It was the fifth day at her new school and ten-year-old Buseje hung her head as she settled down into her desk. She avoided meeting the gaze of the other children, but she could feel their mean-spirited whispers settle around her and over her, like a fine layer of dust that might never wash off. She had only been in this new country for less than a month and had been so eager to meet the other children and show them how well she could speak their language, even though she was a dark-skinned African girl, but somehow, she had felt paralysed by fear, overwhelmed by everything new and different. She hadn't been confident, and when her lovely new teacher, Mrs. Beckham, had asked her to tell the rest of the class about her life in Somalia and why she had come here as a refugee, she had become tongue-tied, not sure if they would find it interesting at all. She had stood there, unable to say anything, and then one of the boys had begun to snicker. Buseje had taken her seat with her head bowed, not one of her class hearing the incredible story she had to tell.
Mrs. Beckham gave her class a warm smile, brightening still when her gaze fell on Buseje.
"Children, I'd like you to take out your laptops and do the worksheet I've posted on our class site. When you work out the answer to each question, please type it in and find out some more interesting facts. At the end," she gave Buseje a cryptic smile, "see if you can figure out what all the answers have in common. I'll be interested to see what you come up with."
Mrs. Beckham returned to her desk and pointed at her watch.
Buseje opened up her laptop computer, thrilled to be using it for this assignment. Although she had never used a computer before coming to this school, she had taken to it like a duck to water, her teacher praising her for her quick mind and positive attitude. Buseje watched the screen flicker as she booted it up, entranced. It was like a world within a world.
On her class site, she found a worksheet with today's date. Taking a deep breath, she read the first question, eager to impress her teacher again with her good schoolwork. To her surprise, the first question was actually a riddle:
I float on the lake, such a beautiful sight,
Such beauty and grace but beware, for I bite!
My feathers can ruffle when folk congregate,
Just leave me to be with my cygnets and mate.
Buseje studied the riddle, line by line. What floated on a lake? A duck she thought, or maybe a boat. She decided that it must be a living thing, since it could bite!
My feathers can ruffle when folk congregate...
Reading this three times, Buseje thought this might mean that it was a wild animal, not comfortable around humans. Again, she wondered if a duck might be the answer. Sure, ducks were wild, and they could float on the water - but she didn't think they had beauty and grace. Hmmm...
Just leave me to be with my cygnets and mate...
Cygnet? Buseje had heard that word before – was it some kind of baby animal? Her eyes widened and she felt a surge of excitement. She was onto something – she just had to figure out what animal had babies called cygnets! Racking her brain, Buseje tried to remember – and suddenly it came to her! A swan! A swan had babies called cygnets! Buseje
typed her answer carefully in the answer square and a big smiley face appeared onscreen. She clicked on the link below it and it took her to a page with fascinating facts and glorious pictures of beautiful, graceful swans. She made some more notes, and read a gorgeous blurb at the bottom of the page about the lovely black swans of Australia – how they were the strongest and hardiest of all the types of swans due to a pigment called melanin in their feathers – they were extraordinary creatures!
Pleased with herself, Buseje read the next riddle:
I grow in the sea but I never am cooked,
You'd find me at home in a clam if you looked,
I'm coated in layers and layers of spit,
'Til perfectly round and exquisitely lit.
Buseje breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of the riddle. Ok, it was something that came from the sea and lived in a clam.
I'm coated in layers and layers of spit...
This next line had Buseje stumped. Looking around, she could see several of her classmates trying to figure out the same riddle. What on earth was coated in layers of spit? Thinking for several moments, she moved onto the last line, hoping illumination would strike here.
'Til perfectly round and exquisitely lit...
What was perfectly round and lived inside a clam? Some kind of bug? She pictured the inside of a clam, with a little insect crawling around inside of it. She knew that clams, oysters, and mussels had a defence mechanism that made them secrete a type of spit-like mucus when something on the inside irritated it. That was, in fact, what created a pearl.
Buseje stopped, shocked. She realised she had just solved the riddle! A pearl was perfectly round and was loved for its beautiful iridescent glow. It was... exquisitely lit! Buseje typed in the answer 'pearl' and another smiley face appeared.
The link underneath took her to another beautiful page filled with glorious images and facts about pearls. She even learnt that pearls could be black and that these black pearls were extremely rare and had an extra sheen to them that made them even more alluring – and expensive! To her, they sounded like the most gorgeous pearl of all.
Buseje moved on to the next riddle. She was enjoying this assignment so much and could see that she was ahead of most of her classmates on the worksheet. She must be good at this!
When life takes a break and you need a good rest,
A little of me is the absolute best,
I sit in your hands then I'm brought slowly up,
And you'll taste the treasure of me in a cup.
Thinking that this riddle seemed quite different from the others, Buseje frowned. What did people do when they needed to take a break and have a good rest? Was the answer a bed? Reading through the other lines, a bed made no sense at all. Hmmm...
I sit in your hands then I'm brought slowly up...
What would people hold in their hands then bring up? A flower to smell? A hand to kiss? Neither of these made sense with the rest of the riddle, though.
And you'll taste the treasure of me in a cup...
Reading this line, Buseje, knew that the answer must be something in a cup. Not a flower, someone's hand, or a bed – something small enough to be served in a cup, that people did when they needed a rest. Something that was brought upwards...
To their lips.
The answer, Buseje realised with a big smile, was tea.
Typing this in, another smiley face appeared and Buseje clicked on the link, eager to read about the different types of tea. The page loaded and suddenly Buseje was learning all about tea and how it was grown and brewed. There was a comparative chart at the bottom about the taste and flavour of white, green, and black tea – with black tea the preferred brew, its stronger and fuller flavour making it perfect for teapots all around the globe.
