Miss Musings

I think it will take some time. To change from being ‘Rini Miss’ to just plain old Rini.

Missss. Meeeessss…and sometimes said so fast and in such urgency that the ‘s’ gets swallowed.

Rini Miss, miss , miss , MISS..Mi…Meeeeee !

Of all the roles that I have played in my life – being ‘Rini Miss’ is one that I will forever hold close to my heart. Being Miss to 35 beautiful people has undoubtedly changed my life.

It’s very rarely that you get so much love – genuinely, freely and without question. The way they shout with joy when they see me enter the class after a half day leave. The way two little girls literally kept their fingers crossed for two hours because I had a job interview. The way they share their “pursnal” stories – the way they listen to mine. The way they accept. The way Janani stood up on that last day and told me with tears in her eyes – “I will miss a friend”.

The way my thirty five students turned into my friends.

They opened my eyes into a world that I had only read about.  Unemployment , poverty , domestic violence , abuse , malnutrition , alcoholism  – all these were just words to me. Until I saw Janani’s  dad commit suicide because he couldn’t pay his debts. Or Srinithi’s mother’s arm in a sling – thanks to her alcoholic father. Or when I see Sonu’s sister – pencil thin and curled up in the ward of a government hospital.  The fact that I saw and experienced these , filtered through the eyes and minds of innocent children – and the effect it had on them hardened me and softened me all at the same time.

The lenses through which I look at the world has changed. My understanding is deeper – more empathetic. My priorities are different. I am acutely aware and constantly distressed by the vulgar disparity of life around me. The need to do something about it gets stronger every day. For my kids- and for the many kids like them.

I honestly think that being teacher to my class has made me a lot more self aware. Every step I take is often filtered with the thought of – “Am I really practising what I preach?” . These two years have been a lesson in integrity to me. A constant daily unrelenting practice for keeping myself accountable.  Because Rini Miss has to be a role model.

Before I became Rini Miss, I did not know I was capable of so much love – or worthy of being loved like this.

To me, this has been the most rewarding, overwhelming, enriching, refreshing – and utterly beautiful period of my life.

For those sceptics ( Amma) – who might still tell me – But you ‘lost’ two years of your life or your career is set back by two years or that’s two years further away from success.

To which , I must reply with a quote I read somewhere –

“ To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

When I see Nandhini today – writing beautiful letters – where she couldn’t put a word together two years back…

When I see Janani and know that she is going to be taken care of…

When  I see Rakshana today – talk loudly , confidently , clearly – from being the shy recluse she was..

I know I have touched lives. I know at least a few on this earth have breathed easier because I lived. I find a meaning for my existence..

To me these two years have been the most successful ones of my life.

I start my new job come Mid-may.

But I know I will remain Rini Miss – forever.

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Furious

A regular Saturday morning. I open the newspaper to find yet another front page advertisement for yet another apartment complex.

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Are you angered like I am ?

Yes, so the advertiser wants to sell an ultra luxury apartment. Yes, so this is aimed at the super rich who play golf and adorn their houses with museum exhibits.

But how does that give the advertiser the liberty to announce them as an “evolved species”?  What qualifies them as “evolved”? Where does that leave us – regular folk – as monkeys?

Has the world come to such an extent that your financial status directly dictates your degree of “evolution”?

I am offended. Insulted. On behalf of over half the population of my country.

I have always been angered by the staggering income gap in India. This has infact been one of my primary reasons for leaving my architecture job to join this fellowship. I simply couldn’t see meaning in helping to build ultra luxury apartments sitting in my a/c office while driving to work through slums where people stand in lines for drinking water.

Over time, I have come to accept this polarisation to an extent.  I don’t cringe when I hear of someone spending an extravagant amount over a fancy number plate or when someone else talks of throwing a treat at a restaurant which would demand my entire month’s salary.

To each his own, I tell myself.  I am nobody to evaluate the rightness of somebody else’s personal spending. I have come to make peace to an extent with this unfairness of the world.

So it isn’t that I resent the rich or their luxury apartments or golf courses. It is just that I resent the entitled , insensitive , callous , disgusting way of advertising this richness.

If the advertisers of VGN presidency were under the illusion that this horrible advertisement would make their target audience feel special –  then I am ashamed that I live such a society . If there is an audience out there to whom being civilised  is just a question of earning money – then we must have gone horribly wrong in educating our citizens.

We live in a country where less than ten percent of the population holds the sort of wealth that can enable them to own property that VGN presidency sells.  I think it should be imperative – as a mark of respect to the democracy that we live in – that the advertisers show minimum sensitivity to the me and my fellow citizens.

