O/D Wanderings Part 1: Doddinakuppa

It is almost time for me to get down to my end-of-term post but how can I not write one on the week that was? So here it is, a travelogue-of-sorts of the madness that was last week.

Anaikatti – Coimbatore – Mangalore – Doddinakuppa – Hassan – Mysore – Hosehalli/Saragur (Bandipur) – Mysore – Bangalore – Coimbatore – Anaikatti

We set off on the stated mission of visiting our sister school in rural Karnataka. Settled deep within the coffee estates that blanket the sprawling hills in the area, the school is a one building/three classroom affair that is about six months old. The teachers, young girls from the neighbourhood, are lovely – forever willing to learn and seeking out new knowledge. But wait, I get ahead of myself.

I was lost to the world for four days. Perhaps that is the best place to start. While I was unsure of internet connectivity, little did I know that Vodafone is entirely useless inside the coffee plantations, and my phone served as a paperweight for the four days I was there. Waking up to someone lighting firewood for our showers and falling asleep to pitch darkness (you have not seen darkness if you have not been in Doddinakuppa without electricity), alarm clocks and Google Calendars became things of distant memory. For four days, I wrote plenty and worked some, conducting sessions for the teachers in English language and communication. Here is a sample of what we did.

Julie Andrews belted out ‘My Favourite Things’ in class and we put the lines in order, paying attention to whether ‘shnitzel’ comes before ‘strudel’ or the other way around. What are the seasons in other parts of the world with a winter to speak of? What is a sash? What are mittens? Or sleighs? We laboured through the cultural context, the pronunciation that isn’t entirely natural, and finally, we understood this song of a young woman comforting small children; an environment the teachers are only too familiar with. What came next is the fun. We wrote our own songs, listening out our favourite things, tweaking them around to make sure the number of syllables matched, and sang it a few times over. What fun, the lyrics were!

Rainbows and colours

And dancing with friends

Birds with long feathers

And dosa, black tea

Children with kites on strong, windy days

These are a few of our favourite things.

Songs in the bathroom

And making sweet jamuns

Crows’ sounds

And ant hills

And gobi manchuries

Shopping for dresses in the big bazaars

These are a few of our favourite things

Watching a movie with my family

Going for long drives on my own scooty

Staying for long days in Anaikatti

Colours on flowers

And plants on the hill

Fishes in water

And stars in the sky

Brown bread and jam and a lot of butter

These are a few of our favourite things

White-coloured rabbits

And dry-roasted biscuits

Love birds and twittering

And pani with puri

Flying like a parachute and aeroplane

These are a few of our favourite things

Princess costumes with bright-coloured wings

Dancing in the rain and splashing too

Swimming in the water in summer season

These are a few of our favourite things

In the days that followed, we discussed Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise,’ and spoke about whether we agreed with what she said and what we made of it. Some liked it, some were unsure, some said it went over their heads…all in all, a good session of poetry!

We sang plenty. Karadi Tales’ ‘My name is Madhavi’ for their Annual Day (and even added a paragraph about Kaveri from Madikkeri!), ‘I love to wander by the stream’ from my high school days, and our very own Sound of Music tracks. Every once in a while, as they whipped up some food for our lunch, I’d hear strains of the songs floating in from the kitchen. The thought that neerdosai was being cooked to the tunes of English music made me happier than it should.

We did vocal exercises plenty too. How many different things can you do with a potato? You can make fries and chips and curry. You can boil it and steam it. You can cut it and dice it and grate it (ish). But you can make it a paperweight. You can carve it. You can do oh-so-much with a common potato stolen from the kitchen! Did anyone notice the sneaky vocabulary lesson as well?

The final day was my personal favourite, an exercise that everyone has consistently found buckets of fun. We learnt directions with a blindfolded hurdles track, forcing one partner to guide the other only by voice. I told them I would make them start from the beginning if they guided them by holding their arm or some such, and they had a ball, walking around campus and unexpected dogs and collisions along the way. When blindfolds are removed and paths are seen, the conversation is always hilarious. I thought I was going around in circles, someone exclaimed. I thought I was walking into walls, another retorted. And an hour of stumbling around blindfolded later, all the retorts and comebacks were in English – a little stuttered, sure, but English nonetheless. Somewhere amidst the step-ups and step-downs, a little bit of the fear, the caution, the reluctance was lost.

My four days in Doddinakuppa were a lesson in camaraderie, of sharing stories in the light of a phone or none at all, and giggling like Mallory Towers schoolgirls. But my four days in Doddinakuppa were also a lesson in patience. I spent the first day restless at this sudden disconnection to the world, my friends and family who did not have any heads up that I would disappear. Once the initial sense of being unnerved settled, I learnt to embrace the quiet, the absence of the telltale vibration of my phone always at arm’s reach. I learnt how to be fully present in the conversations around me, stories of childhoods so drastically different from my own and circumstances that seem so alien and yet increasingly familiar. I learnt to slow down a little, to stop just to see the coffee blossom like sheets of snow. I learnt to be.

PS – O/D stands for ‘on-duty’, a term that was signed against my name in the attendance register the week that I was away. Another first checked off the list. 🙂

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Attempts at being Strict Akka

Someone told me recently about how she always wanted to be a teacher but didn’t think she should. “I’m really not much of a disciplinarian,” she confessed. “I wouldn’t know how to handle the classroom.” I told her she shouldn’t let that one risk stop her from the classroom if that is really where she wants to be, but behind that façade of confidence, it got me thinking.

When I first walked into the sixth grade class in June 2016, everyone warned me. The class is a handful, they told me. You should be careful. Be firm the very first day. Show them that you mean business. Don’t let them think they can get away with things under your watch. Set the tone. Be the strict teacher.

