We called him Ardi Shevchenko. That’s what he told me to call him when we first met.
A short, lean kid with dark skin and thick glasses. He’s a spirited figure whose positive energy was just oozing anywhere he set his foot in. Quick-witted and humorous. He came from Jember to Jakarta to represent East Java in the national competition of science for elementary students. It’s year 1999 and we were both in the 6th grade of primary school. Andriy Shevchenko had not moved to AC Milan yet. So how we, boys, got to know about a then-relatively unknown Ukrainian footballer? I guess we read Tabloid Bola a bit too religiously.
I was there as the Jakarta regional champion for social science and represented the capital in national level. All the other regional champions from all 27 provinces were there as well. The competition put us all in a dorm for a week. I didnt take it easily because i had never been away from home by myself even for a brief few days. It’s not that i couldnt survive without all the comfort and luxury at home. I was a quiet kid with a world of his own and a strong need for territorial authority. I was afraid that being deprived of private space would drive me nuts. Getting to know him eased my anxiety.
I met Ardi on the first day in the park. There’s no way i would start a small talk first. I’m not good at breaking the ice and introducing myself to people i dont know - something that goes on to this day. I’m naturally a shy guy. He introduced himself with a joyful tone that made him sound like he’s really happy to make new friends. I still dont know why he did that. Maybe it’s just an extension of his typical East Javanese carefree attitude.
Then he introduced me to other members of East Java contingent: Wahyu, from Lumajang who’s going to compete in natural science, and Reza, from Gresik, who’s supposed to be my direct rival in social science. Ardi himself was a participant in Math. We were bright kids who excelled in one particular subject that we loved. We never talked about school, though.
All of us were football heads and it’s just right that our conversation took off with ravings on how Dynamo Kyiv beaten Real Madrid in Champions League quarterfinals a few days before with Shevchenko scored all the goals. I’m not sure whether the word "hipster" had been invented that day, but now i’m convinced we were sort of ones.
We’re talking about Shevchenko and his dynamic partnership with Sergiy Rebrov in a Dynamo Kyiv side that was studded with legendary names like Andriy Husin, Olexander Shovkoskiy, and Kakha Kaladze. How many 12-year olds were talking about that Valeriy Lobanovsky team? It’s amazing how far readings could take your knowledge to travel.
We ended the talk with a pick-up football game where we casually invited anyone we saw in the park to join us. We repeated that sandals-for-goalposts game on the following day, but since the competition started, our interaction was limited to football banter only.
Dining time was the period of i cherished the most. After the meal, Ardi and i usually started a discussion on many things that spanned from politics to religion. He explained the concept of God according to Islam and subsequently i followed suit according to my belief. Our dining table discussion always attracted other kids to join in. Although not many willing to speak up, most found it enjoyable enough to stay and listen. That’s my first experience engaging in an inter-faith discussion.
They’re the first friends i made in this plural and diverse world. Yes, i had some other friends, but they’re not like them. I was raised in a homogeneous environment. I went to Christian school. I grew up not knowing how it feels to socialise with people from different surroundings. They’re the first people to tell me to wait because they had to go to the mosque for afternoon prayer. They’re the embodiment of the PPKn exams that i had been taking since first grade.
Ardi and Wahyu went on to finish second in the competition, behind the Jakarta boys whose run to the top was unstoppable (one of them is the uber-great Ivan Janatra who finished the written test under 30 minutes and got a perfect score). As a competition favourite (any Jakarta champ was considered a contender, frankly), i crashed out the competition spectacularly, finishing 11 out of 27 competitors and failed to make the cut to the final round that only took the top 9. I can attribute my defeat to complacency, but in the hindsight, it made me used to disappointment and heartbreaks since a young age. In my absence, Reza marched to the final and was crowned national champion.
On the last day after the final, the committee took all the participants on a field trip to Monas and Taman Mini. In the bus, i acted as a good host and explained all the Jakarta’s irregularities to my fellows. From a 12-year old perspective, of course. Wahyu said that the camaraderie should be preserved for a lifetime and, ever a football fan, he proposed an idea to swap competition nametags among us in a manner of footballer swapping shirts after the game. Brilliant idea, but i refused to swap my nametag because i’d like to keep it as a memento. Later, i regret not doing it.
I didn’t stay for the closing ceremony that night. As soon as we got back from the field trip, i packed my bag and ready to leave because i had been fetched. I wanted to say goodbye to my three friends, but i couldnt find them, so i thought maybe it’s not meant for me to bid farewell to them.
The park was located next to the main gate and i was walking across it towards the parking area, i bumped into Ardi. The other two were nowhere to be seen. I said a fond adieu. Our friendship was short, but unbeknownst to be at that time, it laid a solid foundation to my future self to make me the person i am today.
"Till next time", he said.
We shook hands firmly.
I’ve never heard of him ever since.