Dear N

A few weeks ago, I was invigilating a mock board exam paper for the class 9 students. As the exam wound up and I collected everyone’s answer papers, one of the girls told me “I’m sorry I couldn’t put your name Akka, but I didn’t have enough words to spare.” I evidently must have looked puzzled because she was quick to clarify. “Look at my essay and then you will know,” she said. Obviously, I did.

One of the essay questions in the paper was a letter to a friend describing something “new” that one had done in the recent past. What did you feel at that moment? Would you want to do it again? I had students writing about imaginary paragliding expeditions and organising charity events. There were a couple of pieces on volunteering and social work. There was, however, one piece that made me smile a little bit wider. A girl in my class had written about how she recently got published in The Hindu and that was the latest Big Thing in her life. I felt happy, she wrote, and of course I want to do it again – I want to be a full-time journalist.

A few weeks later, I used one of my articles that seemed conducive for a comprehension exercise in class (a feature on a radio station run by blind RJs that you can find here). They groaned and moaned through the exercise and soon it was done, and at least in my mind, long forgotten. Yet evidently not. Three days after this exercise, a senior teacher (mother of said girl incidentally) came up to me and said her daughter had now made up her mind to write, so could I please help her? I told her I would see what I could do.

Last Monday, I tried my best. The two hours that followed blew my mind. I sat the girl down and asked her why she wanted to write.

Why do you want write, ma?

I like it, Akka.

Okay, but why do you like it?

It makes me happy.

What about it makes you happy?

I want to tell stories, Akka.

What stories do you want to tell?

My stories, Akka.

What are your stories?

Akka, if I become a journalist, I will be the first girl to do so in this place. That story, Akka. My story.

Needless to say, I was adequately pleased. Had she said she wanted to write because of the high of seeing her name in print, I would have hesitated just a second, but this here? This thirst to put words on paper and weave a story? That I understood.

So we sat. And we brainstormed. What did we want to call it? What did we want to write about? At what frequency would we post? Who would read this? We sat and made lists and curated them. We picked chits and stopped just in time to ask what our hearts willed them to be. We decided we would blog. We discussed the power of stories and the art of writing. She asked me questions – who is your favourite author? What is your favourite story? Which did you enjoy writing the most? Finally, as she nonchalantly packed her things to head home, she said something that shook my very core.

I want to have as many stories as you do when I am your age, Akka. And I want you to have more. I never used to like English. Even as a child, my mother had to prompt me for every letter of the alphabet. I used to lie to get away from essay homework in school. I never read the newspaper, never cared for the language. Today, I want to be a journalist. You have changed the way I think of a subject. But Akka, you please don’t become a journalist all the time. Who will teach us English then?

Today, the blog went live.

n

Dear N,

Thank you for the way my breath caught in my throat that moment. For teaching me in one casual exchange as you bundled your books into your mud-coloured school bag, the magnitude of what the classroom offers. For not being deferential. Instead, the strength of your words was rooted in how matter-of-fact you were. Thank you for reminding me, following a few weeks of worrying about the ways of the world, that there are moments of gratitude and thankfulness so close to home if only we stop to savour them. Thank you for letting me be me in the classroom, and telling me without realising it that that is good enough, and I am doing just fine. When I began this journey, I set out with idealistic notions that I would make a difference, no matter how small. Thank you for hinting that I might have made a dent on this all-too-dreamy plan. You see, sometimes you are the teacher.

 (Her blog, The Girl in the Hills with Stories to tell, can be found here. Please do spend a minute every once in a while and read what she has to say. I’ve promised to pass on all the love and good will that comes her way.)

Visitors at 9 PM

At the outset, you should know that visitors are dicey where I live. Who comes, at what time of day, for what purpose, everything has to be thought through to make sure all the appropriate boxes have been checked. More often than not, most just avoid the hassle. Today was different, though. Today was a first.

The scene was so amusing that someone was taking pictures. I have never seen anything like this before, she said. She stood in the dark, a few steps behind me, with a water bottle in one hand and her phone in the other, taking pictures of this amusing scene that unfolded before her. We were standing at my door step, and with us for company were eight 10th graders. But I get ahead of myself.

