A FAT SHADOW fell on my desk. ‘Let me see your notebook,’
Pak Firdaus said, but I gripped it so tightly that he had to pry it from my fingers. All eyes were on us, but Pak Firdaus didn’t care. He turned the pages with curiosity – poems I’d been writing since elementary school.
‘You know my subject is economics?’ With his finger he ordered me to follow him to the front of the class. ‘Bring your backpack!’
He sat on his desk. His glasses slid to his nose as he shook my bag upside down.
‘Hey, that’s my private stuff!’
A pouch of Softex rolled to the floor. The whole class roared with laughter.
As I dashed to grab my book, Pak Firdaus walked to the sink by the whiteboard, turned the faucet and soaked it in the gushing water.
When I got home, I told Mama. ‘He can’t just go through our private stuff like that, can he? Isn’t that setting a bad example?’ My book of poems lay unconscious on my parents’ bedroom floor, bleeding black and blue ink. For half an hour I’d been trying to revive it using Mama’s hairdryer.
‘Well, it’s also your fault, isn’t it? You did write poems in his class.’ Mama thought she could caress the frown off my face. ‘Listen, never mind what the teacher’s like. What’s important is the knowledge that he teaches you.’ She didn’t consider how hard it is to listen to someone who had lost your respect.
It had been three weeks since Revo asked me to write lyrics for his band. I decided to complain only to him.
The next day, Pak Firdaus’s motorbike was dismantled.
TWO YEARS AGO, Mama told me that I was to go to an Islamic middle school. I protested, cried and sulked. I imagined I’d have to share a dank room with a dozen other girls and be forced to wear the hijab everyday. I wanted to go to the same public school as my two best friends.
It baffled me why my parents wanted to send me to an Islamic school. Our family said ‘hello’, instead of ‘assalamu alaikum’, when answering the phone; Mama always reminded me to pray before taking exams, but she also told me to study. When an Islamic community was enraged because CNN had showed them rioting and waving machetes, Papa said, ‘If you don’t want to be shown rioting and waving machetes, then don’t riot and wave machetes!’
I supposed their desire for me to change schools had to do with reports of teenage violence that seemed to get worse everyday: two high school gangs clashed and threw rocks across a crowded road; a student threw acid at students from the school where his best friend had been beaten to death; the police stopped a bus full of high school students and found that they were carrying sickles, Molotov cocktails and even a katana.
Mama said she’d rather lose all her savings than lose me to such madness. My fate had been decided. I was to go to a school in West Java, an hour’s drive from our home on the eastern border of Jakarta. All the bullets my eyes could shed were powerless to pierce my parents’ steely determination.
The national examination at my old school was held under the supervision of teachers from another school – the rule should prevent our teachers from fixing our test scores so that the school could keep its top status and continue to receive healthy government funding. The teachers, however, were clever. Only half an hour through the first subject, my classmate tossed a crumpled paper my way. As I didn’t want any trouble, I slapped it away.
‘Hey, that’s from the proctor,’ he whispered.
I looked up and saw the proctor writing on a piece of paper and then ask a student in the front row to pass it around. I could only guess that our teachers were doing the same at the school where they were proctoring. All week long, balls of cheat-sheet were jumping from one corner of our classroom to another, like meatballs on a pan.
At the end of the first day, our principal poked her bespectacled head into our classroom and said, ‘Don’t tell your parents the proctors are nice, okay?’
But of course I told.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Mama said. ‘If you get high scores, that’s good for you too.’
‘Great. I’ll go out and play now.’
‘No, Vita, study anyway! That way you’ll get both the scores and the knowledge.’
After exam week, I agreed to enrol in the Islamic school.
THE NEW SCHOOL turned out to be nothing like the underfunded madrasahs I’d pictured. The main building was a three-storey construction hugging a multipurpose courtyard. Each grade consisted of four classes, and each classroom contained only twenty-five kids. The restrooms had sit-down toilets, the open-air cafeteria offered everything from chicken noodles to ice-cream, and there was a library, a science lab and a computer lab. The school was using the national curriculum, with the addition of three subjects: Islamic history, Qur’anic Studies and Arabic. In many ways, it was just like – even better than – any normal school.
