The Year 6 teacher was ill, and I was filling in. I didn’t know the class. The first lesson was English, a comprehension. We read through the text together. It was all predictable, all a bit dull, like a normal lesson. Then we came across cadaverous, tripped on it, rather, like a dead body. It’s not a normal Year 6 word. I woke up. I told the children what a cadaver was.
“It’s a metaphor here. Your teacher goes to a party and has too much to drink. In the morning, when she wakes up, she looks in the mirror. What do you think she sees?”
“A dead body,” someone said. The children had woken up too.
“Then she calls in sick, and I come.”
I smiled wryly. For a minute or so, we discussed the metaphor, how their teacher could resemble a corpse. There was a pause.
“You’re the best teacher we’ve ever had.”
A boy said it, a couple of desks away. I turned to him.
“You are, you are!” said a girl with wide eyes in the row behind him. The lesson continued. Some children were misbehaving. The boy was one of them.
“If I was the best teacher you’ve ever had, you wouldn’t misbehave, would you?”
He smiled wryly. I don’t remember his name, but the girl with wide eyes was Mahjida. Her family was from Afghanistan. I teased her when I knew her better. When I said her name, I emphasised the Mah. I stretched it out: “Hello, M-a-hjida” or “Yes, M-a-hjida.” I said her name when I didn’t need to, just to play with it. The children noticed, quite naturally.
“Why do you say M-a-hjida?” someone asked.
“I like it. I think she likes it too.”
Mahjida. The name means glorious. Whenever we met, she gave me a hug. She didn’t run like Varahna. She was two years older. She stepped up demurely and put her arms around me. Once, she did it in the line for assembly. I was standing near the entrance to the hall. As she walked past, she hugged me in front of everybody.
She had several cousins, all girls. The ones I knew were younger than her, in other classes. Their names all began with Ma, like Mahtab and Masooma – moonlight and sinless. They all wore headscarves to conceal their hair, and they all had trousers when they went swimming.
“It’s our religion,” the youngest explained.
Mahjida had one more cousin, Marzia, in Year 5. Marzia was different. For a start, as you can see, her name had an r in it, and the meaning wasn’t so positive. Marzia was satisfactory. There was another difference.
One day, I mentioned Mahjida to her.
“Oh, Mahjida!” she groaned. “She thinks you’re the best teacher ever!”
“Mahjida loves me. Masooma loves me. Mahtab loves me,” Pause. “You love me.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yes, you do, deep down. You just don’t know it.” A longer pause. “I saw your hair in Year 4.”
They should have called her Marwa. That means stone.