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The Power of Bubble Gum

by Gwen Schroth

I hate boarding school! Most nights I slip into Joanne's narrow, single bed for comfort to ease the homesickness that invariably falls over me like a shroud after lights out. Then there are the rules that confine us along with the high stone walls surrounding the compound. No trips to the bazaar without a chaperone; no journeys to the bathroom after lights out; communal showers three times a week, get up to the bell, go to breakfast to the bell, change classes to the bell, 4 o'clock tea at the bell, supper at the bell, and then study hall until 9:30 every night including Friday. Eat what they serve like oatmeal with dead worms in it. Sunday night is toast, topped with scrambled eggs, and spinach globbed on top. So I make sure to wear a dress with pockets into which I slip the spinach and hope the teachers won't notice the drip down my legs that end in green puddles on the floor. We have a song in honor of the food:

There is a boarding school five miles away
Where they serve rotten eggs five times a day.
Oh, how the children yell when the hear the dinner bell;
Oh, how the eggs do smell, five times a day.

I love boarding school! Day and night I get to be with my friends; no "You can't have a friend over," or "Clean your room before you go out." Every night has slumber party potential and studies are endurable only because the tall Eucalyptus and pines promise relief in the form of hikes and camping trips. Our class votes to camp at 12-miles away Poombari where a leopard was spotted recently--we thrill at the risk. At Sunday night vespers we sit on the floor and sing hymns that choke us up with homesickness; however, we promptly forget our parents during the 3-mile walk around the lake that follows, where cow patties are strewn like land mines lying in wait for couples too engrossed to watch their step. The yearly competition between the Blue and the Gold on Field Day engenders fierce, year-long loyalty to one's team. Twice a month movies come from America sometimes starring Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddie who keep me awake at night, dreaming of the day when I too shall fall gloriously in love. On Tuesdays our class votes for a Saturday event--a 10 mile hike before breakfast, an evening roller skating party in the gym, a taffy pull, or a buffalo steak roast over an open fire.

But most important are my friends. All abandoned by parents who zealously toil to save souls on the hot Indian plains, we must comfort, nurture, and love one another lest that emptiness in the pit of our stomachs grow to an unmanageable size.

By instinct we take care of each other. Once Mom and Dad remember my birthday and send money for me to invite six friends to a birthday party at tea time. But there are 12 girls in my class! Sitting cross-legged on the grass beneath the Giant Stride, we solemnly solve the problem. All will attend, but each will take half a portion of cake, IJ (that's Indian junk, like cereal peppered with hot spices), and strong tea turned muddy-white with boiled milk and brown sugar.

Our friendships remain strong even if one finds a package from America on her bed--which, by the way, never, ever, happens to me. When one of these Fortunate Girls in my seven-bed room receives a package, we crowd onto her bed, ooh and ahh, sniff, feel, and exclaim over every treasure pulled from the box sent by a relative or family friend and costs more money to mail than we can imagine anyone spending on us. Even a postage stamp for a letter sent regular mail to the States--which takes three months to arrive--is more than I am willing to humble myself and beg for from Dad. So I don't write, and my former friends in America probably think I drowned on the ship coming over, was eaten by tigers, or died of snake-bite.

So, on the rare occasion when a Fortunate Girl receives a package from America its arrival causes considerable excitement and we begin to view her in a new light. Up to this point she has been just one of us with the usual flaws and occasional talent, but nothing of which to take particular notice. But now she seems somehow different and we feel something akin to what one would feel in the presence of a movie star like Jeanette McDonald. I search for that quality in the Fortunate Girl that is so special that someone in America would remember her, know her name, spend the money to purchase gifts, package them, and pay the enormous postage it takes to send it. I am astonished that this could happen but finally conclude that Methodists and Presbyterians can allow themselves to care more because they have smaller families. They also must have more money than Mennonites who are poor, they say, but seem to have plenty of money to send to relief.