I had to wear the hijab only on Fridays. In each classroom, no more than half of the girls chose to wear it everyday. The boys were encouraged to wear long pants, like high school kids, and I was glad that many chose to do so. They looked more mature and handsome.
We started and ended each day with a prayer. Unlike at elementary school, during field trips we always stopped at a mosque after azan had been sounded. I liked that we could always ask the teachers about the Islamic perspective on things, and I enjoyed digging out meaning from verses that before I could only read.
Behind the school there was an empty lot, occupied solely by wild cassava bushes. Kids who arrived late sometimes climbed the fence that separated the lot from the school’s backyard. The gates closed at seven on the dot – the first and second time we arrived late, we’d still be allowed in after paying a fine of five thousand rupiahs and reciting a few verses from the Qur’an. The third time, we’d be sent home and have to get a parent’s signature. However, because the classroom windows had no bars, we could sneak in.
After going to this school for two years, I could say that most of the time the kids were solid, especially if co-ordinated by Kardus, the most fearsome school gang and one that also stood up against horrible teachers. We’d all heard Pak Haris, the history teacher, call us ‘dogs’, ‘termites’, even ‘pigs’. Bu Rahayu, the old maid English teacher, liked to caress handsome boys. Once she did it to Eris, Kardus’ second-in-command, and he yelled at her so fiercely that she never bothered him again. Coach Bimo – we called him Bemo because his face with his bulging lips reminded us of the three-wheeled vehicle – had to have heard Kardus kids call him by his nickname, because each time it was their turn to serve or kick the ball, he would deliberately look away and give them all a five, even though their serve or kick was excellent. One day, during basketball, the heavy ball flew smack into his head. No one claimed to see who threw it.
Revo, the leader of Kardus, looked as formidable as a spear with his close-cropped hair and sunburned skin. He was so muscled that he often showed off by doing one-armed push-ups in front of the class. He was also quite devout – he often said things like, ‘If you wanna rebel, go ahead, but leave God alone. Humans are rotten, not God.’ He sang and played lead guitar in his band.
Eris was our school’s Prince Charming. His face was so sweet that even a constellation of zits on each cheek couldn’t spoil his charm. He had admirers in every class, from 7A to 9D, our class, yet I never heard him pursuing or going out with any girl. In the band he played rhythm guitar.
After that, there was Hektor – a teddy bear inside the body of King Kong. He played drums and only sang when the band played Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Then, there was Ilham, their bass player – so smart that he was nicknamed ‘the brain of Kardus’. Other than the four who formed the band, Kardus had fifteen other members spread from 9A to 9D. This year Revo, Eris, Hektor and Ilham were placed in the same classroom as my best friend Dara and me. Since the first time I saw him, I’d been in love with Revo. I was sure he could beat up any boy who dared to elbow my breasts. Boys liked to pretend to unscrew a bottle or take off a ring, or just plainly swing their elbow into a girl’s chest. They seemed to know we were taught to feel shame, to pretend nothing had happened as they grinned at our wincing faces and asked us if something was wrong. And they became even more fond of elbowing us.
Sadly, boys like Revo never knew girls like me existed, so I only watched him from afar. I went to every Open Stage in which Kardus performed and took his picture with a zoom lens. Besides, he already had a girlfriend – a childishly sweet, short but curvy girl named Elok who wore a Hello Kitty bag to school. He even wrote ‘Revo ờ Elok’ on his lemon-coloured backpack. Other Kardus boys would be ridiculed to death if they did something like that, but Revo could do what
he wanted.When he approached me during biology, three weeks before Pak Firdaus drowned my book, a string of fireworks exploded in my heart.
Bu Yana was struggling to win our attention. The previous week she had drawn a crossword puzzle, and that day she tried getting us to play the Millionaire quiz with biology questions. Still, no one paid attention, except the five geeks sitting on the front row. In the back row, Revo and Eris were strumming away.
I felt sorry for Bu Yana, because even though she was as boring as static and her voice was as annoying as a donkey’s, I could see how hard she was trying. Imagine the insult she had to bear when, while she was drawing her crossword puzzle, Revo and Eris pushed their desks away to give themselves space to play guitar. That was why I paid quiet attention to her.
