Reading Gabriel Garcia Markweez

When the theme for this year’s Project Day was announced to be art, everyone was a little unsure. With the school’s policy to dedicate second term to the preparation of a final exhibition, every subject is to be taught through the lens of the chosen theme. So last year’s project on forests saw teachers using earthworms and centipedes to teach percentage, and so on. This year, we were dealt with art. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

As a teacher of English as Second Language, my biggest struggle in my first term here was how to make children fall in love with this language that has enchanted me for so many years. Except when your classroom is populated by verb conjugations and subject-verb agreements, it is rather hard to convey that almost obvious statement to a group of middle-schoolers. English is fun, my mind voice would scream while I attempted to instil enthusiasm in an exercise about tenses. But this term? This term asked me to teach them English as an Art.

I decided I would do World Literature. Yes, I know. Ambitious does not begin to cover it. I know. I chose the continents (let’s ignore Antarctica, I decided) and chose prose and poetry that covered a range of genres. I warned the principal that I may not actually be able to cover as much ground as I had planned, and her response hit bullseye. “This term plan is more for you than them, isn’t it?”

It was on that note that I stepped into class one day, confidently armed with a slightly edited version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.’ After going through the motions of convincing them that two sides of an A4 piece of paper really was called a ‘short’ story and identifying Colombia on a world map, we got started.

The thing about project term is that I conduct the same classes with four different groups of kids, all mixed age across grades 6 to 8. While mixed age is really helping the kids, it risks one of two things for the teachers – repetition and boredom, and/or excessive preparation. Given that I was dealing with the same text for all of them, I tried to do what I could to keep things interesting for myself. By the end of last week, I almost knew Marquez by heart.

As a sneak peek, here are some of the things that I heard.

  • Akka! Why is he called Esteban? If we are giving him any name, why can’t it be Esappan?
  • (In response to a very leading question on how we recognise people by their faces and “not by the back of their heads”) But Akka, we can recognise people even on video, no?
  • Akka, if the man really was as heavy as a horse, how were the children burying and digging him up? How did they lift him?
  • If he had been floating in the water for a long time, how come sharks did not get to him?
  • (In response to asking what the sea smelt of, expecting sand and salt and fish) Plastic, Akka. And waste.
  • If they were fishermen and could fit into seven boats, how did they get access to a cargo ship’s anchor? If it was a desert-like cliff where nothing grew, how did they get the wood to build their houses?

And obviously, the cherry on top of the many hours spent circling verbs and sifting through a dictionary – Akka, how did he think of all this? And within that question lies the fascination of literature.

(You can see an annotated reproduction of the average class here, with examples, illustrations, questions, and anecdotes galore.)

What are my strengths, Akka?

Today, as part of preparation for the upcoming board exams, I made my class 9 and 10 students go through the motions of goal setting. We spent an hour, each class, figuring out our monthly goals between now and June 2017 when we will appear for the all-too-dreaded (by me) board exams. How often do you want to do past papers, I asked them, expecting a once-in-a-month response. Every week, Akka, they all chorused, surprising me once again with their yearning to give it their all. I suspect I will blog excessively about the trials and tribulations of trying to mimic an Edexcel question paper in the near future, but crossing that bridge later…

Coming back to today’s class. Goals, I told them. Out of fifty each for reading and writing with only two very simple rules. They weren’t allowed to set goals below what they had already achieved last term, and over the long term, the goals had to show some kind of upward curve. At what rate, to what extent, the details were up to them. I wanted realistic goals that they would commit to, something tangible for them to work towards when I stick the question paper in their faces next Monday. They nodded gravely and pulled out scales because what kind of tabular column could be made without neat presentation? (Yes, I was very proud).

But the surprise of the day came at stage two of this introspective process. After our goals were in place, I asked them to draw up a quick SWOT analysis for me, explaining that one axis mapped the positive-negative spectrum while the other mapped the internal-external spectrum. I told them they could write about anything as long as it had some basic connection, however tenuous, to their preparation for the ESL board, since that was the core purpose of the exercise. After a few minutes explaining what the O and T were and processing it, a couple of hands hit the air with coincidentally the same doubt. Is a teacher who is stricter than IGCSE an opportunity, Akka? I told them they could figure out whether it was O or T!

Yet through this exercise what struck me the most was this. The kids in front of me were committed (most of the time), honest (most of the time) and trained in a school of education that prioritized experience and exposure over most other things, much like my own high school. Whether for lack of introspection or lack of vocabulary, I do not know, but time and again I was faced with the question – Akka, what are my strengths? Or worse still, statements of utmost confidence – Akka, I don’t have strengths. I have filled in everything else.

