Dill was black. I mean, Magic Marker black. Skin like a shadow, but with western features that made him fascinating to behold. His hair was a dark wavy netting, with thick charcoaled eyebrows like ashen caterpillars above piercing midnight eyes, and a moustache! Holy Barbershop Quartet! This kid rocked a hairbrush ‘stach’ so fierce if any other tenth grader in a thousand mile radius even dreamed of growing one similar they’d better wake up and apologize. I remember joking that I’d need to see this man’s birth certificate which caused Dill to smile wide, showing off the brightest rows of white teeth imaginable. Apologizing, Dill called me ‘Sir.’ Yet forever afterwards, he was ‘Sir Dill,’ to me.
There wasn’t much more to it than that. Dill was like a lot of foreign kids in class. He sat very quietly, never spoke up or entered discussions. His penmanship was important to him, but he was overly, almost painstakingly embarrassed if I called on him. Well organized and thorough, my progress reports to him during that time were to speak up, let your voice be heard. You matter!
Changes started coming toward the end of the year. We were reading O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Dill started writing journals about the jungle. During that time, his home country of Sri Lanka was embroiled in a series of civil war conflicts between Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces and it was clear Dill and his family were on the side of the established law and rule. Sometimes books click with a kid and the pages just started to pour.
I encouraged him to talk about the Civil War in his country and he finally did. To a group of low level students rolling pencils up and down and scribbling on their desks, Dill spoke about the horrors he’d seen in the jungle, about the friends who had been terrorized, the family members slain, and his miraculous and improbably escape from a country torn apart by spilt blood and ripped human seams. To their credit, the American kids were splendid that day. No one ever says anything good about American kids except for how they fail or where they rank in the world’s rigged math scales, but one thing is for sure, American kids understand reverence. When Sir Dill opened up, this young black boy who had never uttered a peep before, his American peers held that moment in silence within their hearts, and he was heard.
So Sir Dill spoke up and I gave him all the time he wanted. Then we turned the page. The year ended. Dill made friends, started wearing sweatshirts and traded in his cricket bat for ultimate Frisbee. I didn’t think much of it until this past summer while in Borneo.