The Butterfly Maker

I have lied on my resume.

I’m not a team player by instinct.

But by conventional standards, it is a definitely a skill that recruiters look for while scanning the piles of resumes that are nearly indistinguishable from each other. So I followed the protocol that our college dictated and put ‘teamwork’ right up there with ‘work ethics’. Feeling like this made my ‘work ethics’ questionable before I even attended my first interview, I sighed as I added my resume to the unremarkable pile almost half a decade ago.

Of course, I function well as a teammate who contributes effectively, be in on the field or in an office cabin. But I prefer working alone. I think I always have.

I’ve felt a need to be fiercely independent in my work since maybe the second grade, because I did not want to share credit when vying for Mrs. Ragunathan ma’am’s attention. Needless to say, other than my mother and grandmother, Ragunathan ma’am is the best teacher I’ve had. She was everything a culture-shocked and reticent seven year old needed – kind, encouraging, and tolerant of hesitant and broken English that was often punctuated by long pauses. She used to smile through the pauses, and I grew to love the gap between her front teeth and the crinkle of her warm eyes.

I felt like ma’am took me under her wing straight away, the moment I stepped into her little kingdom – 2 F of Our Own English High School, Dubai. In reality, it might have taken her a few weeks longer to realize I was lagging behind my peers in some aspects, especially in my ability to communicate my thoughts clearly. My grasp of the English language had improved significantly by then, but I was still scared to engage in conversations. I did not feel that I had anything to offer; no remarkable skills, no quirky humor. I did not feel special at all.

Until ma’am stepped in and changed my unremarkable world.

She started noticing my birds in art class.
This encouraged others to ask me to show them how I got the feathers just right (for a second grader, that is). This eventually led to a small crowd around my desk, one of my first steps to feeling like part of a group. And knowing that my work had ma’am’s approval, I was invited to different groups in the consequent arts and crafts sessions. My classmates quickly accepted me as one of their own.

She told me my handwriting was nice.
Ma’am suggested that I should take part in the upcoming handwriting competition. This pushed me to gather my clumsy letters into order and I set to work on my cursive with passion. I was heartbroken when I had to miss school on the day of the competition to take care of my brother who choose that day of all days to succumb to a mild fever. But my spirits lifted when she called after school hours to check up on me and told me not to worry – my handwriting would only have improved by the time the next competition came around.

She told me I had a beautiful smile.
I stopped feeling sheepish about my brown skin and messy boyish hair and started to put more effort into making sure my khaki skirts and sky-blue shirts were pressed to perfection and my black shoes were polished to a sheen every morning. I gave up the clip-on and undertook the task of learning to know a tie from scratch. I wanted to make myself presentable, worthy of her praise. At the end of the year, I still looked like a domesticated version of Mowgli, but I learnt to take pride in my appearance.

She used to take the time to engage me in conversations.
Ma’am always had a ring of adoring students around her desk every lunch break or free period, clamoring to get their stories in. But she made me feel like she wanted to hear my stories too – she was interested in me, a plain and boring kid who barely looked people in the eye. I mumbled and stammered my way through the questions she asked – how was my family, was I enjoying myself at my new school, was I facing any difficulties, what plans did I have for the weekend, what delicious food did my mother prepare before she went on her week-long trip to India? At the time, I had no idea what mooru (buttermilk curry) was called, so I told her our fridge was stocked with a huge container of ‘curd curry’, among other staples. Before long, I started asking her questions of my own, and without realizing it, I overcame my shyness one lunch break at a time.

She gave me a tiny part in our class production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin.
Despite my obvious lack of dramatic flair, I did my best to portray a distraught villager with the funniest mustache. Of course, there were the pre-show jitters and the frantic pacing in the makeshift greenroom, and the momentary awe that hits you when it’s your first time on a stage in front of hundreds. But I came off the stage with newfound confidence, a girl who was no longer chronically afraid of speaking in front of crowds.

Ragunathan ma’am laid the foundation of my character and pushed me to push myself. She made me explore new avenues, and taught me not to be afraid of change. She made me independent in my work, but taught me to play well in a team too. Mere words cannot fully convey the respect I have fo her, nor the awe I feel for her. I understood why her desk was always crowded with eager children. It was because she made us all feel special, each in our own way.

She took an awkward and uninteresting caterpillar into her cocoon and made me feel like a true butterfly when she was done with me. And I’m sure she has released thousands of such butterflies all over, bless her.

I do not know where Ragunathan ma’am is now, but I’m sure she’s still spinning her magic and making butterflies for the world.

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