All the pressure left me a rather nervous mess as I walked in that day, and in the months that has followed, this is a situation I have been dealt with time and again.

How do you remain firm without being distant? How do you make sure there is some direction to the classroom without being dictatorial? How do you straddle the line between facilitator and teacher, for want of better distinctions?

Every once in a while, students of class five will find their way to me and promptly set off on a steady stream of complaints. Akka, he is beating me. Akka, she is calling me names. Akka, I am class leader but no one is listening to me. Akka, I was asked to write names down of the people talking but they tore up the paper. Akka, Akka, Akka. The list is endless, or at least it definitely seems that way, and every time, I inevitably find myself stuttering a little bit. If you are the leader, you need to be able to handle them, I tell a ten-year-old, even as I head towards the class to figure out what is going on. Against a background score of ‘Akka is coming!’ and a mad dash to sit in their places, I hear myself and I know I sound facile. Or am I just pushing their limits? Where does the difference lie? Sigh.

Day before yesterday, in the middle of class, one of the girls in the eighth grade said she felt a little weak and shaky. A minute later, she said she wanted to lie down, another minute passed and she said she was feeling faint. Before I knew it, she was slumped over a desk and I was the teacher in charge. In the minute before I reached her, my mind was on overdrive. I was the adult in the room, I reminded myself. I was meant to fix this. The next ten minutes was a little bit of a high pressure situation involving the girl lying on my lap, sipping water, and eventually being carried over to the office for glucose and a flat surface to lie down on. In a few minutes she was more than okay and eager to come back to class, but in those few minutes, the teacher and the taught switched places yet again.

Everyday crises are a part of the job, and perhaps in those moments more than any other, I am reminded that I am seen as an adult. It is in those everyday crises that I grow, that I learn, that I truly occupy this space I have chosen for myself.

Grade cards that speak volumes

There is just something about pure, unadulterated happiness. It lights up the room like a starry sky; all encompassing, thorough, blanketing. This morning, as I sat surrounded by teary eyes and grinning faces, I saw happiness in its purest form; selfless, honest and true. This morning amidst the hugs and joy and congratulations, I was reminded of a powerful thing.

Even in this cynical, unhappy, much-too-busy world we inhabit, there are some moments that are not about us. Even at a time when we are taught to look out for ourselves (because who else will, really) and ‘compete or perish’, there are some who seek their happiness outside. Even on bad days and sad days and mad days, there are things that are just…good. Today was a reminder of those people and moments that are good, that are unquestionably bigger than us.

Ever since I joined the school ten months ago, I have often been asked whether my students learn, if they are able to ‘cope’, whether they can grasp what London folks set on them. Why would a rural school for first-generation learners of the local tribes want to get affiliated to IGCSE, people wonder. The more brash amongst them phrase that in far more offensive ways, and each of those conversations become a test in composure and communication. The bias lies in the adults, I explain. If we set high standards for them, they reach and stretch and bend themselves backwards, but they get there.

Over the last ten months, this blog has been filled with stories from inside and outside my classroom, illustrations of the children I teach and all that they teach me. Today, they showed the world.

Over the course of December and January, our tenth grade kids wrote the first set of Edexcel IGCSE exams for Math and Science. Yesterday, we got a packet with the results. Today, we called a senior school meeting and announced them. Every child passed with admirable grades, each one pushing beyond their personal barriers to surpass the targets they had set for themselves. Each one did better than our dreams, being graded on par with children from all over the world and emerging on top of it all. Each one showed the world that it was possible to study in a rural school in the fringes of Tamil Nadu, and get a glowing certificate from London.

As the announcement was made though, I wasn’t looking at the students. My eyes rested on the teachers. When she heard that all but one student had made the highest grade in Math, the teacher’s expression was a mixture of disbelief, pride, and just plain relief. Her eyes welled up even as her face split into a grin. Next to her, the Chemistry teacher could barely hide her shivering hands, responding to every congratulatory pat with “their future is in their hands, I am glad I could help.” The Biology teacher, down with chicken pox, brushed off any query on how she was feeling the minute she heard results were announced. “Tell me again,” she kept asking. Senior teachers, those who had seen these children from primary school, sat down in the relief, their eyes welling up as the stress and fear of the many months that had passed threatened to overwhelm them. “I haven’t slept for nights worrying about our children,” they sighed, every sinew in their bodies relaxing, basking in the news. On every teacher’s face, there was a lightness, a brightness, a sheer happiness. For everyone in the hall that morning, the joy lay outside.

For everyone who asks me about the school and why every day is a reminder of how I made the right choice, I wish I could show you that moment. I wish you could have seen the hall this morning. You would have seen teachers holding each other as emotions threatened to overpower them. You would have seen students wiping their eyes as tears rolled down their cheeks. You would have seen relieved smiles crawling over the faces, teachers and students alike, as everyone pinched themselves to realise it was all true. But if you stayed on a few minutes, you would have seen something else. You would have seen students come up to me, a teacher of neither Math nor Science. You would have seen me congratulate them, squeeze their hand in pride. You would have seen them smile their thanks. But if you listened closely, you would have heard their response. “Akka, we write English in June. We will get As. You just wait and watch.” You would have seen students who take ten minutes to set higher standards, bigger goals. You would have seen children who are thirsting for more even as they bask in the moment that is theirs to flaunt.

Today was a reminder that happiness truly can be selfless, that the thirst for knowledge can never stagnate, that hard work really does pay off. Today was a reminder yet again that I learn more than I teach at my job.