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Do we have any say over what our kids learn? This past weekend, an incident in a Boston tram forced me to think about whether we need to pay more attention to the people that influence them.

On our way home from a nice dinner in Little Italy, my friends and I boarded a very crowded tram. As the tram emptied itself gradually, we found ourselves sitting across from a middle-aged man with two curly-haired children wearing jerseys. Neither of them could have been more than 10 years old. They could have easily passed for a typical family returning from a ballgame.

The younger child was sipping a super-size plastic cup of cola. The man turned to him and said, "John, I think you're the slowest person I've seen drinking coke." Something in the voice told me that this man wasn't the children's father. A certain distance and a certain mockery that indicated that he was probably their uncle or a close friend of their family at best. There was enough familiarity between the children and him, but there was no sign of a father figure there. This became more obvious as the conversation proceeded.

The three of them were sitting next to a pretty, twenty-something year old girl carrying a large purse. My first impression was that she was also part of the family as the man chatted with her and she responded courteously with an occasional giggle. About two or three stops later, she stood up to leave and he (let's call him Mr. X) remarked, "You better take care of that purse. It's really big and I'm from New York. New Yorkers steal." She smiled and stepped off the tram. Mr. X turned to John's brother (let's call him Sam) and said, "You know, I could have gotten her number if I wanted."

A couple of minutes later, a group of girls boarded the tram and began talking excitedly near the exit. Mr. X looked at them and whispered to Sam, "What do you think? Isn't she cute? You think I can get her number?" Sam laughed awkwardly in awe, not knowing how to respond to this man who seemed to hold the key to an experience beyond his understanding. I wondered what was going through Mr. X's head.

You have to realize that although this man was trying not to be overheard, he spoke certain phrases loud enough for some of us to hear. I stared off into the distance, but had my ear turned in their direction. Evesdropping yes, but in this case, I would rather be discourteous than play willful ignorance.

Mr. X then proceeded to shift his glance across each and every girl in the train with a running commentary to Sam. It seemed that Mr. X had made it his goal in life to get the phone number of every girl he came across. Sam, on the other hand, had no clue what Mr. X was talking about, but he knew this was something new. This was something foreign to his experiences in the school playground. So, as if it weren't enough to demonstrate by example, Mr. X asked Sam, "Hey, what happened to that girl in your class? I thought there was something there. Come on, you can't be shy about these things." Sam grinned and fidgeted around trying to figure out what to say.

Sam's awkwardness revealed itself to everyone sitting around Mr. X and the children. A lady that had taken the vacant seat next to Mr. X and been smiling when he teased Sam initially, grew a frown on her face as she realized that Mr. X was no longer just an over-friendly uncle. This was a man that was straddling that grey area between child abuser and man-child. A lonely middle-aged man taking out his sexual frustrations on a child entrusted to him. A man who would have seemed entirely ordinary talking to friends in his age group had he any, but was entirely corruptive in the vicinity of children. Physical abuser Mr. X was probably not, but abuser nevertheless.

As I pondered these things, I tried to get an identity, a name or an address, something actionable. So my heart skipped a beat as Mr. X pulled out his blackberry when we reached our step. But my excitement was short-lived as he dipped it back into his pocket.

Could Mr. X have been a professional? Very likely. And that’s when it struck me - how completely ordinary looking people belie sick minds. There is a very fine line between a child abuser and a man-child. It's a line that can be crossed easily. So, my two cents to parents everywhere: watch over your children, at least until they're old enough to understand the meaning of platonic relationships. Otherwise, they risk growing into sexually frustrated men like Mr. X.

Disclaimer: The names used in this article are fictional.

Soon after I turned seven, I returned to my hometown in Kerala with my family. When my grandfather turned up at the bus stop, he was dressed in a neatly pressed, lightly starched shirt and dhoti with an umbrella in one hand and a clerk's bag in the other. For his pains to impress us, he received a chubby boy in a bahama shirt, checkered shorts with a videogame in one hand and a fruit packet in the other. It was an awkward meeting.

Almost immediately after moving into my grandparents' home, I began to view Appuppan as a distant figurehead out of tune with my life. I desperately shut him out along with everything in our quiet village. I silently ignored him and whiled away the mind-numbingly slow moments on my videogame. I would have played it that whole summer too had it not died.

Kerala's climate has never been forgiving to delicate electronics. It was either the scorching sun or the endless downpour that killed my toy. I don't know which to blame. One day, I left it on the roofless porch of our house in a lapse of judgment. A few hours later, I returned to find it dead. I dismantled it and made some feeble attempts to reassemble it, but the game did not yield. It just sat there, lifeless.

