Touch as Medicine

11 August 2019

Street Dog at Shivapuri asking for sayang (Meaning Love in Malay) from Hong Kuen (June 2013, Nepal)

He was known for running away. He ran away from home, from school and from situations that he felt overwhelmed by.

When I first saw Runner, he was huddled in the corner of the room, partially concealed by the curtain.

I leant my walking cane calmly against the wall as he watched me warily. Appearance-wise, this boy wasn’t particularly endearing but he reminded me of a wounded animal.

When I invited him to come sit with me in the centre so that we could get some learning done, his answer was an emphatic “No”.

“You come here!” Runner slurred stubbornly, causing him to look even more unappealing.

The truth is, I knew better than to engage in a battle of wills with an 11 year old who had boundless energy & a difficult history. But for learning to be transmitted successfully, I had to win, and to win without humiliating him, or hurting his feelings.

So I said, “Runner, I don’t like your corner. It’s too dark,” while narrowing my eyes at the word “dark” for dramatic effect.

Then I expounded on how sunny my spot was and how much light it was receiving so that whoever sat at my spot would be able to learn easily & happily.

Upon hearing this, Runner gave up his corner and came forward.

But he kept his distance. He tilted his chair slightly at an angle away from me so that he could take off & head for the door if he didn’t want to learn from me.

Thus with us an ocean length apart, our lesson began.

Nepalese handcrafted Lokta papers were first used for writing sacred texts.

I took out my scrap book made from Nepalese handmade Lokta papers. Each page contained photos and writings of my Nepal visit in 2013.

Runner was immediately curious and craned to see the grey book that I had reverently placed in front of me.

Handsewn Lokta book bought from Thamel, Nepal in 2013. I never knew then 6 years on it could be my teaching aid.

As I flipped to the first page which featured my friends putting their palms together to make the “Namaste” sign, Runner dragged his chair closer to mine.

Namaste from Hong Kuen and Naina’s Dad, Mr Kapali. (June 2013, Thamel, Nepal)

And then as if embarrassed by how fast he had caved in, he mumbled awkwardly, “I’m sitting closer to you now.”

I quickly complimented him for being so sensible. He smiled.

Then I offered him tissue papers to wipe his nose. I showed him how to receive things with both hands, which he imitated cheerfully. He also learnt that his nose was the gateway to breath so he must not wipe it so harshly or it might tear.

Soon, the boy who was prone to yelling at people and kicking them was entranced by the Lokta paper crafted from shrubs thousands of metres away from Singapore and up the Himalayas.

He turned the pages of the book slowly & deliberately by gently lifting the edges. Perhaps he was tired of being angry and rude. And the weight, texture and seeming fragility of the Lokta papers had a grounding effect on him.

I noticed his elegant wrist and his fingers seemed to dance above the pages as he turned them.

When he came to photos of street dogs in Shivapuri, Nagarkot and Thamel, he stroked their photos softly while saying dreamily to himself, “So smooth, so smooth.”

“So many dogs… want sayang,” he said as he caressed the fur of the dogs in the photographs meditatively.

Hong Kuen’s pictures of dogs she met on her Nagarkot stroll. (June 2013)

This touching and tracing of paper veins & creases, photo subjects, stickers and handwriting seemed to relax Runner further.

He then moved on to study the quotes and comments around the photos. Without prompting, he read aloud the words, only pausing for help with the more challenging ones.

I think for kids like Runner, touch is the medicine he needs to still his fearful mind and mend his broken heart before learning can happen.

“Is she crying?” Runner asked when he saw Kali’s picture.

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