I was looking up the difference between monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous plants when suddenly I noticed Revo standing in front of me.
‘Hey, you write poems, yeah?’ he said.
‘Can I see them?’
‘There’s this citywide Battle of the Bands next month, but you’re not allowed to do covers. I was thinking maybe we could use your poems as lyrics.’
‘Oh.’ I’d do anything to talk to Revo, but I dreaded what would happen if he recognised himself as the love-interest of the girl in my poems. ‘A-all right.’
‘Do you have them now?’
‘Now? No.’ I lied.
‘Bring them tomorrow, okay?’
Just like that. Revo returned to his seat and whispered something to Eris.
THAT EVENING, DARA and I watched online clips of the songs that Kardus liked to play – songs by bands like the Sex Pistols, Marjinal and the Dead Boys. Some of the lyrics scared me, but then I imagined how good it must feel to absolutely not give a damn about what other people thought of you.
‘You think Revo and Eris are like that? Looking to die young and having sex and doing drugs?’ Dara paled at the thought. She’d had a crush on Eris since the seventh grade, and sometimes we’d fantasise about going on a tour with the band, or that we were secret agents and she and Eris or Revo and I would end up trapped in a cold dungeon. We had to lie close to each other, at first just to keep our bodies warm, but then we’d look into each other’s eyes and fall in love. And we’d kiss. A little.
‘God, I hope not.’
‘But you don’t know.’
Dara was right. How could I write anything that they’d want
I took another look at my poems – verses about a lonely girl lost – and sighed. No way Kardus would deign to sing about that!
THE NEXT MORNING I gave Revo only one poem. I’d stayed up all night trying to write something for Kardus, based on what little I knew about Revo: how strong he was and why he felt he needed to be that strong. Could it be that he needed to defend himself, because no one else, not even his parents, could? Perhaps he didn’t feel safe, perhaps he just wanted to do as he liked and have no one bother him about it? Perhaps he just wanted to be free. And that was what I wrote about.
‘I don’t understand punk, but I tried to write something that you might like. My old poems are mostly about…a girl’s life, so…it’s better if I write new poems for you.’ I squeezed my fingers till I couldn’t feel them. Sleeplessness made me dizzy – the world seemed dotted with black spots.
Revo took the sheet of paper and showed it to Eris, Hektor and Ilham. From her seat Dara winked at me.
As if in slow motion, Revo returned to my desk. ‘Are you doing anything after school? I’m thinking I’ll play some chords and you’ll read your poem, and we’ll see what happens?’
I bit my lip to prevent myself from exclaiming, but surely my face had lit up like a billboard.
‘I’ll be there,’ I said to Revo. After he’d left, I turned to Dara and flashed a thumbs up. She quickly covered her scream and threw punches in the air.
My life was finally happening.
AFTER SCHOOL, THE Kardus kids and I stayed in class to work on our song. Everyone took off their shirt, revealing a rebellious T-shirt underneath. As I wore nothing but a tank under my shirt, I was the only one who remained in uniform.
At the start I felt like someone who arrived late at the cinema – the movie had rolled half way and I didn’t understand what the characters were talking about. They mentioned something about working at a car shop and Eris’s mother who was in the hospital.
‘How bad is your mother, Eris?’ Boldly I jumped into the screen.
‘She’s got cancer,’ he said.
Regret flitted across his eyes. ‘Look, you can’t tell Dara or anyone, okay? If word gets out, I’ll assume it came from you.’
‘I’m not a gossip, I promise. Listen, do you wanna try to write a song for your mother?’
Eris considered it, then said, ‘Naaah, she doesn’t like that I’m in a band. She wants me to just focus on school.’
‘Maybe if you write a song especially for her, she’ll soften up. A slow song. Even punk bands can have a slow song, right?’
‘It does sound good,’ said Eris. ‘If not for Kardus, then just for me and my sisters.’
‘Awesome,’ said Revo, he dragged a chair between Eris and me and plopped himself down. I inhaled the masculine warmth of his body. ‘But first let’s write a song for Battle, okay?’
‘Fine,’ said Eris. ‘Thanks, Vit.’
‘I think the chorus should be simpler,’ said Revo. ‘I like to jump around when I sing, so don’t give me big words.’
