I was talking to an old teacher a few days ago who asked how my last year of teaching had been. What year? I reminded him that it had only been six months since I started work, that a year ago, I was battling the rains back home and then waded through the trench of a Masters thesis. It was only since June 2016 that I had been here, I told him. It had, in fact, been exactly a day over six months since I started work.
I remember the date unnaturally clearly for someone with a questionably memory. I signed in a red pen for the first time that day, and the act etched itself in my head. ‘YR 5/6’ I had written, so come Project Day on 5/12, I was finishing six months of teacher-ing in rural environs.
That conversation with the old teacher was not the first time someone assumed I had been here a lot longer than I have. It does seem like a really long time even to me. Who would have thought that just nine months ago, I was in class myself, that my bag was significantly more populated by blue pens than red, and that I didn’t have a small army of a hundred kids who genuinely believed that I knew what I was saying? But six months it is.
Any look back at these six months is a rather tough ask. What have I learnt, people what to know. What does it feel like? What stories can I tell?
I can tell you of how terrified I was to start teaching class 6, the traditionally notorious set in the school. But in the same breath, I can tell you how at the end of my first class, a kid came to tell me how she never noticed time fly by that hour. She said it, smiled at me, and waltzed out of the class, while I stood there mid-swipe of the whiteboard, allowing myself a moment of relief.
I can tell you of the frustration of marking pages and pages with red ink, running through pens like they were filled with water. I can tell you of colleagues who pulled my leg – neeye ezhudi, neeye correction panni, neeye ‘good’ podareya, they would ask. (You are doing it all yourself, writing and correcting, and then you mark it with a ‘good’?) But I can also ask you to pick up a notebook and flip through it and watch the miracle. Over the months, look at the red marks, I would say. And you will see for yourself as they become more infrequent, less important.
I can tell you of feeling out of place, off centre. I could regale you with stories of how my dressing, my language, and my body became fair play for comment and critique. How do I know how to wear a sari? Why do I not bother with a dupatta? Why would I cut my hair? I could illustrate how time and again opinions or points of view were written off because I was ‘periya ooru,’ and how even though I knew the language, I felt like an alien more than once. But listen to me long enough and I will tell you more. I will tell you about how I stopped trying to be in the centre, of how my off centredness has become my strength, of how I am happy almost fitting in but not quite, a slightly rectangular peg in a square hole. The distance has become comfortable, I would say.
I can tell you of all the stories that come my way. The stories of happy families and unhappy ones, of violence and difficult homes, of not finishing homework because of something far more serious than weak memories and hungry dogs. But I can also tell you another brand of stories. Of students so eager to seek out knowledge that there are knocks on my door at all points of day and night, of parents whose joy finds expression in clutched hands. Of classrooms bubbling with questions and queries of why it is the way it is and who said it must be that way. Of S, who refused to back off until the angle of the origami tiger was just right, or P, who refused to budge until all twelve of the comma rules had been mastered. Epdi Akka varaadhe pogum, they wanted to know. (How will it not work out?)
As for me, I can tell you stories of feeling like an actor for the first few months. Of half expecting someone to come and take off my mask, and demand to know where the real teacher was. Six months on, I will tell you of how I lost the shine to teacher-ing, how I understand that I don’t need to feel different to really be one. I will tell you of how I am the same person really, even in my classroom, and I have come to be okay with that.
After it all, if you really want more, I will point you to S, a loud, brash, not-afraid-of-anyone kid from my grade 6 classroom, and he will tell you the rest. Of the Yashasvini Akka in the classroom – adikka maataange, thitta maataange, English le-ye pesi kashta paduthuvaange, kovam vandhaa pesa maataange, niraiya ezhudha veppaange. (she doesn’t hit, she doesn’t yell, she troubles us by speaking only in English, if she gets angry she goes silent, she makes us write a lot.)
These last six months, I discovered a hundred others like S, but I also discovered this Yashasvini Akka.
A quarter done. Three to go.