really sick?”
“Teacha I tell you my toot hurt! Write it down!”
I didn’t write it down, but I did give Joseph a toothbrush. Once, when he came to school with a filthy, pus-filled gash on the sole of his foot, I cleaned it and bandaged it in gauze, and gave him my somewhat dilapidated sandals to prevent it getting dirty again.
The first day of second term marked a turning point. Joseph was hissing at me during class (people sometimes hiss when they’re angry in that part of the world) and earned himself, ten at a time, a whopping 500 lines. I told him he had to stop hissing or I would give him a punishment worse than lines. Then he hissed at me again. Time stopped. I knew I had to do something, and fast. Leaning down, I scooped a cup of water from the class water bucket, and splashed it in his face. He slammed his fists on his desk and sprang to his feet, furious. I half-thought he was going to take a swing at me, but he just threw his backpack on the floor and stormed out.
The next day, however, he came to school with an uncharacteristic air of humility, and even more surprisingly, a sudden craving for academic success. During a math exercise, he shouted hopelessly,
“Teacha, you must learn me!”
“Why of course I’ll help you, Joseph! Just a moment.” I was thrilled.
“No Teacha! You must learn me now! Please Teacha!”
Grinning, I helped him with his work. He wrote all of his lines that week, and seemed pleased enough to spend his lunches and breaks on the verandah with Luke (my placement partner) and me. He kept misbehaving, but always willingly wrote his lines from then on out.
Then, during my last month on Ambae, Joseph’s wisdom teeth came in violently, and his left cheek swelled up – no joke – to the size of a tennis ball. There was the toothache he’d been complaining about. He couldn’t come to school. Teaching was simpler but so bloody boring after that. Joseph would stop by our shack from time to time on his two-hour walk between his grandfather’s house and the clinic, and I’d make him a cup of tea or some soft food, and give him some Advil. He was always smiling his lopsided, swollen smile, despite weeks of chronic agony. I greatly admired his capacity to smile in spite of his pain.
By the time I left, we were no longer teacher and pupil. We were friends. When I shook his hand and wished him the best of luck, his eyes were shining a little, and he looked away shyly.
People seldom said nice things about Joseph. They would speak of his poor behavior and god-awful personal hygiene, would scorn him for attending primary school at his age, and laugh at him because he was always writing lines. Joseph was woefully misunderstood. He was an outcast. He was more or less an orphan, and just so tragically unloved. But he was remarkably persevering. Joseph had the grace to grin where others would lose heart. I’ll miss him.