"Have you seen the new girl? Isn't she weird-looking?" Maria snickered.
"She is from some African country. No wonder she looks like this," Laila said scornfully.
Maria and Laila were best friends. They were always together in school but they had one big problem. They loved to make fun of other girls. They invented cruel nicknames for their class-mates and did not care if someone's feelings got hurt. Other girls in the class were wary of their sharp tongue and steered clear of the two friends but Laila and Maria did not care. They had too much fun together mocking their classmates. They were both very pretty girls but this had made them vain.
"Hey Fatty," Laila called out to Hira, who unfortunately was a bit plump. "Who is that Ugly?"
Hira glared at Laila but answered softly. "Her name is Mbabwe. She is here as an exchange student. Don't be rude to her, Laila. She is a guest in our country."
"Bah, guest indeed," Maria said contemptuously.
The two friends bent their heads together and Laila whispered something. They both went into peals of laughter. Hira shook her head in exasperation and went off.
Mbabwe soon settled down in her new environment. She was extremely polite and intelligent. She had a strange sing-song voice and moved with a quiet grace. All the students in the class were very friendly towards her and did their best to make her feel welcome. All, except, Laila and Maria.
"Look at them," Maria said during recess, when she saw some students around Mbabwe talking and laughing. "I don't know why everybody is so fascinated by her. She is so dark."
"I know," Laila agreed quickly. "Look at her hair. It looks as if spaghetti is sprouting out of her head."
"And she moves as if she has a pitcher on her head," said Maria, exaggerating Mbabwe's graceful gait.
"Ugh! And her nose. I would hate to look at myself in the mirror everyday if I looked like her," laughed Laila, not bothering to keep her voice down.
Unfortunately, Mbabwe heard them. She looked around and her expression was sad and hurt as she realized that they were making fun of her. Tears welled up in her eyes. All the other girls were silent and they looked at Maria and Laila reproachfully.
"Come on, Mbabwe. You don't have to listen to their nonsense," said Farah, taking her hand.
"Oh, Miss Acne-face has made a new friend," Laila taunted Farah.
Just then, the bell rang and everybody went inside. Nobody talked to Laila and Maria for the rest of the day but they did not care.
Next Sunday, Laila's family went for a sea-side picnic. Laila's father unloaded the car while Ali, her four year old brother chattered incessantly. He was very excited and clutched his red ball tightly in his chubby hands.
Laila and her mother looked for a good spot to sit. To her dismay, she saw Mbabwe sitting under a big umbrella with her host family. They were all laughing and having a good time. Mbabwe then looked up and waved to her.
"Oh, no!" groaned Laila, under her breath. "What is she doing here? Now I'll have to introduce her to my family."
Mbabwe stood up and approached Laila's family with a good natured smile. Her host parents also came over to meet them. However, Laila's response was cold and brief. Laila's father noticed his daughter lack of geniality with a frown. He stepped in the awkward silence and while the parents exchanged pleasant introductions, Mbabwe stood silent, her eyes downcast.
Laila suddenly saw her little brother on the pebbly beach running towards the blue sea. He was running as fast as his chubby legs could carry him as his bouncing ball kept on rolling. Laila stood frozen with horror for a second and then screamed.
"Ali! Stop! Father, stop him!" For an agonizing second, everyone remained rooted at the spot while oblivious to any danger, Ali chased his prized possession. There was a resounding splash as he slipped and disappeared under water. Laila's mother screamed with horror and fainted.
Everyone ran towards the water where Ali was floundering under the weight of his wet clothes. A big wave carried him further off the coast. Hearing the shouts and screams, people on the beach also started gathering but few knew how to swim. Some jumped in the water but where was the little boy?
Laila saw the red ball bobbing up and down in the sea. Holding her unconscious mother in her arms, she felt numb. Her throat felt raw as if a thousand screams were trapped inside her. She then saw somebody swimming in the water in quick graceful strokes. The swimmer went under water and then came up for air. She saw the person then submerge again and change directions.
As Laila stood with her eyes glued to the sea, the swimmer surfaced with a small body. Laila's heart went still. It was Mbabwe. She started coming in shore with the limp body in her arms. Other people gathered around them blocking her view. Laila could bear no more. She left her mother with some sympathetic ladies and raced towards the crowd.
As she approached the excited people, her feet slowed. What will she see? With her heart hammering, she went forward. She saw her father tightly hugging__a wet, squealing, splattering, thoroughly disheveled, but still chattering incessantly__her brother. With tears of relief and joy pouring down her eyes, Laila went up to them and hugged them both.
She then looked around and saw Mbabwe. Somebody had placed a warm shawl around her shoulders. People were offering her hot tea, congratulating her on her remarkable courage and strength. She looked embarrassed and awkward with all the attention and praise.
Laila went to her. The two class mates looked at each other. Laila could muster up no words to express her gratitude, to apologize to her for her past behavior, to show her over whelming shame and regret. But none were needed. Maybe it all showed in her eyes. Mbabwe held out her hand and Laila enveloped her in a tight embrace.
Next day, the entire class was amazed at Laila's changed demeanor. Laila stood in front of the class and apologized to each class mate for her scathing words and nicknames. She recounted the previous day's event and thanked Mbabwe profusely for saving her brother's life. Laila had found the courage to see the errors of her ways and correct her mistakes.
She had learned that physical beauty is only skin deep. It is the inner self and the true color of courage that matters.