December 5th morning dawned bordering between pleasant and chilly, or so they tell me. I was somewhere between Chennai and Coimbatore, stumbling into flights and cabs and buses to get to the school on time for the Annual Project Day. My students and colleagues alike had sent me pictures of the exhibit while I spent the weekend in Bombay, and I couldn’t wait to see it myself. At 9:50 AM, I ducked under the rope that cordoned off the exhibit space and walked up to see how the ‘English wall’ looked.
Oh my god.
Spread across the wall in front of me was everything that the last six months had stood for. I had envisaged the layout one way, had simply sat my 8th standard kids down and told them, and packed my bags for the weekend. And there it was, all laid out before me, an expanse of 50+ charts, three-four models, and two live counters. All ready to be flaunted.
The centre of the exhibit was the outline of a human head juxtaposed against the world map (World Literature, you see). Coming out of the head were thoughts of various kinds. What is literature? What is writing? Why is writing literature? You look hard enough, you would have seen another bubble sandwiched between the others. Art for art’s sake, it read. Writing to write. To express. To communicate. Ask the kids and they would tell you that it meant writing just because (yes, even if that is an incomplete sentence) and not because it helped make or give you something else. We write because we want to write, Akka. And as an example of that, we spoke of nonsense literature, and stringing words together just for the joy of creating and expressing. “Like Carroll did in Alice and Wonderland, Akka, in Jabberwocky.”
This head was surrounded by the greats of literature – some of the most famous authors, poets, books, and Indian writers. It was coloured by conversation of how John Milton and John Keats were not related but Anita Desai and Kiran Desai were. It was about whether these were the only famous people there were or whether they were just a selection. It was questioning how many of these names I had read and why I hadn’t read the others. But more than anything else, it was discovery. Why are so many of them from England? How many women are there? How many of them are non-white? It was about taking this word called ‘literature’ and making it real, building it up into something solid.
Surrounding this Literature Head of ours, we had split the exhibit into vertical halves; one for poetry and the other, prose. Each section represented two countries – England (Daffodils) and Japan (haikus) for poetry, and Ghana (traditional folk story) and Colombia (Marquez’s Handsomest Drowned Man) for prose. We made charts that told you the story, that analysed it (what is the relationship between dialogue and emotion, what is said and what is felt), that extended it (crosswords and scrabble boards), and that made it our own. Dozens of haikus hung on scrolls around the Japan cloud, and students decided to take away from that “old man who wrote of flowers from some other country so long ago” and write their own poem. So occupying a seat of privilege next to Daffodils stood a massive double-chart titled The Rose, our very own mirror to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Would I sound like a proud mother hen if I said I liked the mismatched rhythms of the double chart more?
In front of this sea of charts stood our models. An origami garden to symbolise Japan and a two-thermocol layout that spelt out the Ghanaian story in sixteen scenes. Between these were our live counters – one where you could pick a chit to get your own personalised haiku, and the other to illustrate the art of translation (Tamil is an SOV language and English follows SVO, so what happens if you translate word for word?) Everyone knew everything, everyone seamlessly shifted from one role to the other, from one explanation to the next, from one chart to the one next to it.
Yet if there was one part of the exhibit that truly encapsulated all my time thus far in Vidya Vanam, it was a small book that lay amidst this riot of activity. In the middle of all this colour, it stood sober in its black and white design, its cover opening out to illustrate the layout of the school in the local Kurumba form of art. The title, ‘Voices’, found a snug corner to occupy. The book was 100+ pages long. Inside it were seventeen essays (each with an illustration) and six poems. Every contributor was a student.
Earlier in the term, when the principal asked me to produce a coffee table book, I reluctantly agreed, not sure if I would have the time and the bandwidth to take that project on. As D-Day got closer, my fears were proven right, and I told her I just couldn’t produce special content for the book. How about using content we already have, I asked her. Between the eighteen children in classes 9 and 10, I had about 150 essays written in the second term alone. What if we choose one per child and compile them? So that is what we did. One Saturday night, I opened an Excel (as many would recognise is my habit) to make out a book plan. Which essays from whom? What were the sections? What would the sections be called? About five days later, the book went to print, with each essay illustrated and each contributor having a profile and picture to flaunt. Handing over their copies to each of the kids, I felt a twang of pride. They had written every word. My only quiet contribution was to pen each of their profiles. They had published 100+ pages in four days.
Project Day has come and gone, and school is back to its normal grind. Yet, the remnants linger. Every time kids dare each other to remember Marquez’s full name (Gabriel Jose de la Concordia Garcia Marquez) and laugh at each other’s trip-ups, I smile. Do they know he is a Nobel Laureate, arguably the greatest Colombian to have ever lived? No. When they talk of how a man named Masaoka Shiki renamed the ‘hokku,’ traditionally the first two lines of a longer poem, to ‘haiku,’ a standalone piece, do they know that the knowledge was three days old in my head, discovering it only as I prepped for their session? No. When they point to Ghana on the map, correcting one another that the capital was Accra and not Agra, do they realise that many, many people wouldn’t know whether to point to the east or west of the continent? No. Instead, they remind my wandering eye that it is the “country next to Togo, Akka.”
Amidst the laughing and arguing, the making charts and colour coordinating sketch pens, planning models and sourcing materials, the remnants, the strains of knowledge far beyond the average English as Second Language curriculum, linger.
And this, I reminded myself, as I saw the faces of my little brood of ten students own the display like they grew up reading literature, is why I teach.