I girl: Reconciling gender

It was very early on the job when I first came face to face with exactly how much of a contrast gender was going to be in Anaikatti. Coming from a space where practically nothing was taboo and the boys around us were not “spared” of anything, with some of my closest friends independent of gender bearing the brunt of my period pains and fainting fits, I had been spoilt by the freedom of conversation, comprehension, and camaraderie. I moved to Anaikatti, knowing in theory that things would be different. All my sleeveless clothes stayed behind at home, and I have worn skirts maybe thrice since I got here, all on non-school days.* Yet, no amount of self-awareness and mental preparation would have gotten me ready for the road that I was embarking on.

On the first few days that I was here, I figured that doing laundry was an integral part of moving somewhere. I would wash out my underwear when in the shower, and put them out to dry along with my towel on my way out. This act, that I had so taken for granted, was brought to my attention, clothed in many appreciative noises. Apparently I was brave. I told the speaker that it was only because I needed my bra/underwear to be dry, and I really wasn’t looking to be a pathbreaker of any sort. It was the first hint on what was going to be a road filled with many such acts of “bravery” (?) along the way.

Over the next few months, every day has been a reminder of my gender. Never before have I been so directly, so constantly, and so blatantly reminded of my gendered position as the last three months. I have been told I sound like a man, courtesy a base voice. I have been told I should be careful how I laugh, because it hurts the ears. Soon after I carried a hurt child up to the office, I was told only elephants can be given hard manual labour. I have been told that girls who know how to behave don’t dress the way I do, that it is undesirable and unattractive. I have been told that even if Future Husband is an asshole, I don’t have a choice but to put up with it. I have heard that no matter what I do here, I will eventually end up cleaning someone else’s vessels. I have been asked repeatedly when I am going to get married, and off late this has shifted to how I probably am not, because I mean, look at me.

In a conversation about how his family was looking out for a potential bride, I once heard about how girls were “rejected” because their faces were too round, or not round enough, I forget which. It seemed to be the most obvious criterion to decide life partners, how the face compares against a compass drawn circle. The conversation then went on to talk about how the girl must wear what the man wants her to wear, and behave how he wants her to, and talk to the people he wants her to.

Cut to a snippet of Sports Day practice. There was an event which involved girls doing push-ups, five at the end of a hurdle relay (ish). While hanging around watching the practice, I spent some time trying to teach some of the girls how to do the push-ups right. Make sure you bend the elbows, not strain the back. Two days later, the number was brought down from five to one, which later crumbled into a weird touch-the-floor exercise, because isn’t it wrong for girls to do push-ups? At that very minute, I thought of two women I spoke to for my thesis – one is an international Silambam champion, and the other is a personal trainer and power lifter. Chatting with them about women in sports seemed lightyears away.

Now the catch is this. Through my last two years of high school, I lived through bullying on a daily basis – spiteful, mean and insensitive, just like every textbook describes it to be. My body type, my work ethic, my love life, everything was fair play through classes 11 and 12. And thanks to surviving that, I can tell that things here are fundamentally different. People here are not inherently mean. Those asking me not to laugh and telling me that for local standards, I am undesirable, weirdly enough, mean well. They call me their sisters (because of course that is the only socially accepted relationship possible) and “look out for me.” In their books, the complexity of the English language may effortlessly roll off my tongue, but I desperately need to be taught how to perform my gender. And somehow, such well-intentioned cautionary notes fluster more than mean-spirited high school bullying did.

On a different note, this morning I had two minutes to spare before I had to rush out the door to a day of teaching six periods straight. Not up for sitting and figuring it out, I googled for examples of idioms, and inexplicably, was given a poster that read “A girl should be like a butterfly; pretty to see and difficult to catch.” I was stumped. I shared it on my social media account in the full knowledge that my peers would react with the same resigned horror that was threatening to overwhelm me just then, and went about my life, walking into a day where I was sure to be at the receiving end of some form of sexism. Guaranteed.

