First Day Tales: difficult questions, surprising answers

It is amazing how good the early morning air feels when it isn’t entirely defined by humidity and stickiness. I have always prided myself on being a night person, the girl who can stay up as long as you need her to but will not budge in the morning. In case anyone is getting ideas, the standard is about 9 AM, left to myself. And yet, here I was, alone in the hills, springing out of bed at an ungodly 6:15 AM. There was still very much a nip in the air, and the blankets I had just kicked off lay in a crumpled mess on the bed. I’m fairly certain if bedclothes had expressions, this one would have carried one of incredulity.

But enough of bedclothes and blankets, what of the day itself, you may ask. It turns out I am in charge of English education from classes 6 to 10, a fairly broad range but then again, a girl gotta do what she gotta do. Today it was the turn of the 9th and 10th, thankfully two classes that had borne the brunt of my sample class earlier in February. While they wished ‘Yashasvini Rajeshwar Akka’ good morning (it apparently took them from February to practice that but still, impressive stuff!), I will take a few weeks to get around to all those names for sure. As of now, they are just the quiet one, the jumpy one, the enthu one…you get the drift.

In the classroom though, the struggles are real. Reading out a passage on adolescent male drivers and high accident rates in Britain for a listening exercise, I asked them what data points they would need to collect to back up the claim that it was young men who were at the wheel for most accidents. I was interrupted by an argument between two of the students, Boy and Girl.

Boy: Akka, accidents are caused by men because only men know how to drive, Akka.
Girl: Akka, tell him that is not true, Akka. Even girls drive.
Boy: But the girls who drive, shouldn’t, Akka. They all drive so badly. Only men drive, Akka. That is why they only cause accidents.

Now, you must keep in mind that I spent the last five years being trained to recognize every gender-based argument and raise my shackles in preparation. And yet, here I was not knowing what to do. Women do drive, I told the boy, and evidently as mentioned in the passage, the ‘statistics’ that are spoken of include a female sample. Well, women don’t drive in Anaikatti, he countered. While that may be true, in many other places, they do, I said. “Anaikatti is a village. In the cities and all, women drive, no Akka?” one of the girls added. “But everywhere there are villages only no, Akka. If women don’t drive here, then they don’t drive at all no?” Finally, the conversation took a turn, accusing one of the girl students of “not even knowing how to drive a cycle, Akka” at which point I reminded them that yes, some women do drive, and no, we would not bicker about classmates and cycling just now. How do you teach gender sensitivity and undo stereotypes with kids who barely recognize them? Do I have the language to break it down for them, without resorting to the defensiveness that so often crept into my own classroom back home? What are the building blocks for the things we all took for granted and how do you combat what they claim is merely common sense? Sigh.

The high point of today was undoubtedly how much these children just want to learn, though. Time and time again, they remind me of just how much they go in search of knowledge, and how, to them, school is so much less a chore and so much more an experience. The Chemistry teacher told me over breakfast that the kids voluntarily signed up for extra hours leading up to the board exam because they wanted to feel better prepared. Just as I started reading out a passage, a girl stopped me to check which one I was reading. “We want the tough one, Akka,” they said. As I spent the last ten minutes of both my sessions asking what they wanted to learn in English, their answers (all written and read to avoid repetitions of ‘that only, Akka’) stunned me in their uniformity. “Teach us grammar, Akka,” they said. “Try to make it fun, but teach us anyway. We don’t like it but we need to know it so please teach us lots of grammar.” When was the last time any of us voluntarily asked for things that we didn’t enjoy? As far as I remember, so many of the classes I sat through, we treated ‘I don’t like it’ to be synonymous with ‘I don’t want to do it.’ What a breath of fresh air, even though I am not tasked with making grammar fun.

And finally, my next (and last) moment of today. At assembly this week, kids get to “interview” the new teachers – read, put them on a chair in front of the entire senior school and bombard them with rapid fire questions. The teacher on the hot seat today got asked everything. What is your father’s name? (Yes, yes, only father’s.) How much did you score in 10th/12th? What was your most/least favourite subject in school? What was your ambition as a child? And just as I thought things were manageable, they brought out the big guns. If you had to change one thing, what would it be? If you had three wishes, what would you wish for? Who has been your biggest inspiration? Why are you here? And all of a sudden, I find myself dreading the day (Wednesday? Thursday?) I need to take my place in front of the crowd. I have not the slightest idea what my three golden wishes are, or who my biggest inspirations were. Somehow, the need to be “deep” with the answers to these questions has bitten me in the last five years, to take every question seriously and come up with something pseudo-profound, and yet today, what drew the most laughs was the teacher’s classic cop-out of “I would wish that I never get asked this again.” Let’s see how that one goes.

Rather long intro post, but first days don’t happen every day, right?

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6 thoughts on “First Day Tales: difficult questions, surprising answers

  1. I am so looking forward to reading more of these amazing adventures! It sounds like the perfect haven for anyone wanting to explore education as it is practiced in its entirety. Write regularly! 🙂

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  2. I totally loved reading this, Yashasvini! The way you’ve described – i could picture in my mind the classrooms, the students, the passion in their eyes, the inquisitiveness, the quest to learn, the debates for what is right and wrong – it transported me back to my schooldays, when in my school uniform, I would ask those pesky questions to my teachers.

    What’s the one thing you want to change, 3 wishes, biggest inspiration – simple yet profound questions, how tough is it to answer this now and yet how easy it was to answer this when we were in school? Time to unlearn 🙂

    Just one request – write OFTEN like thrice a week. It makes me feel I’m there with them in that classroom against the backdrop of hills!

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read, Sandeep! It’s been an amazing couple of days, and if this is anything to go by, I have a lot to look forward to. Hopefully, I will be writing lots as well! 🙂

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  3. Yash, superr.
    Enjoyed experiencing the classroom through you. Yes sometimes simplicity is stunning and sometimes girl-boy questions may not be about gender sensitivity…just lack of exposure.
    It’s so easy to be real…enjoy these moments.

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