Saturday, February 11, 2012

Meeting Points

As a teacher, I was a little distressed by the generally antagonistic atmosphere of a classroom that I found myself in.

A raging battleground, a classroom is where teachers and students constitute opposing armies in an unfair war whose origin, like of wars universally, cannot clearly be located. It is a terrible fact that a teacher, although standing alone on the battle field, is invincible and has powers to pulverize. Students pull out their blunt knives and poke the air at most. The prospect of the teacher pressing a button to release a nuclear bomb to blow them into bits is all too real. Lines drawn between the two sides are impenetrable. Self preservation may be the primary activity at any school.

I've often seen in my classroom experiences that a lot of students’ learning capacity is overwhelmed by the effort they put into hiding and protecting themselves. A full time duty on the defensive reveals little that is real or vital in the students. I entered my career as a teacher with a pacifist outlook, wanting to prove wrong what I thought I knew about schools, wanting to provide a more humane alternative to my students. And yet, more than once, I found myself aroused to approach my button. With great power may come great responsibility, but it is all too tempting to forsake responsibility and indulge in a little power trip every now and then. I used minor weapons from a range of ammunitions--that include public humiliation, punishment, reports to authority, meetings with parents--silencing my students, making them retreat further. But all it did was establish me more concretely as enemy. An unfair advantage of being in a teacher position, and even more importantly, a pointless victory left me feeling somewhat guilty. Was that my purpose in teaching--to blow fire through my nostrils, scathing young confidence?
It was with more than a little bit of worry about how to reconcile these gaps that I recently embarked on a two week long tour of India with my students. My mental worries soon faded as I faced what was to become the most intense and exhausting experience of my adult life. With the direct responsibility of a dozen kids in my group as well as the added responsibility of whoever else came my way carrying a sad or sorry looking face, I felt like someone on a kind of humanitarian mission. Equipped with backpack, first-aid kit, sunglasses, sturdy faith in non-existence muscles, I even let myself feel like a film star gliding through an action movie.

My knowledge or expertise in my subject matter proved utterly useless in the streets, however, and humility rather than heroism characterised my mood. I forgot that I was a young South Asian woman who should be afraid of strangers and men and society and darkness and mostly of herself. Instead, I became a single human being struggling against the world, with a hoard of youngsters behind me, my primary agenda to protect them. And it was while scampering up and down trains with my students, pushing sinister strangers away from seats meant for them, stuffing Benadryl and ginger into coughing mouths, pressing my palm against blazing foreheads, squirting liquid sanitiser into dirty hands, counting coins from my pockets to supply tea, water, tidbits, lending my shoulder to a sleepy head, lending my phone to a home-sick heart, that I felt for the first time like I was doing something of fundamental importance--taking care of others while relating with them. It was as un-intellectual as my job had gotten. It filled me with new-found purpose.

In the intimacy that the tour granted, I came to realise that whatever impression I’d made of these students had been a product of my limited judgement. As they opened up in those moments of chaos, confusion and euphoria, I saw new personalities emerge to occupy the same faces. The quietest of the lot turned out to be an amazing storyteller, the one who never smiled in class was a natural comedian, the back bencher took interest in everything around us, the shy one was a relentless haggler. There were musicians, artists, philosophers and caretakers in our midst. These were full bodied protagonists in their own stories--charming, intriguing, and irresistibly endearing. We were creating, en route, our own carnival of delight, them trusting me with their sense of humor, their stupidity, their joys and their insecurities. When they began to trust me with their entire selves, I felt like I’d gained something of immense value. It seemed like it is possible, after all, to help them learn without having to go against their current.

And somewhere along the way, we developed a great sense of ownership of one another. Did I have anything to do with it? I wanted so badly to take credit for the way they’d fused together to become a single unit. I wanted to somehow feel responsible for their transformation. I wanted somebody to acknowledge me as the glue that helped bind them together. But I knew deep within that we’d left behind hierarchies at the school gates on the first day. I was no grand orchestrator here; things were unfolding naturally and they were just as responsible--with their eagerness to learn from and about each other--in bringing about that sense of belonging.

Towards the end of the trip, in a haze of exhaustion, I found my tongue sweeping out words from the subconscious. I began many a sentence with ‘saathi…’ stopping myself halfway and correcting it to ‘student’ as it was consciously meant. But somewhere deeper, I knew these distinctions had already begun to blur. For what is a saathi but someone who embodies ultimate trust? Saathi, someone who you arrive to. Someone you settle into. Someone in whose presence you do not have to keep guarded secrets that divide you into blacks and whites, goods and bads, conscious and unconscious minds. Someone who dispenses with your fragmentation, allows you to be whole.
And as far as learning goes, it is friends I trust deeply that have taught me an inordinate set of values, given me eyes to see beauty in the world, given me the strength to own my sorrows and equally, my weaknesses, given life to details that otherwise lay neglected. Good friendship is littered with experiences of true learning. So why not saathi?

Now that we are back from our trip and on with our daily lives, I feel a slight sense of loss--even betrayal--in their student-like behavior; the way they stand up to greet me every time I come into class and how they wait upright until I’ve asked them to sit down; the way they ask for permission to even enter the classroom; the way they have grown silent, lost the smiles on their faces, begun to feel one-dimensional again--as if they have ditched me as a friend. Do they not trust me with themselves anymore?

But I ought to know how vulnerable being back in school must make them feel. A school is a minefield of wrongdoings and rightdoings. More often than not, it is actions committed with innocent intent--or merely being themselves--that get kids into enormous trouble. Schools uphold a false sense of morality--speaking your mind through your words is wrong, but in your attire, style, behavior, it is unforgivable, growing your hair is wrong, questioning establishment is wrong, telling your teacher they can be wrong is wrong--which must undoubtedly skew their understanding of reality. In constantly being told what not to do, I wonder how they are to discover the true nature of life on their own.

I’ve come to harbour a sneaking suspicion whether my students haven’t deliberately dumbed themselves down as a survival tactic. Any trace of individuality, originality of thought, any intelligence proves to be a threat to the authority of institutions. The foundations of good schooling lie in how effectively you learn to distrust. Most of all yourself. What else do you see looming in that--other than tragedy?

My kids. That is what I call them and friends laugh at my choice of words. They may be somebody else’s children, but I refuse to relinquish kinship. I want to say to them, kids, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field; it is where I learn about things that matter the most. I hope to meet you there.

(from today's Kathmandu Post, along with lovingly made illustration from best friend)


  1. i dont know how you do it: this complete trust in me that i can decipher the meanings; understand what you have understood. this trust we have upon each other; i just love you! btw, this is a far better work than the one that we tried to work on at your place..that huge chart paper of chaos :) and right now, reading those last two words in between the parenthesis was amazing.

    (best friend)

  2. haha. that one kind of slipped out of my tongue without even thinking twice.

    and did i mention how the illustration is the best part of the piece? oh right, i did. :)

    want to keep saying it again and again though.