Butterfly Girl

Not so long ago, all of us teachers who live on campus had coincidentally gone home the same weekend. A man who knew us only in passing from the town asked us on the Monday of our return where we had been and we were making small talk. He proceeded to ask whether we had all been to same town, and responding to the negative, suggested that we all do that sometime. We nodded in agreement, just because such empty agreement is the fuel of polite conversation, when he pulled the rug so quickly from under me that I did not even know what hit me. Why don’t you all go to Chennai, he asked my colleagues. “Indha Akka-ve paatha thaan nalla perisa irukaange, pasange elaam bayandhe odi poiduvaange. Prachanai varaadhu.” (This Akka only looks so big that all the boys will run away, scared. There won’t be any problems.”) Apparently, if you are 5’7”, you are immune to molestation of whatever kind. News to me for sure.

Today, unlike ever before, gender tires me. I feel the weight of being a girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl who isn’t paper thin. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl who doesn’t shy away from physical work. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl, who is okay with physical work and travelling alone. I feel the weight of being watched, being judged, and then being informed of said judgement. Just performing gender, toeing my own lines, and constantly reminding myself to make the distinction between adjustment and transformation, is tiring work.

If anyone were to ask what I do – I teach, I correct, I write, I read. But also, I girl.

 

*- To be fair, the school does not have a dress code. I just think of it as choosing my battles.

Comma Crazy: everything you didn’t need to know

My head is abuzz with phrases and clauses and (in)dependency. And other stuff I barely know the names of. (Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition? I have always wondered.) I have spent more time today than probably my entire life put together on learning the intricacies of comma usage. It all started at 9:30 PM after dinner, and now as it hits midnight, I am forcing myself to stop. Two and half hours later, my head is reeling, my pens look a little more worn out, and I can’t do much but hope that my students won’t swim in the barrage of more do’s and don’ts than I ever knew existed.

Whatever happened to the classic: The panda eats(,) shoots and leaves exercise? Wasn’t that all?

It all started on Wednesday. With exams coming up next week, I asked class 9 whether there was anything in particular they wanted to brush up before I throw a model board exam paper at them. Having dealt with the last three months of a heady cycle of descriptive/argumentative/narrative essays, they seemed fairly confident on that front, albeit with a slew of errors in syntax and capitals that was my problem to deal with. In that pause between the question and my getting up to erase the board and send them off, a boy meekly asked me the question. “Akka, could you teach us how to use commas?” “Sure,” I had told him. That would be the subject of the next class. It was Wednesday. Monday seemed aeons away. Plenty time to get my commas in place, I told myself.

Fast forward Sunday and I had brushed up a few exercises and such. I sat down with Google to check out a “couple of rules.” I mean, how many could there be really, right? After all, you use commas when a sentence looks weird without one. That is pretty much all. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Fun fact for everyone who has never taught high school English, and everyone who never bothered to plough through Wren and Martin in your own high school classroom: There are TWELVE different rules that govern comma usage, and this was a “quick guide” I was referring to. Just saying.

And with that, I found myself staring at sentences like this one-

  1. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

Err. Ok then. Coordinate adjectives? Gulp. Also when was the last time anyone was asked what the difference between a clause and a phrase was? (It turns out phrases don’t have subjects and verbs, in case you were wondering. Kudos to anyone who still remembers these definitions!) For all of us who never sat and broke our heads over the nitty-gritties of these rules, how did we ever figure them out ourselves? Now more than ever, the human art of language acquisition is leaving me awestruck.

But coming back to commas.

If the clause (phrase? No, clause) is at the beginning, there is a comma. There isn’t a comma if it is at the end. (See what I did there?) Now why ever not? I can already hear the voices in my head. Akka, who made these rules? Akka, why? Akka, it is so confusing!

Tomorrow morning, I set out to explain how commas interact with independent clauses, and how those are different from infinitive clauses. I promise I won’t use those words. Really.

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Tomorrow morning, I walk into the classroom armed with a long-sized notebook filled with notes in three different colours of ink (because how else does one make notes?) and a vow to have answers that are more explanatory than “just because.” Let us see how that one goes.

End rant.

Of Akka and Alan Turing

 

Did you understand the question? – Akka?

