Back Dam

As we pass the houses, the smell of curry wafts through the air, invading my nostrils just as the loud reggae music assails my eardrums. I’ve grown to love the smell of this spice. Its scent is a reminder of all things good here in Guyana: the friendliness of its people, the peaceful coexistence of African and Indian cultures, the deep connection to tradition and community.

We walk down the dirt road, and the smell is all around me. Normally it is comforting; today it exhales despondence. My students and I are traveling together in solemn silence, the usual lightheartedness of our interaction reserved for tomorrow’s lesson. The girls have tears in their eyes; the boys are stoned-faced, looking straight ahead. Wesley is not pulling Shawnomay’s braids. Tiffany is not sucking her teeth in playful annoyance. Even the palm trees seem to be in mourning, their fronds bowing in reverence.

We pass by Uncle Bird relaxing on the veranda with his trademark vodka bottle the size of a waste paper basket sitting on the table. He is alone most of time as his wife is in the U.S. working at a Wal-Mart, the American dollar a fair trade in his eyes for the lack of feminine curves next to his body at night. He sits on his balcony swatting mosquitoes all day long, repeatedly exclaiming “Good afternoon!” to the weary who saunter by. My boyfriend Craig, another volunteer, and I sit with him at night once a week to help alleviate the loneliness that surrounds him. In return, he tells us who sells the ripest mangoes, which men beat their wives, where the squatters live.

He takes a swig of his drink with his surviving hand, and calls out to me, “Oh fart! Where you and dem going?”

“Devina. Over so,” I say without emotion, still unsure of how to react to the news. I gesture to the area beyond the small town’s limits known as back dam, a poorer area whose people look down on paved roads and comfortable shoes. It is a place where dilapidated houses remain comfortably distant, where plantains grow in abundance, where the forgotten can live serenely. I don’t know where exactly we are headed.

Uncle Bird knows. He has sat on that same veranda for seventy years watching babies grow and the elderly retreat into their resting places. In perfect sight are the crumbling teal walls of the school where I have been a Peace Corps teacher of wise eleven- and twelve-year-olds for the past year, a school that he taught at himself during a time when his other hand had a companion. He is aware that we are heading into an area where a former student who stole money from me lives, a territory where not many people like me go.

He pauses, and then looks at my students with his bug-like eyes as he points to me. “Watch out for she,” he exhorts them.

I nod my head. Kamanie grabs my hand and leads the way.

When I had first met Devina, she separated herself from the throngs of schoolchildren who stroked my hair, rubbed my arms, and touched my clothes the very first day. I had walked into New Amsterdam’s most neglected school determined to befriend my students and teach them well, but what I found was a large room full of rickety chalkboards acting as walls and chaos substituting as a teacher. Students were pulling apart the wooden furniture to hit each other with makeshift two-by-fours, the older girls were sitting on the windows with their dresses pulled up for the male passersby. Most of my colleagues were hiding in the break room. The kids knew I was coming; immediately they led me to my designated chalkboard. Devina lingered behind.

“You Miss Celex? You gonna teach us how to read?” said one girl, linking her arm in mine.

“Yes, that’s me. What’s your…”

“Miss, you from outside? America, right? I want to live there one day,” said another boy.

“Miss, wat dat on you skin?” asked another student, poking the freckles coating my arms. “Me auntie has cream, she can rub them off.”

“You like Sizzla? ‘Just one of those days…oh oh oh…just one of those days,’” sang another.

They were all talking at once, their prepubescent voices blending gender and pitch to create a lilting androgynous melody. Occasionally I’d catch questions about whether or not I’d met the rapper Nas, if I was married and had children, if I liked tamarind juice. I tried to answer each one individually—the last two months of teacher training told me always to give each student undivided attention—but their words spiraled around my head too quickly for me to hold onto.

Needing a break, I pretended to go to the bathroom. I walked on the soft wood outside the classrooms, but stopped quickly because a splinter pierced through the barrier of my sandals. The children cluttered in the doorway, still staring at me. From the nascent mass emerged a wiry girl with straggly hair parted down the middle, who at age ten already had the look of someone who’d been beaten by life but still cherished it. This was Devina. She ran to my side and placed in my hand a cutout of a cardboard heart with “Miss Celex” written on it in faded pink marker. Before I could say “thank you,” she gave me a demure half smile and ran back.

Devina had remained in school only for a month after that and never said more than “Good morning” to me. Now I am on my way to see her for the first time in almost a year. Her quiet demeanor this time, though, is eternal.