“Evolved” is the in quality of thought – and I highly doubt how “evolved” the geniuses behind this advertisement strategy are!

All I know is that they deserve this advertisement page torn out of every Hindu news paper in the city and shoved up their …err…mouth!!!

Phew….breathe…1…2…3…..

JANANI

When I woke up this morning – I did not imagine that today would be anything more than an ordinary day. Ordinary morning bustle. Ordinary traffic. Ordinary thoughts. Ordinary smile.

It must have been an ordinary day for the world – except for Janani. She will always remember today as the day she lost her best friend – her father.  And I will remember today as the day that I mourned intensely and completely with somebody outside the realm of family.

Janani is one of those children who make me feel humbled. At age nine , she does the sort of chores that would put adults to shame – helping her mother around the house and caring for her one year old sister. All this , while proactively engaging in learning and showing the sort of progress that makes me wonder if my correction process is far too lenient

Having said this , her maturity level being way higher than her classmates – she still remains a sweet nine year old.  Playing the sort of games her peers play and bossing her daddy around , who always plays along. She has time and again told me that her ‘appa’ is the good cop in the family.

Appa never scolds.

Appa loves me more than Amma.

Appa is my best friend and I always stay up late to have dinner with him.

I have seen the ‘Appa’ in question in action a few times too.  Helping his daughter cross the road, and standing at the gate until she disappears into her classroom. Chasing after the bus for full ten minutes at a sprint because he wanted to make sure his daughter got a packet of chips to eat on her field trip.

Janani , like all the little girls in the world , thought the world about her Appa – the only earning member in a family under a lot of financial duress.  Maybe it is the debt and resulting stress that caused Janani’s Appa to do the unthinkable.

He jumped into a deserted well, a small distance from his workplace. He was thought missing for twenty days before being identified by his brother from among the many un-named bodies in the police mortuary.

As I watched the tiny , fragile Janani wail loudly urging her appa to wake up , to look at her again – to please not leave her – I couldn’t help but feel angry with the universe.

What did this poor child, always kind and forgiving to a fault – ever do wrong to have to go through this?

What kind of agony must she have lived through, waiting for her beloved Appa for twenty odd days, only to find him come home like this?

I suddenly hated the world and everything in it.

For many watching, this was just another funeral and the deceased another statistic. But for me, this was my Janani , this child I had come to love in some hundred different ways. This child, who I would protect from anything – if I could.

I do not know if Janani will come back to school again. I do not know if her mother has the resources to educate her. All I know is that my class is just not the same without her in it.

I walked away from the funeral. The Ordinary traffic. The Ordinary laughter. The Ordinary madness.

Life goes on.

And I want absolutely no part in this Ordinary world.

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Janani , the world moves on , but your miss is always, always , thinking of you. 

Ordinary Moonlight.

While it can be generally agreed that I am not the most amicable person around, sometimes I become obnoxious.  Even to myself.  Specially, when I fear that i might be close to failure.  Or accountable for somebody else’s failure.

I have never been a gracious loser. When I was a child, if I happened to lose in school competitions, the whole neighborhood would know (loud bawling is hard to miss). As I grew up, I decided that escapism seemed more dignified – and I would stay far away from anything I had failed in. Be it an activity, a particularly hard math problem or even a friendship.

So when TFI decided to send us a list showing the performances of our children in a standardized math assessment, I was apprehensive. They had very helpfully divided the children into “floor kids” and “ceiling kids”. Before I could even begin to rage about the pathetic choice of words to describe real live children – I noticed that 12 children from my class were among the “floor” kids.

Twelve from my class of thirty five.  I was beyond devastated. I immediately texted my co-fellows that I am giving up this teaching business and that I am an absolute and utter failure who does not deserve to deal with children’s lives. I was a practiced escapist and ready to walk into the sunset.

Of course, the school team, used to me – laughed and told me to stop being dramatic and stop texting at 2.am.

As much as I wanted to, this wasn’t something I could walk away from , or escape. The only way ahead was to take a hard long look at what exactly I had been doing wrong. I think it was around this point that I slowly, but unmistakably turned into a Nazi.

I began reading three separate books on ways to teach primary mathematics. I would trawl the internet for hours on end looking for worksheets. I started spending fortunes on printouts for the class. Every free period in school was spent writing word problems.

And in the classroom, I became a true blue dictator. No water, no laughing, no jokes.  Double math periods every single day.  As much as I hate to admit it, I was turning into a banshee. Yelling – and handing our black marks left right and center. All the small things that I would let slip, now got amplified a thousand times into horrible crimes.

