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Short Story: Salim

Short Story: Salim

With impending motherhood, a teacher of young migrant students moves on with her life, not paying attention to what she is leaving behind – until it is too late.

Short Story: Salim

Wrapped up in a coat, you slipped into class. With your scarfed head bowed down, you snuck into your seat. Only there, from the safety of your desk, would you look up.

Solemn eyes fixed me in their gaze, expectantly waiting for me to perform my teacherly duties. You watched me as I hovered in front of the board, as I stepped one way with books or another with handouts.

Your eyes tracked my moves the way a cat watches a bird preoccupied with a worm hunt. I did notice you looking, however. Even in full flight of classroom delivery, I knew I had your attention.

Did that mean I had your comprehension? Now, that’s another matter altogether.

In front of me was a small class of students for whom English was their second language. This was my first permanent teaching job at a secondary school, in the town of Derby in the 1980s.

Migrants from formerly colonised countries, such as India and Pakistan, had settled in England to soak up the labouring work that was needed to push the economy onwards and upwards.

Here were their children, sitting in tidy rows at wooden desks in the classroom of a draughty old building. I had received training to teach English without any awareness of the students’ backgrounds in front of me, not even an awareness that this might be relevant to my teaching.

I was in my twenties and, I see now, too trusting of the status quo to wonder why I needed to know more than had been fed into my qualification.

So, to the best of my ability, I pushed through activities to bring the class up to speed with their reading and writing. At my disposal were bite-sized pieces of texts from recommended textbooks that they could read and then answer questions. I had a few other tricks up my sleeve. I would hand out text with words missing to see if they could fill in the gaps. I would hand out text cut up into sections and see if they could put it all back together in the right order. I would present starter sentences to see if they could match them up with possible endings. The ingenuity of my teaching knew no bounds.

For some reason, a text on New York stands out. It involved a description of the Statue of Liberty. Not that I asked the class if they had ever been to New York. That would have been a ridiculous question. And, at that time, I had never been there either. The place was a complete mystery to us all, quite frankly.

How do I remember this text? It was your writing, Salim, your beautiful, even script that spread across the page. Letters formed into neat little flames and then curled into each other with careful precision. They purposefully covered the blankness of the paper. I am sure the heading was ‘The Statute of Liberty’; I don’t remember the date. But I can still picture them both at the top of the page, with a flash of ruler-lined red beneath each one. Dutifully, you answered the questions. Obediently, you kept going. Did you finish in class? It doesn’t matter because I knew that you would finish at home.  Did I try to engage you in discussion to discover what you understood beyond blind adherence to grammatically correct responses? I don’t recall. Other students may have given up on the task: girls may have giggled; boys may have bantered in a bid to avoid writing altogether. Salim, though, I could rely on you.

When students trooped out at the end of the lesson, you would hang back. Then, a different Salim emerged. Smiling and chatty, you held my attention into the morning break. You must have been saving questions up because you fired them at me in quick succession. What was I doing today? Where would I be at lunchtime? When could you come and find me? I had to carefully ease myself out the room before break was over completely.

Sometimes you would pop into my room after your cookery class. Enthusiastically you would tell me what you had made that day. I recall the shortbread biscuits, which were baked to perfection and received well-earned praise from me. Shortly afterwards, the recipe appeared. Written in that beautiful script. I took it home and pasted it into my scrapbook of recipes.

Always, I could guarantee your presence at my lunchtime clubs (one for reading and another for card playing). You and your friends would rush to the staffroom door at morning break so I could sign your lunch passes, enabling attendance to a club that day.

At times, I was embarrassed when I approached the staffroom entrance because girls had massed into an excitable bundle whilst waiting for my arrival. Staff struggled to get in and out.

I taught Salim English for five years in a row. Coincidence or not, she was in my class from age 11 to 16. By the time she reached school-leaving age, our teacher-student relationship had developed into one of comfortable familiarity.

Now Salim knew me so well, she could gauge my movements and typical actions. Sometimes, I wanted to escape the intensity of our one-to-one after-lesson chats. I was becoming uncomfortable with the over-familiarity, with the sense of expectation that comes from being someone’s favourite teacher. It was with some sense of relief, therefore, when I learnt I was not to be her English teacher as she entered the sixth form.

Sixth form was a whole new ball game for students at this school. Now they had a common room where they could chill out between class.

They could abandon their plain blue school uniform in favour of jeans and any colour of clothing that appealed (whilst ensuring Asian modesty).