With a few more minutes, a little more cajoling, and a lot more convincing that everyone has strengths, the column was sprinkled with something or the other. Yet, the teacher in me was more than slightly shaken. Was I reading too much into this by assuming it reflected self-confidence? Was I using adult lenses to judge childish innocence? Or was I just handed a teaching moment on a platter, one that might set them thinking about their own good-at and not-so-good-at lists? I wish there was a black and white to situations like this. Instead, I occupied myself with erasing the whiteboard clean, each swipe of my arm carrying with it a little stroke of my own handwriting spelling out what S-W-O-T means.

Things to think about all around.

Shekar Dattatri, Vayu Naidu, and the nostalgia of firsts

I am back post-vacation at the school, fresh and all geared up for Term 2. Two days in, who is surprised I have my first story? Here is a little nostalgia trip peppered with school anecdotes.

I remember my first interview like it was yesterday. Except it was a long, long time ago from yesterday. It was some day in my 8th grade. If I had known that it would shape so much of the next few years, I would’ve taken the effort to remember the date. But for now, let us just leave it at Grade 8.

My high school was known to be gung-ho about extra-curriculars, taking the effort and energy to help every student find their niche, so to speak. Towards this end, I remember my director and History teacher calling me one day to ask if I would be willing to conduct a couple of interviews. Just because. With no intent of publication, no word limit, no restrictions whatsoever, the only purpose was to converse, listen, and learn the art of interviewing. With that brief, I asked who it was I was going to meet. Shekar Dattatri, I was told. The enormity of the name didn’t strike me just then.

I was dispatched to do my homework. And gosh, was there a lot to do. I quickly formed one clear opinion. This man was a legend. A gazillion documentaries, a truckload of awards and accolades, a wide host of issues close to his heart, and a bunch of books to boot – this man was a force to reckon with in the field of wildlife conservation and filmmaking. And so, armed with a printed sheet of questions, a notebook, pen, and quivering voice, I set out to take that “interview.”

Fast forward to a scene in his living room. Thirteen-year-old me has not the first idea what to do. So I do what I could best. I sit there. Long story short, over the next hour or so, I learnt the basics of my journalism. How do you introduce yourself? How do you pitch your story? How do you pose your questions? When is the gap long enough to slip in the next one? How do you take notes while still keeping up with the conversation? How do you know when to prod and when to step back? Amidst the answers to my rather juvenile questions, he taught me all of it. As I was setting out to leave, he asked me only one thing. “Send me the piece when you are done to proof?” And so I did.

And he replied. Boy, did he reply. Many, many days in the years that followed, I have rued losing that email in the switch from childish Hotmail accounts to my more “professional” avatar. It was a tome, over a thousand words long, laying out in neatly ordered bullet points everything I “could do better.” One lesson I distinctly remember, a lesson that has stayed with me ever since. I had spelt his name ‘Shekhar’ through the article, falling prey to the stereotype of Tamilians and their love for Hs. “Always, always double-check how your interviewee spells his or her name. It is their identity. You don’t want to trip up on that.” Golden rule.

So fast forward about ten years to yesterday. I was the teacher, and two of my grade 9 kids were poised to take their first interview. Dr. Vayu Naidu, storyteller-par-excellence, ex-academic, novelist (think Sita’s Ascent) and overall uber-cool person, was visiting the school. And we figured we might as well sit down to have a chat. So the two kids and I (as self-ppointed wallflower) ushered her into a classroom and settled in. And the stories she wove!

She spoke and spoke and spoke about the hows and whys of her life story. Why did she start telling stories? How did she chart her career? What fascinates her about tales that need telling? What are the ABCs of a good storyteller? We bombarded her, she parried, the conversation flowed seamlessly.

Fast forward some more to today. The two kids sat in front of me with their notes, scrawled squiggles of various levels of illegibility. How do you take running notes like that, Akka, they wanted to know. I promised them they would too, for sure, if only they kept at it. Can we use your notes, Akka, they asked. If you can understand it, sure. [Key: u/s is understand, c/n is cannot…] With that, we wrote.

Article aside (and unlike my first tryst, this might actually get published), I caught myself wanting them to remember. Remember how momentous October 6th, 2016 was in their own stories. Remember the tenor of her voice and texture of her tone. Remember the kindness of the pause as she waited for their inexperienced hand to catch up with her. Remember the carefully calculated deliberateness of her words, stopping to spell out proper nouns and foreign words. Remember, many years from now, that one day way back, a very learned person took the time to teach you the ropes. Remember, I wanted to tell them.

Instead we wrote. We formed our introductions, prioritized our questions, framed the answers in first person, and tied up the loose ends. We recreated narratives, painted a story, and ran grammar checks. We soaked in the excitement of the possibility of our names in print, a high that is still as potent as it was a decade ago. And we created memories that will hopefully last a lifetime.