Until one fine day , Anju showed me otherwise.

Anju , is , was , has always been a star student of the class. In fact , I think I shouldn’t limit Anju’s stardom to the class – she was the star of the whole school. Everyone – from the principal , to the teachers , to the ayahs to the old watchman who stood outside knew and  adored Anju.  Its hard not to to love her – the tiny little thing , with big innocent eyes and the clearest of voices and the brightest of smiles.  Add to that – her brilliant track record of finding a place within the first three ranks in every class she has been in.

That apart , what I admired about Anju was her personality. She is the most secure person that I have ever met in life.  I have never seen her rally for my attention. She never doubts a moment before putting her arm up for any question/doubt.  She always does what she thinks is right – lending her books to anyone who asks , and always sharing her snacks. I have even seen her give an odd boy or two a nice knock on the forehead as retaliation, instead of coming running to me with a complaint.  I have always loved and admired Anju’s honestly – and her lack of neediness.  She is so secure in her own skin – a quality i fail to see even in some grown women.

So when i saw a worksheet that Anju had returned to me at the end of a class – I was stunned.

I often recycle my worksheets. I rub off the answers written by one child , and then let another use the same worksheet.

In the worksheet I had given Anju , I had forgotten to rub out a few answers. It was careless on my part , but then – it was Anju I was giving the paper to. I knew she would rub it out herself and fill out the answers ( she had done it many times before).

However , this time Anju returned the paper to me – the answers i had forgotten to rub still in its place – the rest filled out in her tiny handwriting.

I called her to my desk.

“Anju , did you see this page”

“Yes, miss”

“ Who wrote these answers”

“Me”

“Anju , come on – this is not your handwriting – who wrote these answers”

“Me only miss”

“Dont lie”

“I don’t know, miss”

“Did you not see this page ? Why didn’t you rub and write ? You know why miss rubs out answers.. I am sure you saw this page..”

“I don’t know miss”

And with that , she burst into tears.  In one year of teaching the class – I have seen every single child in the class cry – except Anju.

Now she was on the floor , doubled over , crying her eyes out.

The bell rang and I took Anju out , still crying , for a conversation.

“Why did you do this ,Anju ?

No answer.

“Please tell me” .

“ Miss , you always say I am a good girl. I don’t know answer means – you will be so disappointed miss.  I don’t want you to be sad”.

Right there , sitting on those steps , with this child sobbing beside me – I felt like the worst teacher and the worst person on the planet.  I had taken a perfect little child and turned her into a liar.  In some fierce determination to prove a point to the world , I had started to push these little kids beyond their limits.

I realized that I had forgotten that the fellowship isn’t about me – its about these children.  It isn’t about me preserving my ego or proving a point. Education isn’t primarily about some standardized  tests and their classifications – its probably about  not letting children lose their innocence. Its about not putting them into some pressure cooker – so they churn out the results I want to see.

Its no fun teaching a bunch of ceiling kids who are constantly in fear of not being satisfactory. Not getting the right labels. Not getting the approval.

Its not just the kids – this includes me. My fear of people not approving. My fear of losing. My neediness.  My useless , meaningless , unnecessary competitiveness.

Right there , holding Anju , I realized what I had read many times over in many , many books.  That the priority must be to the journey – the outcome is sometimes out of our control. My journey is unlike anybody else’s – the question is not whether I am leading the pack , it is whether I am making it worthwhile.

Yes, I cannot make geniuses of all my children – but I can instill into them some appreciation of learning. Yes, some of them may still remain “floor” ( ugh!) kids – but at least they should be kids who are constantly trying to improve. Kids who know their place , but are always trying – trying by their own choice.  Not because there is a fire breathing dragon of a teacher breathing down their necks.

There is a very fine line between being an effective , firm teacher and throwing some of your bitter competitiveness onto the kids. Now I tread that line very , very carefully . Because I hold whole lives in my trembling palms.

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Anju is the one in the blue t-shirt

Time in a bottle.

Days are long, but the years are short. A year of my fellowship has already flown right past me, leaving me reeling. When I think about this past year – sometimes I feel like I have been nothing, but a dictator. Sometimes, all the unmet goals make me feel like Mount Vesuvius, about to explode. And Sometimes I feel like a Zen philosopher – tranquil, with a halo on my head.

Then again, I realise that there are so many moments that I need to capture from this past year. The memories that make me smile absently each time they cross my mind. Or those that are so bittersweet that they are impossible to forget.

One such would be the day of the class monitor election.

