If you know me, you know that on every Monday, for the last two years, I have gone to a Kumon center to do math worksheets.
If you know Kumon, you know that it is, at its core, a place where children are sent to be tortured.
Somehow, the little basement area has always reminded me of a hospital. Perhaps it was something about the sheer whiteness of the walls. Only posters that endorsed the Kumon method were hung, and a shelf stuffed with books sat uninvitingly in a corner. The spacious room seemed cramped when it was filled with fidgety children and long tables. Take a tentative sniff while you’re there: that is the rank smell of dying creativity.
I have always been an unusual sort. While many were forced into Kumon, I was the one who wanted and asked to be admitted. Maybe I have always felt that the regular education system couldn’t match my capacity to learn. Naturally, I relished the thought of the challenge that Kumon promised.
Each child is placed within the neat little structure that they had created: finish the level, pass the test, move on…finish the level, pass the test, move on…finish the level, pass the test, move on…
Being one of the few that could survive (for a while at least!) in such a desolate environment meant that I unobtrusively crept up to the higher math levels with relative ease. A satisfied smirk would plant itself on my face with each correct answer on “high school” questions. I gained more self confidence in academics. My father was the one who would take me home after each session. While we were in the car, I told him about what I had learned each day.
I never had many people that I could openly talk to. Kids like me are faced with constant pressure from all fronts to achieve something grand before adulthood snatches away the brilliance of youth.
Those who were once seen as geniuses become mediocre with age.
These expectations created a barrier between my relatives and I. My mask, the face of the ideal child, was stitched on to put them at ease. Many years had passed since I had seen them, and I was slowly forgetting my past. Memories of the aunt who would always spoil me, the grandmothers who held my hand and the grandfathers that would tease me – where did they disappear to?
Because of this, an awkwardness followed me whenever I interacted with my family.
Hello, how are you? Me? I’m doing fine.
Are you doing well at school? That’s great!
Finally, there was silence.
My only living grandfather, from my dad’s side, changed that conversation completely. He asked for a portrait.
He is the type of man you see talking to people from all walks of life. The chicken seller, the apartment owner, and his boss remembered him as the man with the smile. Bitterness was never a part of his personality; He had reached that elusive enlightenment of character that wisdom provides.
He is a dying man. This is the first thing he has every asked of me.
No other thoughts ran through the chaotic whirlwind on my mind at that moment. I hesitantly agreed. Certainly I could fulfill this one request from a man that I so greatly admired?
Except I didn’t. Weeks passed before we conversed again, and he immediately asked if any progress have been made.
“Will this picture be done before I die?”
A laugh danced at his lips.
“No promises!” I answered, only half-jokingly.
We had several variations of this same talk between the two of us. I felt closer to him, yet I was pushed away by the disappointment that coloured his voice every time. When I think back to those exchanges, it becomes clear to me that we had a strange relationship. I never began to work on the portrait.
Eventually a sort of agreement was reached. I would draw the portrait, and he would see it before passing on. Life went on for both of us.
I remember calling home to ask my father to pick me up from Kumon. A question had kept me confined in the building for much longer than I would have liked. I paced around the office area impatiently. The call was picked up by my mom.
Her tone was a calculated sort of calm. I regret not having paid more attention to it.
“Can you walk home, Tarannum? I’m not sure your dad can come today…”
With a crease in my brow, I insisted. I was not expecting the night to become so cold, and hadn’t dressed for the weather. After sighing, she relented.
I went to the upper area of the building and leaned against the wall near an entrance. I lightly tapped my foot as I flipped through the homework worksheets that I had received.
Eventually my dad pulled up near the entrance and we drove home. There was none of the regular chatter today. Instead, I watched the passing streetlights, seeing explosions of yellow through my fingerprint-coated glasses.
He slumped down on the couch with his face in his hands as soon as he was through the door. My mother was beside him, patting his back. I saw wrinkles in her eyes – I hadn’t noticed them in a long time. She was the one who delivered the news.
Your grandfather is dead.
He wasn’t feeling well after he had eaten breakfast, so he decided to walk around the apartment.
He suddenly collapsed and died.
With those words, my father started to sob in the darkness of the living room.
I had never seen him cry before.
I had hoped I would never have to.
When I woke up the next morning, My father had already left for Bangladesh. I stayed home with my brother that day. He had never been close with our grandparents-he was not held captive by those sorts of relationships. We all pity him because of that.
I had never finished the portrait of my grandfather. Now he will never see it, and I will never get to experience his delighted smile again.
To be honest, I never had any intention to finish the portrait. The fact that there was no intention to fulfill the promise is something I regret immensely.
Drawing is a much more painful experience now.
Image credit: http://www.mariaelita.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/old-man-hands.jpg