‘I like the second verse,’ said Eris, ‘I think it adds depth to the song.’
My cheeks blushed. ‘Thanks, Eris.’
‘So how about the chorus?’ asked Revo.
‘I have an idea, but… May I ask you something? Don’t be mad.’
‘You know that people sometimes say that you’re bad kids, troublemakers. How do you feel about that?’
‘I’ve been labelled bad since I could crawl, and I’m still alive,’
‘Bad is fine,’ said Ilham, ‘but I don’t like it when people say we’re lost. Just because we’re different, doesn’t mean we’re lost, right?’
That afternoon was nothing short of the perfect first date. Finally, I could talk to Revo about how he viewed himself and the things that he cared about. I felt awful for Dara, she really wanted to be here, but when I asked if she might join us, Eris said, ‘Sorry, Kardus members only.’
There were only two other girls with us: Lena, who was going out with Ilham (kids called her a slut behind her back, but I admired how she was often brave enough to speak her mind), and Selin, who was going out with Hektor. She liked to draw tattoo-like objects on her wrists and ankles. That day she’d drawn a cluster of eyes on the back of her left palm.
When Revo and Eris were busy figuring out the melody, I asked the girls if Elok – Revo’s girlfriend – would be joining us.
Selin said, ‘No way. Revo won’t allow it.’
‘I’ve seen Elok watching Kardus perform at Open Stages,’ I said.
‘Open Stages are okay,’ Lena said. ‘Eris even takes his sisters to watch Open Stage, but he won’t let them anywhere near the gang.’
‘You both hang out with the gang,’ I said.
‘We’re not like Elok,’ Lena said, ‘obviously.’
School forbade boys and girls to touch, but this afternoon I’d seen Selin sharing a cigarette with Hektor by the window, and Lena sitting on Ilham’s lap as he showed her how to play the bass. So my fantasies were not so crazy after all. I wondered if this was why Revo didn’t want Elok here – maybe he was worried for her reputation.
I was working up the nerve to ask if they had done anything more than kissing, when suddenly Selin shouted, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a brilliant idea! I want to paint bad labels on your foreheads!’
Revo laughed. ‘Yes! Do it! Label me “Incorrigible”!’
‘I’ll take “Creep”,’ said Hektor.
‘“Ingrate”,’ said Eris, and his face darkened.
‘“Scumbag”, “Good-for-nothing”,’ Ilham suggested. ‘“Playboy” for Dex.’
Dex from 9A grinned with stupid pride.
‘“Butt-ugly” for Jimbonk,’ said Ilham again.
‘Jerk!’ Jimbonk from 9C snapped back.
‘For Lena “Slut”,’ Dex said, provoking laughter all around.
But Lena wasn’t laughing. ‘How dare you call me that, asshole!’ Her mouth unleashed a tornado, her face raged with hellfire.
‘Babe, the point is that although people call us names, it won’t bring us down. It shouldn’t bring you down either,’ said Ilham.
‘Yeah, Len, chill,’ said Dex again. He was smirking until Lena threw a thick book at him.
Only a second later did we see that it was the Qur’an, which was easily available on every desk.
‘Len, what the fuck?’ screamed Revo.
‘Shut up, all of you!’ The earth seemed to quake just under Lena’s feet, she looked like a pillar on the brink of collapsing. She grabbed her backpack and scampered away.
‘Len!’ Ilham went after her.
The rest of us could only look at one another with confusion and some guilt.
THE ONLY PERSON who ever said my writing was good was Pak Dewo. He taught Bahasa Indonesia and, in the beginning, instead of making us memorise theories, he had assigned us to read and write.
‘Choose two classical novels, then write a report on each, explaining plot, characters, setting, perspective and morals.’ After we’d submitted our papers, he told us that he was almost fired for assigning us to read ‘grown-up books’.
It killed me that kids were calling him a sissy, just because he wore eyeliner and combed his hair with gel, and because he was thirty-seven before he got married. When I was in the eighth grade, he began mentioning that he’d met ‘a little sister’, and after he’d handed out his wedding invitations, I thought kids would stop calling him a sissy. This year, however, instead of inspiring us to seize the day, Pak Dewo became fond of hitting us. First with an open hand, then with a book, and, a week after Revo had approached me, he’d used a shoe to hit a boy he’d caught skipping Friday prayer.