If you met Vignesh ( Vicky for short) of my class , you would think him unremarkable. He is skinny , and a little too short for his age. He answer for most of my questions is almost always an indecipherable Tanjore doll-like head shake. Yet , he can give you an excellent rendition of popular tamil songs – with dance , if you desire.

For all his tiny-ness , I have always found a budding male chauvinist in him. He is forever trying to set boundaries for his female classmates ( with the effect of tight slaps from them ). He has time and again tried to explain to me that women shouldn’t drive cars ( !). He regularly chides his male classmates if they happen to cry ( Are you a girl?). Its almost funny to watch this sweet , tiny little thing exhibit his macho-ness. Its ridiculous, funny and a little bit sad – all at the same time.

So when it was time for us to elect a new class-monitor ( after the impossible Srinithi had two terms together ) , Vignesh came to see me privately with a request.

“ Miss , please nominate me for class leader election miss. Please miss. I be very good class leader miss. Please miss”

Even in class , he would try his best to be on task and to finish his work on time. His started being more regular with his homework. And each time that he would finish something expected of him , he would request again , softly ( lest people think him any less macho ) –

“ Miss , please nominate me , miss , please”.

It was almost like he was my shadow for an entire week. Everywhere I turn , there he would be , with his head shake and his “Please miss”. It was slightly annoying – but i have to admit that he made an actual effort in class to deserve a nomination.

So when the day finally came for me to announce the three nominees , I put in Vignesh’s name first. It would have been anything but heartless for me to do otherwise.

It was Vicky against Siva ( the class topper ) and Janani ( quiet , but methodical and sweet ) . Both Janani and Siva were sweet kids but I had my fingers crossed for Vicky , because I knew how much he wanted this.

By show of hands , Siva managed to win 15 votes. Being class topper comes with some advantage, I guess. Janani – bested Siva with 19 votes.

When I announced Vicky’s name and turned around from the blackboard – I did not find a single hand up.

I looked at Vicky , standing in his place – making an effort to look non-chalant. Smiling a little too much – as if it did not matter at all to him. He met my eye with a little head shake and a small smile.

Janani was announced the new class leader and met with loud claps from her supporters. Siva didn’t look too disappointed; he smiled and shook hands with Janani amidst all the shouting.

I watched Vicky , sitting in his place , smile intact – with a tug in my heart. If I were not his teacher , there would be nothing that would prevent me from going there and giving him a tight hug. He looked so macho and so breakable all at once – that my heart broke for him.

“Vicky” , I called out – summoning him near my desk , just to have him near me.

He got up , all his macho-ness intact , sneering – but eyes welling up with each step he took towards me. It was when he reached me that he finally lost his cool and sobbed angry, disappointed tears – burying his head in his hands.

The class suddenly went quiet , while I gave him the lecture about winning and losing , my heart breaking all the while.

Yes, the world is cruel, Vicky. Yes, sometimes you don’t win even you try very very hard. Yes , sometimes you don’t get the things that you badly , desperately want.

It took him only over a minute to wipe his tears, give me a small smile and stand back – a little fellow trying to be dignified in his failure.

Janani , in her usual kind fashion, walked upto him while the class watched , trying to give him her little star-shaped class monitor badge. Being the sweetheart that she is , she couldn’t watch a classmate’s disappointment.

“No , you keep. I win next time”

And he walked back, head high , eyes still wet – back to his place. The whole class suddenly bursting into spontaneous applause.

While their teacher watched – knowing there is so much that she is yet to learn from the children.

Poker Face

Whenever TFI fellows talk about their experiences, or writes about them (me included) , there is always an element of sickly-sweetness to it. Always a poignant ending. Almost predictable. Sticky – like a piece of orange candy held in a little hand for too long.

Yes – there are those moments. Those heart-breaking love letters.  Songs sung expressly for your entertainment. The solemn little paper-plane makers who you just cannot chastise. The long-winded explanations that you could listen to – forever.

But there are also those horrible moment of guilt, self doubt and impossible frustration. More so if you’re like me – fully capable of wielding your tongue like a rapier on occasions. Prone to explosions. Precisely the sort of qualities you probably wouldn’t expect in a teacher. Though I consciously try to be objective in the classroom and be the educator that I am expected to be – there are days that I go right ahead and lose it all.

If you saw Hari of my class, you would probably smile and ruffle his hair. He is skinny, with a sunny smile – and is an excellent runner. Unlike Piyush – chubby with huge round eyes brimming with naughtiness.

“Pi-yuuuushhh” yelled in my shrillest tone is a regular feature in our classroom – for Piyush can never sit in a place for more than precisely five seconds. He is either picking out stones from the little crack in the cement flooring, or taking away somebody’s eraser or spilling something. But the fact that his antics aren’t vicious or intentionally brutal makes him lovable. I secretly adore him.