The most exciting thing for the girls, I noticed, was the freedom to be friendlier with boys. At home they may have had to show diffidence to the males in their world; at school, they could risk flirtatious behaviour and no-one was going to report back on their disgraceful actions. And what of Salim? How did she fare in a world where boundaries were blurring? Stoically, she remained in her blue uniform and matching headscarf. She did not flirt. Definitely not. In the sixth form, she did not really mix with others at all as far as I could make out.

One day, I was on my way to teach a class and, walking through the common room, I spied Salim. She was sitting in a corner in her lonely blue clothes. Just sitting and looking. I noticed her watch me as I strode past. Albeit at a distance, I saw those eyes tracking me. They smouldered with emotion.

For a moment, I captured her intense unhappiness mixed with undertones of anger. More than that, though, I felt her reproach and sense of abandonment. All those years of obedience in class, never an exercise left undone. And where had it led exactly?

Much later, I reflected on her future. Once she left school, she would join other immigrant women to be bussed out to cotton factories for their daily work. The only reprieve would be marriage. At any time, parents could start their match-making procedures to find her a suitable husband. The thought of that, no doubt, would paralyse her with fear. I knew how she felt about boys.

I don’t recall if our school had a careers service. I would like to think there was careers advice but, really, I don’t remember at all. I do recall meeting Salim’s parents at a parent evening, but it was for her younger brother.

One of them said, in earnest: “We want Mohammed to become a doctor.” I just smiled politely, aware of his gaps in literacy. I simply had nothing to offer that might encourage that migrant dream.

Regardless of career advice, I certainly don’t think our school had a counselling service. The idea that schools might employ professionals to support students’ emotional issues obviously hadn’t made it to this inner-city school in the 1980s.  One time, a student wrote a confessional piece to me in her creative-writing task about abuse from her stepfather.

So convinced was I of its credibility, that I passed it on to the head of year. Afterwards, when I caught up with him, he thanked me and said that indeed it was true. He had had a chat with the girl in question (a minority white girl, as it happens) who preferred it if nothing went any further. So that was that.

Perhaps I am making excuses now by recalling a climate when, if problems weren’t given space to be aired, they need not exist. Because, despite all that I saw in Salim this day, I walked straight past.
I could give the excuse of a class to attend. I could say that it is bad practice to be late. But really, I have no excuse. In truth, I was so pained by what I saw in Salim’s eyes, so guilty that I had not done more to support her that I pretended, instead, not to notice.

I did do something, eventually. I sent her a photo of my baby. As Salim’s world was shrinking, my horizons were expanding. I was expecting a first child and my husband had a job offer down south, close to my parents. I was looking forward to motherhood, to a break from the classroom and to the support of family close by.

In retrospect, I realise how I have taken for granted so much good fortune. I anticipated a seamless move into the next stage of my life. Not once did it occur to me that anything other than a bright and prosperous future lay ahead. And so, I focused on what was to come rather than on what I had left behind.

As weeks and months passed, I forgot that I had sent a photo. I forgot about Salim.

But I was made to remember by the phone call. I did not recognise the man’s voice. He had a Midlands accent and, when he said he was a detective from Derby, I assumed it to be my brother-in-law teasing me.

I scolded the voice for yet another prank phone call. I congratulated him on his imagination but told him he couldn’t fool me any longer. Then I heard the voice say, “I am asking you if you know a woman called Salim?”

“I do.”

“I thought so. We found a letter from you in her bedroom. With a picture of a baby. Have you heard from her recently?”

“No.”

“Okay. I’m afraid to tell you that we found the charred remains of her body in the cellar of her family home. Maybe you know something? Anything? That might help us…”

I could not think how to answer.

Oh, Salim, Salim. I don’t know!

I don’t know anything. I wasn’t there. I never missed you.

Tell me. Did you do take that fatal match to yourself? Was it an anguished strike for peace?

Were you burning for freedom?

I cannot bear to picture your disintegrated form. But these things I do see. I see defiance in your act of desperation. I see power in your voice, raised above a discarded body. I see a path lit with such determination that no one can dispute you have the final word.

Many years later, I think of you, Salim. Would you believe that little baby of mine has one of her own now? I am left with this one last thing to tell you: Salim, I’m sorry.

AUTHOR MAGGIE FLAVELL

Maggie Flavell taught in England for many years before coming to New Zealand in 2008 to teach secondary English.  She completed a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in 2019, exploring how NZ schools build relationships with Pacific families to support students’ learning.  During her studies, Maggie thought a lot about Salim, wishing she had done more to help. This is a true story, based on her teaching experiences in the UK.

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