Have you finished copying this down? – Akka?

Have you written all 25 words of dictation? – Akka?

Completed yesterday’s homework? – Akka?

If ‘a’ and ‘e’ are vowels, what are ‘bcd’? – Akka?

My days are littered with calls of ‘Akka,’ the only difference being one of intonation. An Akka with a stretched out stress on both vowels is a guilty apology, probably for a notebook forgotten or homework left incomplete. An Akka with a sharpness of consonant sound is shock or complaint, against insufficient time, ambitious word limits or surprise test announcements. An Akka that touches only higher pitches would suggest I walked in with chart paper or my favourite sponge ball, hinting at play and games over the next hour and a half. But perhaps my most frequent friend, an Akka with a slight upswing that signals a request for repetition, a confession of not understanding, a reflex that occasionally drives me up the wall. What did you eat for lunch, I asked. ‘Akka?’ they answered. How was your weekend, I asked. ‘Akka?’ I heard…

But every once in a while, questions get more prosaic than that. More coherent, more descriptive, but no less impossible to answer.

Why should we stand in attention for the flag hoisting?

Why did they kill Alan Turing just because he was homosexual?

Why is it playi-ing but swim-ming? Where is the extra ‘m’ from?

Have you heard of Bob Marley?

What is that machine from World War 2?

Why are they fighting in Syria?

More often than not, I find myself swimming in a sea of questions I do not know how to answer, either because not all the details are at the top of my head or because I just don’t know. Why is it swimming, when it would be just the same if it was swiming? And by that logic, why isn’t it playying? I thought maybe it is something about vowels given we occasionally treat ‘y’ as one (or was that just in French? :/) but then again, jumping doesn’t work that way…

Except what specifically triggered this post today was a question from class 9. We were doing a timed exercise in skimming and precis writing – each kid got a page of the newspaper and fifteen minutes to read every article on it. Each article then had to summarized with a varying word limit depending on the size of the article. The longest summary was 100 words, and the shortest was 10 words. Anyway, in the middle of this exercise, I was telling them about a teenager millionaire in the US, whose claim to fame was this very action – taking news articles and converting them into byte-sized summaries. The app was then, I had heard, sold to Yahoo for millions of dollars because he had to get back to school and concentrate on his SATs. If he is a millionaire, why does he have to go back to school, one asked. The reply came quickly from the bench in front of him. Because no matter what he does, if he does not have an education, he will not be respected. I flinched. I did not know whether I necessarily agreed with that one, but I did not know if that was a path we should be going down just then. Before my thoughts could be ordered, the conversation had moved on. Why did he need more money? Didn’t he have enough? I smiled. Is there any such thing as ‘enough money,’ I asked, just to see what would come of it. Don’t we always want the next big thing? From phone to cell to laptop to tablet? That is when things got a little confusing. They agreed but seemed unsettled. One asked me if I was that way too. Another asked why the world was like that. And then they started citing examples from around them to prove the point. A little later, I could hear whispers about why it needn’t be that way. And I made a note to self to pick up this thread of conversation sometime later. Later, but soon.

The debate between pursuing ‘money’ and ‘dreams’ (assuming for a moment that while they might not be completely disjoint, they are not always in complete sync for most of us) is a conversation I have had multiple times in college. It was one that usually saw us agreeing that chasing dreams was a luxury not everyone began with. Money being unimportant was a stance that only those who had a cushion of a bank balance could afford to take. So there I was, caught. I could tell these kids that they could be whatever they wanted, but would that be fair? Is it my job as a teacher to be realistic or is it my place to be optimistic, hopeful and outright crazy? Is it unethical of us to feed children the “anything you want to be” dream? Or are we letting adult cynicism get in the way of ambition? Or if there is a balance between the two, where is the line drawn? As you can imagine, none of these questions got answered. As my mind was getting ahead of itself and tumbling over questions and answers, I was interrupted by “Akka, how many minutes more?” and voices of protest at my answer. “In five minutes, you all better be done reading.” Akkaaaa, they cried, in the ultimate use of the word, every ‘a’ speaking of an added degree of unhappiness and protest.