Revo felt bad for the boy, so the following Monday he started a Movement of Silence. Whoever dared to pay attention to Pak Dewo, let alone answer his questions, would be dealing with Kardus.
Not ten minutes after the bell, Pak Dewo noticed something was wrong. ‘Why are you all looking down like that?’
‘I know you’re upset because I hit your friend. What I did was excessive, but necessary,’ he said. ‘Our society is not like the movies. If we want to live in peace, we have to live by the rules. The sooner you learn that, the better. You know, I felt for that boy, but I had to make an example out of him. For all of you who refuse to listen to us teachers. For all of you incorrigibles!’
Pak Dewo tried to continue his lesson, but no one looked up. Slowly his voice mixed with sobs until he finally ran, cursing, out of our classroom.
‘Look at him sobbing like a little girl,’ said Revo. ‘Did you guys see? His mascara was running all over his face.’
Kids grew even more certain that Pak Dewo really was a sissy, who felt he needed to prove his manhood but didn’t dare to challenge a grown man.
THE NEXT DAY, as soon as the recess bell rang, Revo flew from his chair to block the doors. He asked us to remain and discuss the demands that he would make to Pak Dewo. The others whined and rolled their eyes, but then agreed so they could get out as soon as possible.
‘I think we should focus on three demands, so it doesn’t look like we’re asking too much. Let’s call it Trituwa – three demands of the students. Cool, huh?’
‘Totally!’ said several kids. ‘It rules!’ said others. ‘Whatever,’ said others still. I thought that was clever, making a wordplay on Tritura – Three Demands of the People – the petition students made to the government back in ’66. The geeks sitting in the front row exchanged uncertain glances.
Sekar, president of student council, raised her hand. ‘Revo, I’m afraid this will create more problems.’ She played nervously with her long braids.
‘Don’t worry. If anything happens, I’ll take responsibility,’ said Revo. ‘I think the first demand should be: “Teachers must never use physical punishment on students.” Agree?’
Many agreed. Revo wrote it on the board.
Eris said, ‘I don’t like it when teachers throw swear words at students. That’s out of line.’
‘Agreed,’ said Dara.
Revo wrote it down. ‘And then?’
‘I hate it when teachers call our parents without discussing the matter with us first,’ said Hektor. ‘They don’t know what our home situation is like.’
Lena spoke up, ‘I don’t like teachers going through our private stuff.’
‘Teachers must treat students with fairness,’ said Sekar.
‘Yes, they can’t play favourites,’ said Ilham.
‘Don’t be a hypocrite. They tell us not to smoke, but they themselves smoke,’ said Iwan, the nominal head of our class.
Revo wrote the suggestions on the board. ‘Any other?’
The kids were silent for a while, until Sekar stood up. ‘Come on, does anyone have any more suggestions? If not, we can go out.’
‘Nope!’ ‘That’s all.’ ‘We’re missing recess!’
‘But we have many suggestions and only three spaces,’ said Revo. ‘Which ones do we choose?’
‘Why don’t you choose?’ said Febi, a rich princess and a trendsetter in our school. ‘I’m starving.’
‘Fine,’ said Revo. ‘Those who want to leave, go ahead.’
After the great exodus to the cafeteria, only Sekar, the Kardus kids, Dara and I, and two other kids remained.
Revo sat at the teacher’s desk. ‘So, which ones do we pick?’
‘Many want to see teachers act fairly, Revo,’ said Sekar.
‘If anyone’s hungry, I don’t mind running to the cafeteria,’ said Dara. ‘Eris, would you like something to drink?’
All sorts of teasing and whistling hailed down on Eris.
‘No, thanks,’ he barked.
‘Anyone else?’ Dara tried to save face, ‘Revo, do you want anything? Vita?’
‘We’re almost done here,’ said Revo.
‘How about this?’ I showed Revo my scribbling:
TRITUWA (THREE DEMANDS OF THE STUDENTS)
‘Perfect!’ said Revo. He patted me on the shoulder, and something flared up inside me. He passed my notes to Sekar, who then passed it to the others. Everyone agreed.
