Our school across the river is the only elementary school in the village. Every morning, we begin our journey to school at 5 with no shoes and crisp cloths on. We never tasted decent breakfast; mom would only serve us the fish that dad caught the night before. Sometimes we’re afraid to leave for school so early; morning has not broken. The dim moon would still hover over us when we walk through the bush and roots of trees.
Mom said during our bedtime story times that electricity never touched our village. Every night, only the moon and stars accompany us. We sleep among the soft light of fireflies. And every night, mom would sing and tell us stories. The morning after, we’d wake up eagerly to face the new day.
Dad said that the distance between the school and home is over 5 km. We never mind the walk, for us weariness is a blessing. We could scream our lungs out when our tiny feet feel heavy with the weight of our body and the books in our bags. We do need to carry a lot of books just the new curriculum wants us to do.
The trees in our village always look like they are moving and waving at us. The canoes that pass by our house sometimes sound as if they are about to tip over. The sound of the rooster crows is the only morning alarm in this place. The sound of crickets and gurgling of the river also accompany us every morning. And for the rest of the day would be filled with school activities. It is quite a far place for us to go to every day.
We walk through a path, when the moon’s smile could still be seen. The sounds of animals accompany our journey. The wind blows, playing with their leaves, making them look like dancing in the cool and beautiful morning. It was the perfect cool. There is water around the leaves from last night’s fairy rain.
We haven’t showered. Our faces still have drools on them, and our hair messy.
Every time we go to school, we always bump into sap tappers that we know. They are neighbors or parents of our school friends who live across the river. We always ask them about the condition of the river.
“How is the river today, Sir?” We ask those smelly men. The area of our marginalized village is quite big so we can handle the smell.
“Quite profuse. Be careful, last night’s rain has made so many sharp stones.”
We look into the winding road, which is the start of a fun journey, the river.
The river was once clear and clean. You could see beautiful stones from above the surface. That was before, when we used to play here. Unfortunately, the place where people like our father work is ruined. Every morning there are fishing rods, pierced at the edge of the river from the night before. No one knows if there is still fish here. Dad said, it is so hard to look for fish now. Often, he had to wait for more than 3 hours just to catch small fish.
This river is now murky. People from across the river have begun to work here. They are mining the river stones. We don’t know whom to blame. But what they are doing is quite destructive to heads of families here. The flow of the river became so slob when it reaches our home, it makes the clothes that mom washed look murky too.
Crossing the river as the only way to school, we take our clothes off. The river is quite wide. Mom is always worried whenever we go to school. We have told her countlessly not to worry because we would take care of each other.
We take off our clothes, but leave our shorts on. One of our siblings carries our clothes according to the schedule that we made. He would also be the one to throw our clothes back when we have crossed the river.
Since we took off, the day has broken. It is now around 6 in the morning. And many people are ready to work. We carefully walk across the river, scared of the prickly stones. Those stones would hurt so much. Usually we would quickly jump into the water and swim for a while before crossing the river. But this time we walk slowly. Somehow, the river today is quite high and profuse. Usually it would go up to our stomachs, but today it is up to our chests. So we hold hands.
“Ouch!” says one of us.
It turned out that a stone in the middle of the river pricks our little brother’s foot. It happens where the water reaches his neck. He screams. His wound must be very deep. We continue our journey, sticking to our plan to hold hands while trying to walk a bit faster in the water.
Thank God we’re careful. We’re soaking wet. Our brother throws our clothes to us.
While waiting for the rest of us to cross the river, we look at our youngest brother’s wound. It is deep and bleeding.
“Just scream and enjoy the tiring and painful journey.”
“Aaaaarghhhh,” he screams.
Like always, we arrive a bit late at school. The school guard waves his hands, telling us to come quicker. We run, laugh and scream to each other. We jump with our bare feet.
“How are your parents? How is the river?”
“Mom was coughing this morning, big brother and dad just got home from fishing. And the river was profuse with stones. Looks like the stone miners would harvest today. Just look at our brother, his foot is hurt.”
“Now, now, just go inside,” says the school guard opening the gate. We greet him. “By the way, have you showered this morning?” He asks jokingly.
“Like always, in the river,” and we burst into laughter.
Our school has electricity. When the sky is dark like today, we would turn on the light. It looks so bright and amazing. In the morning, the school fan is always on. Sometimes this makes us cold and our stomachs hurt. When one of us passes the gas, the whole class would laugh. Thankfully, our school friends understand people from rural areas like us.
Our school is very neat and clean. When we told the story of our school for the first time, our mother cried. Somehow, we cried with her too.
“Have you had breakfast?” asks one friend.
“Our breakfast was the sweetness of the journey,” we answer, giggling. We are the jokers here. We try to be happy in front of our friends who are so different from us. Their fathers are stone miners or rubber tappers. They always have increasing profits. We are just the children of a fisherman who sometimes forget how to pull to fishing hook and our mother is a simple vegetable farmer.
They are so happy to befriend us and we too are eager to befriend them. We always try to create happiness in this light bright school. Our teachers are happy with us too, even when we come barefoot and write on our old books, and even when our clothes are wet from crossing the river.
Some friends call us “across the river kids”. For them, we are kids who cannot stop laughing. As far as we can remember, when we told them about our lives, our friends and teachers always cried. So, we try to make them laugh and happy so our differences could be forgotten.
Our teacher said that we are the shining light. But we want to become the moon. Because we only have the moon at night. Every night we dream about the next day. To fill our days at school is the dream of mom, dad and us. When we come home from school, we often feel sad. We worry that we cannot go to school tomorrow. When the school is over we wave our friends, teachers and the school guard goodbye. We want them to miss us like we miss them when mom asks us about school.
We hurry home with feet that are never tired to come back to school. The way home is no better. But we can scream to the woods, the river and the jungle that will accept our weariness.
“Mom, little brother’s foot is hurt,” we scream when we arrive home.
“Scream! Scream away the pain, son.”
Like always, we reach home around 5 in the afternoon. We fill our whole day at our light, bright school.
There is a plate of rice for us to eat together with sambal (chili paste) and fish that dad caught. Dad has gone to the river to fish tonight. May the moon shine his way and may the rain be kind, so his foot will not be hurt when he steps his feet in the river full of prickly stones.
The night is dark, animals are starting to sing and rumbles can be heard. We will sleep early tonight. The cool rain has made us sleepy. Aw, the moon cannot be seen tonight. The rain is covering the stars and the light of the night.
“Mom, the school light is so bright. Just like you and dad. We have to work hard tomorrow, but the school taught us about tolerance. Our difference has only made us happy.”
“It’s true that it is dark here son, but the light of the houses across would brighten our house a bit. Just look at the window. The shine shines through. Love life. You are the moon and the bright fireflies for the village.”
We nod in agreement.