That being said, It was on one of Piyush’s regular trips to the Principal that it occurred. Piyush and I were half-way down the stairs , when Nandini stomped down the stairs yelling for me.

“Miss , meees , miss , please come fast – Hari  hit Sanjay and he is crying very very badly ,miss. Please miss. Come faast”.

The panic in her voice was scary and I ran up the stairs , three at a time. There was a crowd around Sanjay – who was , like Nandini said – in throes of pain. He was lying on the floor , clutching his stomach.

I pulled him up and opened his shirt to examine. Sure enough – there was blood.

Hari had apparently stabbed Sanjay with a Sharpened Pencil. Sanjay had just had a surgery and had stitches on his stomach – very close to where Hari had managed to stab him. The lead of the pencil had gone into the skin.

After Sanjay was taken to the hospital and the violent beating in my heart had slowed down , I turned to look at Hari.

There he sat, perfectly normal – not a tinge of regret. If he had just stabbed Sanjay in momentary anger – it would be a different case. Here, he had purposefully sharpened his pencil, waited till I was out of the class. He fully intended to hurt the other child.  To me , there was something cold about that sort of planned revenge. It did not befit a nine year old.

This – after seven long months of me being in the class.  Months and months of talking about being respectful and kind.  Seven whole months of me hardly having time of anyone/anything except these children.

Somehow that calculated indifferent hardness in Hari saddened me. The class saw the sparkle of tears in my eyes and was hushed into solemnity. Hari begged and pleaded with me to not inform his mother – and promised that he would never do such a thing again.  In an hour’s time , he was back to his self , playing around and laughing.

I spent the night agonizing, wondering if I had been too harsh on Hari. Perhaps I was over-thinking. He was just a 9 year old child , after all..

The next day  ,  I was a little late to class .  Even as I entered , I noticed that Hari and a bunch of others were missing. Before I could ask – Nandini sprung into action.

“Miss, Hari is very bad boy miss. He threw stone at Giri and his specs got broken”

P.T sir had detained them downstairs.

As soon as he saw me , PT sir could hardly contain his anger.

“Miss, your class is honestly the worst class I have seen , miss. “

Tamil teacher, standing by agreed. “Worst”.

I do not think that there was another occasion in my life that I felt more helpless and frustrated. Anger and Disappointment.  I think something in me exploded.

I couldn’t bear to look at Hari without fighting an active urge to slap him. Every bit of his arrogant, cold, distant look annoyed me.  I remember thinking that there is really no way around kids like this – except a good spanking.

Of course, the class had to listen to an impassioned lecture. Angry tears – and a long speech that probably went over their heads.

Sigh.

Now , I look back on that day with nothing but regret. The more that I think , the more that I get convinced  that a teacher – first and foremost has to be a completely objective individual. Her primary duty to her students is to be an emotionally stable, balanced educator.

And for her to remain so, she must keep a safe, clear distance between herself and the students.  Their failures aren’t hers, nor are their successes.  Passion has a way of running wild and blocking clear thinking – which is why it must be kept in check.

I suppose this is a milestone in my fellowship ( and perhaps one every fellow must go through) .

I must see my students almost like specimens through a microscope – observing dispassionately – wondering, noticing, and developing. That’s the only way to truly help them grow.

The best way to love these children is to let them go. Let them not be a part of you – instead give yourself to them – whole and distinct.

And practice that Poker face, every single day.

The Old Bray Of My Heart

It was only a month back that I stood on the stage, in a borrowed kurtha, with a Gandhi cap fashioned out of white chart paper, a rose pinned on my pocket. Yes, it was children’s day and yours truly was given the honor of addressing a restless, noisy crowd that was bullied into listening.

Just a day after I waxed eloquent about Nehru and his famous “tryst with destiny” – I happened to hear another Prime Minister‘s speech and I was ready to jump right out of my balcony. We now live in country where the Prime minister comes up with the idiotic idea that plastic surgery originated in India citing Ganesha as an example. We have god women-turned ministers make inflammatory speeches every other day and insist that religious books be made into national scriptures.

While everyday news these days makes one implore the earth to swallow one alive – I read this in the newspaper recently. It talks about the double standards of our Human Resource Development Minister. On one hand – she publicly encourages the development of “Scientific temper” in children, On the other hand – she spends three hours with an astrologer in Rajasthan. The article questions the hypocrisy involved and wonders if this “Scientific temper” is just for policy matters and public appearances and not be practiced in everyday life.