One more riddle, Buseje thought. One more riddle and I've finished the worksheet! She scrolled down the page to read the next brain-teaser:
I'm common and small and in everyone's keep,
A filler that's also delicious and cheap,
I come from the East but I'm loved all around,
Like sand that's been scattered all over the ground.
A little sigh escaped Buseje and she clasped her hands together. She so wanted to finish this – to solve all the riddles and show Mrs. Beckham just how clever she was. Maybe, just maybe, the other kids would notice her too and think she was worth listening to. She just had to solve this last riddle!
Common and small? Delicious and cheap? Buseje guessed it might be some kind of food.
I come from the East...
The only thing Buseje could think of that came from the east was the sun, which rose in the east and set in the west. But that didn't make sense because it wasn't something people ate. She peered at the line, noticing something peculiar.
I come from the East...
In this line of the riddle, the word 'East' had a capital letter, like a proper noun, or the name of something. She thought about names - of people and of places. Could it be a place?
I come from the East...
In an instant, Buseje remembered that the whole continent of Asia was often referred to as 'the East' or 'the Orient'. That was it! She just had to figure out a type of food that originally came from Asia!
Like sand that's been scattered all over the ground...
She just couldn't think of a food that resembled sand except for crushed up pasta, but that came from Europe, not Asia – and nobody ate it crushed up!
Buseje wondered about the properties of sand, rather than the look. She knew it was small and light and that it came in grains.
Grains of sand...
Buseje closed her eyes, knowing she had solved the very last riddle.
Grains of rice. The answer was rice.
The page about rice was interesting and confirmed, indeed, that the Asian countries had cultivated it first, and that it had become a beloved staple all over the globe after that. She didn't know, though, that there were many different types of rice and that there was a huge trend towards healthier grains. Apparently, black rice was the best of them all, containing the most antioxidants and health benefits, so much so, that the royal Asian clans throughout the ages had only ever eaten black rice. It was even known as the royal rice! Buseje clapped her hands together in wonder, so proud of herself for solving all the riddles and learning lots of interesting facts about the world she lived in.
"Time's up!". Mrs. Beckham stood up from her desk and addressed the class, her eyes twinkling and her smile bright. The students, including Buseje, stopped their clicking and typing and gave her their full attention.
"Now, how many of you worked out the answers to all four riddles?"
Buseje and three other children lifted their hands. Their teacher nodded her head, approvingly.
"Well done, children! And I'm sure you others were close to finishing them too! What a class of clever children I have!" She clasped her hands together and took a deep breath.
"Now, did anyone figure out what the answers have in common?"
Buseje's face fell. She had forgotten about this part of the assignment. Apparently, no-one else in the class had worked it out either.
"That's ok," said Mrs. Beckham, reassuringly. "Let's figure it out, now."
The children discussed the first answer - a swan – enthusiastically. There was a consensus about how magnificent the creatures were, and somebody mentioned that the black swan was the most amazing of all. Everybody else agreed.
Mrs. Beckham seemed pleased. "Ok, let's discuss the next answer."
One of the children suggested they click on the page about pearls again. Together they read about pearls, trying to see a connection between pearls and swans.
"I don't know," confessed one of the girls, "but I want to save all my money up and buy one of those special black pearls – they're the best!" The other children nodded their heads in agreement. Mrs. Beckham, again, looked delighted with them all.
"Wait a minute..." a boy called Bailey piped up, eyes wide. "The next answer – tea – had a chart down the bottom saying that black tea had the most flavour. I think it's all about the colour black! Just how special and important black things are!"
"Oh, I think that's right," exclaimed his friend Breanna, excitedly. "The last answer was rice – and the black rice was so good that it was given to the kings and queens!"
"My dear children, you have solved the last riddle of all. Congratulations." Mrs. Beckham took a step towards them and continued to speak, her voice melodious and lilting, her face bearing an expression of softness and affection.
"How many of you have had black rice before?" Nobody in the class raised their hand.
"Do you think you'd like to try it? After all, it was good enough for the kings and queens of Asia." Her class nodded enthusiastically.
"But it's different, isn't it? We certainly wouldn't be used to having rice that wasn't white." Her class fell silent, a glimmer of understanding blooming like a beautiful sunrise right there in their room. Something unfurled in Buseje's chest, a weight that had settled there on her first day and refused to let go. Until now.
"I think we can see that although something might be different and strange to us, it might be a wonderful new discovery. After all, things of a different colour have a unique perspective and an amazing story to tell. Just imagine what the story of black rice might tell us about dining with kings and queens."
Buseje's heart was fluttering, her mind filled with images of her old home in Somalia with its proud but conflicted dark-skinned people, and the people of her new home with their fair skin. They might not have seen people like her but she knew she was just as captivating as the tea and the rice, just as magnificent as a swan or a pearl. She was the special black kind, the type that all the other kids wanted to save up their money for and buy. She blinked back tears and slowly lifted her hand.
"Yes, Buseje?" Her teacher's voice was a whispering breeze, embracing her, lifting her up on wings she couldn't see.
"I'd like to share my story with the rest of the class."
"We'd like that very much." Mrs. Beckham moved aside and let Buseje take her place at the front of the room.
And, slowly, she began to speak, her tale a river of emotion and experience, sweeping the children along, filling them with knowledge that would surge them forward in their young lives and forever make them kinder, gentler, and more open-minded towards the people around them. Especially those who were like black pearls, new and unusual, forged in places of turbulence and strife - and exquisitely lit.