On one of these rare package receiving days, we, the Fortunate Girl's roommates and her best friends from across the hall, all push and shove ourselves onto her bed. Anticipation runs high. First we examine the myriad stamps pasted all over the top, then, unable to delay the pleasure, we cry, "Open it!" Out comes the usual candy, a blouse, underwear, and even comic books which I am not supposed to read but do because Mom and Dad are too far away to find out and anyway Joanne won't tell. But scattered in the bottom of this package are little yellow and blue squarish shaped bits with bold lettering--Bubble Gum. What is this? We have never ever in our lives seen bubble gum. Chewing gum is precious stuff that comes in sticks, is gray, and costs lots of money, even a nickel sometimes, but we can't buy it in India because they don't have it, except maybe at Spencers but that is about five blocks away in the bazaar, off the compound, and persuading a teacher to chaperone such an excursion is as likely as me saving a whole rupee to spend on gum, my allowance being only two annas a week. In America Joanne, with whom I share a bed, wakes up in the morning yelling, "Mom, she did it again!" Mom sends Phyllis to cut my chewing gum out of Joanne's hair. Joanne is mad at me, I am mad at losing my treasured gum; who knows when Dad or a church lady will give me another nickel even if I do my best imitation of Little Orphan Annie.

Now, when this first shipment of bubble gum arrives, we pass one of the pink globules around to be squeezed, examined, and sniffed, puzzled that these pieces of gum seem so much larger than one small stick of Spearmint or Juicy Fruit. When the Fortunate Girl pops one in her mouth and slowly chews, her cheeks puff out like she has the mumps. Encircling her, our heads touch as we lean forward, intent on her every chew. Our jaws vicariously move with hers. She moves the wad around in her mouth and then slowly and carefully works the gum over her front teeth and blows; must be instinctive, like burping. A bubble forms on her lips. Our empty mouths produce nothing. She blows harder, but the bubble pops. "Oooo," we sigh and then cry, "Let me try," already certain we can do it better. So, magnanimously, the Fortunate Girl allows each of us a turn with that first piece of gum, passing it around until everyone is satisfied that they too can blow bubbles. The flavor disappears, but the gum's elasticity doesn't.

We solemnly eye the remaining pieces of gum and look questioningly at the Fortunate Girl as we face the truest test of our friendships. Who will get to chew them all? Will she share? She will. Together we make what is deemed a fair decision, one that stands for years to come. The Fortunate Girl will make a list of all her friends in the order of her fondness for them, her best friend being first and least favorite being last. After the Fortunate Girl has chewed each piece it will be passed to the girl who is first on the list. When she had chewed the gum sufficiently, she is to pass it to the girl whose name is next on the list. When that girl has chewed it for an appropriate amount of time, she will pass it on to girl whose name is next, and so on. Separate lists are constructed for each piece of gum with names slightly rearranged so that our names appear higher or lower depending on the wad. I am never first in line but occasionally make it to third or fourth which translates to week three or four of the gum's life.

The care and keeping of each piece of gum weighs heavily on our minds. If we leave the wads on a dresser top, the servants or a girl not on The List might steal it. If we take it to class, we risk the cruelty of having to spit it into the waste basket. John Heins keeps his behind his ear but that is repugnant; anyway, it will get caught in our long hair. We finally conclude that the only safe hiding place is beneath the current user's pillow and any thief will be ostracized by all of us--the very worst possible thing that can happen to you in boarding school. The plan works as do our letters of thanks-sowing the seeds as the Bible commands-that reap a harvest of bubble gum. From then on precious pink gum arrives in almost every package from across the sea.

Relationships among us begin to take on new meaning with the advent of bubble gum. We never know who the next Fortunate Girl will be, so staying on good terms becomes essential to one's relative standing on the bubble gum list. I try passing wicked gossip around about those whose names most frequently appear at the top of the lists, but it takes considerable effort to keep the fires turned away from myself and only serves to move me up a notch or two on the lists. Staying on good terms is by far the wisest route to take, I discover.

So, that is the story. Over the years, in that dreadful but wonderful boarding school, it turns out that it is from bubble gum, not from what our fathers preach from their pulpits, that we learn the value of being kind and good. Strife and anger only serve to bump us down on the list, but sharing, compassion, and praise is in our own best interests. On the other hand, neither we nor our unsuspecting parents ever figure out that bubble gum was the number one contributor to the rapid spreading of mumps that spring--and maybe the lice too.

Thus, despite all the ups and downs of dormitory life in India, in the end, it is the bubble gum, together with our desperate need for affection, that cements our relationships. One should never, ever, underestimate the power of bubble gum.