I have often thought that the same question, on a smaller scale, applies to our schools and teachers. Is it fair that schools that teach children to be just selects all the fairest and prettiest children in the school for a welcome dance, irrespective of their dancing capabilities? Is it right for a teacher to announce her faith with an idol/ cross inside her classroom, which should be ideally a secular environment? Is it right that for a school that supposedly shuns superstition to not allow a teacher into the premises simply because she happened to go to funeral?

As for the teachers – how many of us can actually say that we stand by everything that we try to teach our kids?

I was put to test on that only recently. A friend of mine called me one morning with an offer/request. He wanted me to “pretend” to be one of the faculty members at a private architecture school for half a day. The college was set to have an inspection from the Council of Architecture and they were short on staff. I would be paid a handsome amount – for just a half a day of standing around and exhibiting my COA registration.

To be honest, a little bit of extra money is always welcome, the fellowship does not pay much. It would be easy money – I didn’t even have to work. But was it right to part of a fraud to earn a bit of extra money?

I asked my friends. The answers ranged from –

“You would be stupid not to go” to “Everyone does this sort of thing – its not exactly fraud” to “You could go , get the money and then use the money to buy stuff for your students – wash off your guilt that way”

I kept dallying – it was, honestly, quite tempting. But it just felt so wrong to actually support and do something like this – when I spend every single day standing before 35 people and teaching honesty and integrity.

What sort of a hypocrite would I be if I were to pretend to be righteous in one aspect of my life but turn around and be a completely selfish, conscience less, fickle person in another?

Should I stop teaching the fact that the Sun isn’t a god – but just a bunch of hot gases, simply because a parent implored me to do so? Should I allow a child not to go for yoga classes because she is Christian and Yoga involves saying “Om”? Should I ask a child eating non-vegetarian food to eat outside my classroom simply because I am a pure vegetarian?

I think teaching involves me watching myself  carefully every single day because I owe my students truth and objective thinking.

So the Sun remains a bunch of gases, no matter who says what. The Yoga classes remain compulsory and every child remains free to eat his/her choice of food.

Lots of people have asked me if the fellowship has changed anything in me. Honestly – I do not know. But I know this – that through the act of teaching children about facts, world and life, I am teaching these all over again to myself. Filtered through the eyes and minds of these children.

Has TFI changed my life – I cannot say.

But has it been profound – Incredibly so.

 

Annual Day

Today is the Annual day of the School. My Annual day saree is spread out on the bed – ready to be worn. The cardboard box full of props for the play my class would be performing is taped up and ready.

Theatre, drama and literature runs in my blood, coming from a line of artistically inclined souls (grandfather – a revolutionary drama artiste, the father – an engineer with a fancy for theatre). Yet, in my gloriously rebel-manner, I have always kept away from having anything to do with performing arts.  So, when it fell on me to write an entire script for a play for the children – I was lost.

The real hard part, however – was getting 35 perfectly naughty and fearless nine year olds to sit quietly and await their turn while I taught a classmate a dialogue or arranged the setting.  Peeyosh would fly an airplane the moment I took my eye off him. Balaji would find that the perfect time to break somebody’s pencil – making the said somebody howl in rage. Anybody and everybody who wasn’t under my direct supervision would find a noise-making activity of his/her own interest.

And I would be, in the midst of absolute and utter chaos – wondering what exactly I was doing. How was this annual day play going to benefit my kids? Wouldn’t they be better off reading a book or doing a math sum?  Yes – the play would give them the two minutes of fame on a stage. But these children had already had that – what with the Sports day dance, the Children’s day dance, the trustee’s birthday dance. It just seemed like I was merely wasting everybody’s time. I couldn’t find a purpose to it all. And that thought would just drive me mad – and sparks would fly right off my eyes.

If I am sitting here today, typing this – without having lost my mind – it is all thanks to Siva and his mother.

Siva is admittedly one of the star students of my class. He is a voracious reader – with a wonderful imagination. Time and again, he would come to me with his “books” – pages torn out from his notebooks, stapled together and filled with stories of superheroes he  created. During Math classes, he has a way of driving the class insane with his “finished meeees” even before the rest of the class has copied down the problem. He is sometimes an impossible know-it-all and is forever correcting his friends – to the point that Peeyosh once publicly threatened to box his ears if he said “finished meees” again. Ever.

Nevertheless – I think it was the evening after the Elocution competition. I had announced the competition the day before. giving them “India, my country” for the topic. There was a collective yay! from the class ( very patriotic  that way )  approving the topic.