I tried to pretend nothing had happened. But I could not have been more bored. As I began ranting, the peaceful quiet of our house came under attack. I unnerved everyone in the family with my constant complaints. I don't know what I was looking for, but I seemed to have struck a nerve because soon enough, Appuppan got up from his chair and stepped outside the house.

He walked up to a short, young coconut tree and sliced off a leaf with his rusty machete. Coconut leaves are special; unlike banana leaves, they are extremely thin, long and durable. And until then, I never thought of them as more than leaves. In Appuppan's ancient hands, they turned into clay. Reaching into the depths of his childhood memories, he twisted the ends of the leaf here, there, across, under and over itself until lo and behold, a rounded cube sat in his hands. He handed it to me and said, “See, it's a ball.”

The pessimist that I am, I expected it to unravel immediately. But, it lasted more than three whole days. And even after I had exhausted its utility, Appuppan was more than happy to slice off another leaf and work his magic. As the days flew by, I invented new games to while away the time. And Appuppan was always there to refill the supply. An average coconut tree has something like twenty branches and more than a hundred leaves on each branch. That summer, between him and I, we barely used an entire branch. To a tree, that's like pulling a hair off your head. But to my Appuppan and me, it was a limb across the gulf between us.

If you thought this was about a girl, I apologize. Because my first love was a children’s story called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

Charlie was to me the hero who lived my life before I did. Lonely and penniless, Charlie was an outsider in his own town. At an age when indulgence in chocolate was encouraged, Charlie’s parents could hardly afford a warm home. His life did not lack warmth because there was plenty of it from his grandparents and parents who lived in the same wooden cabin. But, he could not venture far outside of it. I also know what it feels like to be an outsider.

I was five when my family packed up our belongings and moved to Germany. One day, I found myself holding my father’s hand and collecting my water bottle on the shelf by the classroom as he talked with my nursery teacher. The next thing I remember is boarding a plane full of quiet, serious Germans. With a one-year old bawling toddler in one hand and a five year old child in the other, my parents had quite a challenge on their hands when they arrived in Frankfurt. And it didn’t help that I could not speak English except for a a very practical “Madam, may I go to the toilet please?”. To call it culture shock is an understatement.

The feeling of being an outsider is universal to expatriates. And most take the challenge of assimilating into a new culture and learning a new language in their stride. But at five, I was overwhelmed. I was so stricken by fear that on my first day on the way to my new school, I sat quietly in the school bus, squarely facing the window, all by myself on the seat. Silence though on a school bus is like shouting in an exam hall. It just doesn’t happen. A slightly older girl noticed me and introduced herself. She said, “Hi”, but I didn’t respond. I was too scared. She asked, “Why don’t you speak?” What could have I said? At that age, I could understand English when it was spoken, but could not muster a single line of self provoked thought. I didn’t realize how hard I was trying to avoid her until she asked, “Are you kissing the window?”

My attempts to learn English were no less successful. I remember my first snowfall and the bewilderment it brought to me. Our kindergarten teacher was a lovely lady, perhaps a little culturally challenged, but only a little. She asked us to draw snowmen, but I had never seen a snowman. Yet, art is often divorced from reality, so it probably did not matter. The real fun started when she asked us to label our drawings. Now, I could not spell “snow” for the life of me, let alone “snowman”. So I did what seemed to me was the next best thing. I looked at my closest neighbour’s drawing and copied him. But, unlike high school where copying a word here or there may seem pretty quick and easy to do, my writing skills at five could not have matched a snail’s pace for all the practice in the world. So, my pride at discovering a shortcut was short-lived and I got quite an earful from my teacher when she discovered my tiny, ever so innocent, sin. I absorbed a valuable lesson then and there: as an outsider, you have to hold yourself by your bootstraps.

It’s hard to tell, but I may have continued feeling that way all through my life had I not come across Charlie in my school’s Scholastic Book catalogue. I’m not sure what drew me to the book, but I insisted on placing an order for it. The day it came, I picked it up and did not put it down until I finished reading it. And by the time I did, Charlie had given me a new lease on life.

Many folks I run into grew up reading up Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl fans are hard to find among them. Maybe it’s because Blyton’s books are reassuringly full of families, friends and stories placed in domestic settings. There is nothing outlandish about them. Dahl’s heroes on the other hand were almost exclusively individuals fighting their alienation. Matilda, the precocious girl who takes on a strict disciplinarian of a principal and an insensitive family. BFG, the giant who refuses to eat people unlike other giants. Mr. Fox, the father who saves his family from a bunch of farmers bent on uprooting his home from under a tree. And lastly, Dahl himself, in the autobiographical story of his childhood, Boy. I recognized all of them. They shared my growing pains, my culture shock and my place as an outsider. And yet, none of it would have mattered had they not faced those problems. In the end, they worked out their own place in life. That held out hope for me. That meant a world of difference for me.

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