Talking of butterflies and freedom, I had just sat down to Sunday lunch today with the family when my seven year old nephew came and stood at my elbow with something in his hand. He softly said to me, "My mother asked me to ask you to tell me the story of the magic slate." So that's what he was holding!
Grins on the faces in the room, a deep breath from me. The story begins.
More than 40 years ago, a little girl growing up in Singapore entered Primary 1. She suddenly felt very grown up - you see, kindergarten was different. This was the Big School, and strategically located at Orchard Road at that. It was not however the Big Stores that were in such close proximity that called out to her, but a small little Indian (or Mama) shop situated in the narrow and dingy passage way that led from school to Orchard Road.
Her classmates would often show her little knick knacks that they had bought at the mama shop. She was never very interested in their acquisitions. But one day she was shown a small magic slate. Her eyes lit up. She so wanted that. It would cost 15 cents she was told. Not a problem, she thought, as she could quickly save up for it.
At this point, the little nephew interjects: 15 cents? Save up? How much did other things cost at her school? Like food for instance? His mother chips in to say that in her time, a plate of nasi lemak had cost about 30 cents. The nephew struggles to fathom the value of 15 cents at that time. "I can't get anything for 15 cents", he tells me disappointedly.
So the girl started saving up and the day she hit the 15-cent mark, she had to start thinking of how to procure the slate. There was no way she could shop after school for her parents would be at the gate right on the dot at the end of each day. Should she ask them to take her to the shop? No. Surely she was old enough to experience the joy of shopping without grown ups lurking around. Should she assign one of her friends to the task? No, she wanted to choose her own slate and not leave it to a friend. Realising she had only one option, she discovered within her the courage to step out of the school gate during break time one fine day.
Ah, what joy and freedom she felt skipping down that passage way. After choosing her magic slate, she quickly made her way back to school. No sooner had she crossed the gate, a Prefect (who was supposed to be a friend, by the way), stood in her path glaring furiously at her. What sort of a friend was this? The girl felt quite betrayed.
WHERE DID YOU GO? i went out. WHERE? to the shop. WHY? to buy something. WHAT? this. WHY DID YOU GO AT BREAK TIME? silence. WHYY? fear began to creep in. WHYYY??? more fear. She began to tremble. Because somebody asked me to buy it. WHO? i don't know. YOU DON'T KNOW? no. HOW COME YOU DON'T KNOW? because I was sitting facing the wall when this person tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stretch my arm out to the back. she put 15 cents in my palm and ordered me to go and buy her a slate. YOU DIDN'T SEE HER FACE? no. she didn't let me see her face!
Both the nephew and niece are in fits of laughter by now.
The girl was taken to the Teacher who glared and yelled at her. Her Elder Sister was called down from her class and she glared too. Her Parents were called to the school and they glared very very hard, menacingly in fact. She went home that evening and the entire household glared at her. She obediently wrote the 100 lines that had been meted out as punishment, quietly had her dinner and disappeared to sit on the top step of the staircase. It was quite dark up there. Taking out her little magic slate, she began to look at it and caress it gently.
Suddenly, she felt a presence behind her. Her grandfather quietly sat down next to her and asked, "Show me what you bought". He held it, looked at it and almost caressed it too. "You really wanted this, did you?" She nodded.
The nephew and niece of course know they have just been given a lot to chew on. The nephew asks a final question: "Does she still have the magic slate?" I answer that she does not.
For a magic slate is as transient as the words that keep appearing and disappearing from it.
The nephew holds his own slate tenderly, almost apologetic about the fact that he has got his for free as part of some offer. I am quite sure that he will always think of the little girl when he plays with his own magic slate.