The morning of the competition , Siva ran up to me the moment he spotted me in the school – with a piece of paper – his speech.

“Miss, please check my speech”

I skimmed through it – quite long – both sides of the paper.

“Peakok” it announced, was the national bird of India.

I remember violently striking off Peakok with my red pen – and handing the paper back to Siva, to check the spellings.

So…the speech happened, and Siva managed his speech- confident , loud and clear. But that was expected of him. He was Siva – I was used to holding him to a high standard.

Later that evening, Siva’s mother came up to me , patiently waiting her turn while I spoke to other parents. When I finally turned to her, I was surprised to find her welled up eyes..

“Thank you miss” She said.

I was surprised, why was she thanking me?

“Yesterday Siva sat down and wrote his entire speech, in English, by himself. I couldn’t believe that my son knew so much about India. He wrote his own speech and then wrote a speech for his elder brother too. I can’t wait to see him perform on annual day. All because of you , miss”

She needn’t have thanked me. Siva was just the sort who would’ve written a speech explaining the meaning of democracy and stating why Andhra Pradesh was divided – had I been there or not.

If anything – I had to thank her, because she gave me a sense of purpose – a reason why my students needed to perform at Annual day.

So I went back to my desk, and re-wrote the entire script- simplifying it , modifying it , creating a role for every single child of my class. All 35 students in my class now have a role.

Yes, so it’s a stretched out version of Elves and the Shoemaker and probably not the most stellar play. But I know there will be 35 parents with happy smiles somewhere in the audience.

And that is all that matters.

HOPE

I think it was the day after Diwali. There were still left-over-cracker noises in the air in spite of the doubtful drizzle.

Most children were on an extended Diwali holiday leaving the puddles in the school ground un-attended. A few children, whose parents had bulldozed them to school stood, waiting for the bell to run to their classes.

It was Vincy who gave me the news, running up to me, the moment she spotted me entering the school ground.

“Miss, Haripriya’s sister is die, miss”

A swallowed good morning. A morning hum stuck mid-way. An abandoned smile.

Haripriya’s sister , barely a year or two older than Haripriya had been suffering from blood cancer for the past three years. The family had stretched themselves thin caring for her treatment. I knew this, from the whispered conversations of the other teachers in the school – for I had never met either of Haripriya’s parents. She often walked home with a neighbor after school, and was cared for by her grandmother.

Nevertheless, Haripriya was a happy, sometimes cheeky,  sometimes stubborn , sometimes dreamy , sometimes exceptional – nine year old. She would often report to me the status of her sister’s “fever”. Cancer does not exist in nine year old universes.

Vincy told me that Kalpana had passed away on Diwali day, at the hospital. The funeral was over.  My heart, in its usual practiced fashion broke into a few hundred pieces.

After the day’s class , I walked towards Haripriya’s house , guided by Vincy and her mother , with Saranya and Rakshana ( “ Can we come too , miss?”). As I was climbing the narrow staircase to Haripriya’s house, I felt alien and suddenly apprehensive.

I had never met Haripriya’s mother before – Was I to just barge into her home?

Even then…what could I possibly say, considering the pathetic state of my Tamil?

The door opened , Haripriya’s mother appeared , Haripriya hanging on to her mother’s pallu.

“Haripriya-odey Miss” She mouthed slowly and then fell into my arms , sobbing. I stood , holding this older lady – whose grief I would never be able to fully comprehend. I realized that sometimes empathy does not need language.

Grieving her 11 year old daughter , that mother had only anger for the Universe. How was it fair that a small innocent child was made to suffer , when many terrible people were allowed a good life?  How was it fair that she was being made to exist when her daughter no longer, was?

Haripriya stood near me – knowing that her sister was gone , but unable to comprehend the finality of death.  She was still too innocent to actually realize the terrible devastation of losing a person.

As I said goodbye and walked out of the house ,  even I wasn’t spared the neighborhood rumors.   The child didn’t have cancer – she was possessed. The child had gone blind , not due to cancer – but because of a ritual oil bath that mother gave her. The child was a reincarnation. The child was god. The child was evil.

It was endless – and I came away feeling , devastated , angry , shocked. It just wasn’t right – the degree of superstition and ignorance that I saw.

Still lost in my thoughts , I reached the school – to find my bag and folder removed from the staffroom and kept outside , near the gate – in the school compound.

One shouldn’t enter a school after one has been to visit a death-house. Apparently.

Sigh.

Two weeks later , I saw Haripriya standing doubtfully in the assembly line. Almost like she wasn’t sure how children with dead sisters were supposed to behave. Was it ok to laugh? Was it ok to play again? Was it alright to fight with another friend?