A few months ago, at the start of this term, I walked into my 9th and 10th grade classrooms and told them it was time we started gearing up for the boards in earnest. We have to write mock exams, I told them. How often would they want to write? I suggested a monthly exercise. Every first week I would host mocks for them. They complained. A unified voice of groaning and moaning. I readied myself with my barrage of responses. It will help. One day, it will come in handy. It is only for the next few months. Cajoling, firmness, enticing, whatever it took to see us through till June. What hit me next will never cease to surprise.

We want once a week, Akka.

And so it began. With the Board itself offering this module only from 2011, my total set of question papers was a grand sum of five. Here were kids demanding one every week. With that started my wrestle with IGCSE. For the last four weeks, I have perpetually either been correcting papers or setting the next week’s papers, or on weeks that I have been lazy/tied up/just not feeling it, eventually both. Sigh.

Last Saturday, I was in Chennai working on another project. I sat at a fancy hotel amidst the who’s who of the business world, convincing them that my laptop was open for their good, that I was planning the next session, readying the next set of slides, what have you. Instead, I had a Word document open simply titled ‘3’. The next window was another one titled ‘3_MS,’ and anyone familiar with the board exam routine should immediately recognise the acronym for ‘marking scheme.’ I sat there slyly working my way through that week’s question paper (the third in the series, to explain the minimalist name), and quickly dispatched it off to the school for printing in time for my arrival on Monday morning. Ten minutes later, my inbox had an email that read a total of one line. Printer not working, Yash. Maybe printing only Tuesday.

And that was the start of it all.

I entered school on Monday morning to a fairly warm welcome. It turns out that my arrival was synonymous with the arrival of question papers. Akka, today we have assessment? Akka, you have question paper? Akka, IGCSE test? I ran off to have a post-train journey shower. Every day for the rest of the week, they asked. They asked. They asked again. And my answer remained the same. Get the printer to work and you shall have your question paper. (One of them offered to go to Kerala to print the paper for me.)

Fast forward to this Monday morning, yesterday, and the printer was working but we had run out of ink, I think. I finally convinced everyone involved to save my soul and get me eight copies for the 10th grade class that day. The catch? The paper was fifteen minutes late in getting printed and needed to be assembled and stapled. Net net, the students would not have had a full two hours to write the paper. We will do it next class, I told them. No Akka, give it to us after school today. We will write it till 6 PM, they said. And so we did. I was rewarded with a share of their coconut bread at the end of that round of invigilation.

And that is how I came to have visitors at 9 PM outside my door today. On my way to dinner, one of them asked me if I had finished correction. I told her I had just gotten done. Word spread fast. Soon, with every helping of rice, I had another student asking me a new question. How much did I get, Akka? Did I do better than last time? Are you happy with my improvement? Did I get more in the reading section or the writing section? I tried to convince them I did not remember every section of each one of their papers by heart. I told them I would show them the next morning. We cannot sleep, Akka. What is the difference between tonight and tomorrow morning, I asked them, slightly bewildered. Exactly, they threw back at me. Show us now.

So as I was finishing dinner, I looked up to see a semicircle of kids hovering behind my shoulder, unsure of how close was okay. They were waiting for me to get up, wash up, and walk up to my room. My customary glass of milk in my hand, I made the walk. Let the milk spill, Akka. I will get you tea in the morning, a girl said. Another saw me opening the door of the kitchenette to put the glass in and wanted to know why I had put the papers in the fridge. By the time I opened my door and brought the papers out, all eight of them were on my doorstep. And we had someone taking our picture.

Every week, these kids write a paper for me. Every week, they compare it against the week before as well as their own personal targets. Every week, they ask me if I am happy with how they have done, whether I can see an improvement. Every week, I am reminded of the strength of their ambition, their undying thirst to be better, learn more, try harder.

Every week, I swallow words of complaint at how I need to make another question paper. When the audience is this committed, isn’t it my job to be better, teach more, try harder?