High on feelings of success, I wrote down our demands on the board.
SHORTLY AFTER THE bell Pak Dewo walked in. His raccoon eyes observed us suspiciously.
Revo stood up and announced that he was ready to end the Movement of Silence, if only Pak Dewo agreed to grant Trituwa.
Pak Dewo glanced at our demands. ‘This isn’t the way to go. You have to go through Student Council.’
‘Student Council is under your supervision,’ said Revo. ‘Besides, Sekar designed Trituwa with us.’
‘Is that true, Sekar?’ asked Pak Dewo.
She just looked down and played with her braids.
‘If you don’t trust Student Council, then convey your concerns to your parents. They will then talk to the school.’
‘No way. Parents always side with teachers.’
Now that the deliberating part of was over, the kids seemed to line firmly behind Revo. We were shouting, clapping and hitting our desks until finally Pak Dewo gave in. In return for his signature, he demanded the following:
I thought the terms for us were much harsher than those for teachers, but the whole class was cheering. So when Revo asked someone to write down the ‘treaty’, as he called it, I volunteered.
‘Great,’ said Revo. ‘Please gather everyone’s signatures, and in the future remind both parties of any violation.’
Proud of having been selected for such an important role, I wrote the treaty as neatly as I could, and then went around the room to gather signatures. First Pak Dewo’s, then Revo’s, then mine and the rest. Carefully, I kept the treaty inside a plastic sleeve and carried it home to show Mama and Papa.
THAT EVENING PAPA cooked us seafood fried rice and omelette filled with fried shallots and chilli, which made the whole house smell like a celebration. He was in a good mood, which rarely happened since he’d been transferred from his old position at the bank. Papa used to be responsible for evaluating business loans, and sometimes he’d call his clients from home and mention that he wished to take us to the mountains or to try a new restaurant. After he’d been transferred, we rarely went to the mountains or tried new restaurants.
As soon as we sat down, I showed Mama and Papa the treaty and told them about our victory.
Papa read it and asked, ‘Why did you sign?’
‘I didn’t just sign,’ I said. ‘I helped put it together.’
‘My teacher said my drawing was the best in my class,’ said Riky, my nine-year-old brother. ‘I drew myself as a superhero. Do you wanna see it, Papa?’
‘Of course, Riky, after dinner.’
‘Who did you say started this thing?’ asked Mama.
‘Revo. He’s the head of the Kardus.’
‘Head of what?’
‘His head is made of cardboard?’ Riky giggled.
‘Kardus. The coolest gang in school.’
‘A gang?’ Papa sounded as though he almost choked. ‘There’s a gang at your school? Do you know how hard your mother and I work to afford sending you to that school? And now you’re telling me there’s a gang?’
‘They’re not violent or anything.’
‘Mama, do you wanna see it?’
‘They started a strike against a teacher,’ Mama said. ‘That showed absolutely no respect.’ Mama used to be a traditional dancer, but she gave it up when she was pregnant with me. Sometimes I was afraid that she’d regret her decision.
She squeezed my hand. ‘I know you’re trying to do what you think is right, but you didn’t have to be signatory number three. Next time, be number fifty, or number one hundred.’
‘In my drawing I have wings and my fingers shoot fire,’ said Riky.
‘We’re worried about you, Vita’ Mama said. ‘What if you’re suspended? What if you’re expelled? What other school would admit you if you were expelled for something like this?’
‘I really thought you would support us.’
‘What if that boy said the whole thing was your idea?’
‘Revo won’t do that. You don’t even know him.’
‘So now you trust that boy more than your own parents?’
‘Vita has a boyfriend… Gangster Girl and Cardboard Man…’
‘Riky, shut up!’
‘Vita, don’t yell at Riky!’ yelled Papa. ‘And stop hanging out with that boy!’
Slowly my shock and disappointment melted into tears.
‘And please don’t do anything like this again,’ said Mama, pushing the treaty back to me. ‘Do you understand?’
I refused to nod, and simply blurred the world outside with a wall of tears.
It had been two weeks since Revo asked me to write lyrics for his band. The following week, Pak Firdaus’s motorbike was dismantled.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
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