I walked towards her , wishing I had the presence of mind to prepare the class to be gentle and kind to Haripriya on her first day back.

I needn’t have worried.

Haripriya was surrounded by her friends. Lohith gave her his chilli-shaped pen. Archana was writing her classwork. Saranya had made a card for her.  There was a mini-fight to decide who would get to sit with her during lunch.

I saw a beaming Haripriya leave the school that day.

I was overcome by the wonderful kindness and maturity that I saw in the kids that day. Perhaps they live in neighborhoods rife with superstition and ignorance – but there was still hope.

I think I stayed in school an hour longer that day.

JUST.A.TEACHER

Dear old pretentious uncle,

I hope you remember me. I am the girl who visited your home today. The girl whose name you mispronounced at least three times in the course of our conversation. Yes, the girl who sat at the edge of her seat, in your over-stuffed living room – absently counting the moldy trophies that announced your children’s glorious success in all sorts of things , from short put to fancy dress.

Until you decided to indulge me.

“So what do you do? “

My usual response to this question is an insecure rambling and an elaborate explanation about leaving my architecture job to become a teacher. But I decided to do you a kindness and simply chose to answer-

“I am a teacher – Oh, no, no – not the higher secondary, I teach fourth grade.”

I saw your face take on the unmistakable look of condescension, which was bearable – until you chose to say –

“Ho! Ho….that’s great…a bit of pocket money while having time for the family, eh?  Keeps you occupied too…“

While it was an exercise in patience to not give you a piece of my mind – it was what you chose to say after our short discussion that really set me off –

“You’re quite smart you know … would have shone well in IT, maybe. My son is in IT , daughter in law is an Mba grad, busy life. Makes quite a lot of money too”.

Right. So you’re shocked that me, a mere schoolteacher can manage to carry on a conversation with your ex-IAS self.

Would you have liked it better if I had told you that I was an architect?  Would you have trivialized my job then?  Would you have lamented my wastage of precious talent then?  Would you have brushed me aside for an un-ambitious idiot then?

I look at your son’s tired face as he fiddles with his laptop getting ready for yet another conference call on a festival day. He probably works at the back-end for some corporate giant , slaving away as they chew out his life blood and spit out the remains. Of course, he earns his big pot of money.

What exactly does he do with his pot of money?

Buy a car. A home. Pile on an EMI. Buy another car , work double-hard in the fear of losing his job and hence being unable to pay his EMI. Miss the childhood of his children. Work through a Diwali night , shutting the windows to bury the sound of crackers.

No offence to the software engineers, but this really isn’t my idea of a meaningful life.

And while your Mba grad daughter in law works her ass off selling nappies and soft drinks – your grandchild goes to the best school in town.

He speaks in flawless English and can tell you where St.Lucia is on a map. You’re shocked that your grandson, who runs wild at home, is known for his obedience in school. You’re proud when he spends an hour trying to make pulley or a lever for his science project. You show off his spelling bee trophies to one and all.

The person who makes this possible is probably his fourth grade teacher – who actually cares. She works hard to make the child that you spoiled rotten into a respectable human being. Yes, the teacher who stays back after school so that your grandson gets the basics of multiplication right. The very same teacher who painstakingly corrects his writing notebook daily – so that you can show off that letter he wrote to you.

Would you like your grandson to be educated by some nitwit with half a brain?  If not, then you will have to stop having this disgusting attitude towards the people who choose to become teachers. You have to stop insulting them- and being sorry that they’re wasting their brains doing some so trivial.

Personally, I think the job of educating a child and watching him/her emerge into a bright confident person is much more satisfying and meaningful than being a worker ant in big brands selling chocolates or fizzy drinks. It’s my personal opinion.

But the problem is most people make their life decisions to appease the society. So , even if a bright , young , passionate person wants to become a teacher – she probably wont . Only because people like you will point to her as an example of intelligence being wasted. A non-example of an emancipated woman.  Just a teacher.

Is it any wonder that most of the children (excepting the elite, like you)  in India study in schools with teachers who are in the profession not by passion, or even interest – but as a last choice?

Then, Is it a wonder that our country is filled with educated, but unemployable youth?

So, no sir…I am not wasting my life or my intelligence.

And it’s just one of the very strange coincidences that I received this , just as I was typing this out –seething . It’s a note that the good folks at TFI institute made us write to our future selves at the beginning of the fellowship.

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There might be a patronizing judgmental world out there – but I am always going hold my chin high and remember why I chose to be a teacher !

PS : Credits due to https://themadmomma.wordpress.com/