There is a girl in my class.

I don’t often do this, but special circumstances call for exceptions, right? I was initially planning to write about the prep for the boards – the nuts and bolts of the madness – but now, I shall push that for the next story. Instead, today is the story of a girl. For the first time, I write about one student and how she reminds me every day to push myself. Today is the story of perseverance.

When you first enter the class, she isn’t the first one you’d notice. She doesn’t top the class, she often doesn’t make her presence felt in the classroom, and more often than not slips into the background. She doesn’t ask questions during class hours and answers only when called upon, and yet, you’d never write her off as disinterested. She is always well-groomed, hair neatly tied back in a braid and dupatta firmly pinned into place on days when she isn’t in uniform. She turns in her work on time and on days she can’t, approaches the teacher before class to “ask for an excuse”. All in all, she is the perfect example of decorum.

This girl is the oldest child of the house, with siblings in the same school. She is the typical older sister, giving them orders of what to pick up and put where, and gets deeply embarrassed if she notices a teacher listening. She cribs about them getting away with things she could never dream of but stomachs it with the brave smile of being the older one. Mundane issues aside, she is always, always engaged in the struggle for self-betterment.

My first memory of this was in the run up to Sports Day in August. Us teachers were sitting in the sun overseeing practice and a few of the senior girls came and sat with us. We were just chatting, getting to know each other outside the confines of the classroom, when she turned around and asked me a question. “Akka, can I ask you something?” I told her I’d tell her what I knew, but had no idea of what was coming. “I am very lazy, Akka. I don’t want to be, but I am. Can you tell me how to work hard?” I was stumped. Not only was there a certain self-awareness I did not entirely expect, there was a desire to break out of mould and a willingness to admit that she did not know how. I gave her some half-baked, completely unconvincing replies about setting small targets and prioritising, but even as I spoke, I was sure of one thing. I had been completely unprepared to be the mentor she sought. Teacher, perhaps I had gotten a hang of. Mentor? In that minute of the Coimbatore sun, I was completely out of my depth.

Moments like this happened more frequently in the next few months and soon stopped seeming as out of the blue as they once had. As the Science and Math exams drew closer, I had less of a reason to interact with her, and so it was January. She was back in my class, except with English boards around the corner, there really wasn’t enough time to sit under coconut trees and chat. We got to work and kept at it, my barrage of worksheets and exercises not really leaving much room for personal ruminations. And then there it was, another moment I had not expected in the least.

As a little bit of background, you should know the schedule these kids have been on the last few weeks. The English, ICT, and Tamil boards begin on May 15th and continue for a month, spanning five papers. In the run up to that, they have been in class practically all the time. They meet me at about 7 AM every day and sit in English prep work till 10:30 AM, with a half hour break for breakfast. Starting at 11 AM till lunch at 1 PM, they are with the Tamil teacher, and then the ICT teacher takes over from 2 PM to 4 PM. They finally have a break for a couple of hours before meeting me again at 6 PM till dinner at 8:30 PM. After dinner is usually when they come by to clear specific doubts, clarify correction errors, the whole lot. Now, usually when I describe this manic schedule, most people ask me why we put them through such a specific brand of torture, except catch this. We don’t. We are asked to.

When I was planning my intensive class schedules and content, I asked the kids how many mock exams they wanted to do in a window of ten working days. I expected to hear either two or a very ambitious three. Very seriously, one student said twenty-five. I balked. I asked if he was joking and he said no. I reminded him there were other subjects to do, and he said they were staying overnight at the school anyway. Finally, I pled relief by reminding them it takes me five hours to set one question paper and I was physically incapable of churning out twenty-five. Phew. Anyway, now that context has been set, a return to our protagonist of the day…

On one such mad day of only having two hours of unscheduled time on her hands, this girl blew me away. I was sitting in the staff room ploughing through the mountains of correction that comes with teaching the same set of kids for about five hours a day when she found me. She asked to come in, and when I asked what she needed, said she had come for an essay topic. I blinked at her. I told her she had been in class with me for three hours that morning and was gearing up for another two-and-something in the evening, was she sure she wanted to write for me in her spare time? She said she did and I dug something up from my growing archive of topics. When I walked into class at 6 PM that day, she came up to me and submitted her notebook, asking if I would be okay taking a look at it. “I know you have other correction, Akka, but would you mind taking a look at this?”

Every day from that day on, this girl has done one more essay. She has come into the staff room and asked for permission to borrow the magazines kept for teachers. I told her to help herself and she picked up a copy of The Week with a cover story on Punjabi politics. At 7 AM the next morning, she had a two-page summary on it. Sure, parts of it were misunderstood and it showed she was writing of a subject alien to her, but there it was, double-underlined as appropriate in that neatly formed handwriting of hers. Once again, I corrected it and sent her on her way.

This girl with neat braids and pinned dupatta writing about the Badals and the state of Punjab astounded me. She wants to become a doctor, “Ayurvedic so people will take the treatments my grandmother says seriously,” and wrote an entire essay once “about my life, Akka, not entirely but parts of it.” She discovered semi-autobiographical writing by herself. She discovered national politics and the line between fact and fiction by herself. She discovered the thirst of seeking out knowledge, and today, refuses to give up, even at the end of working days with over nine hours of class.

There is this girl in my class. She is why I take my corrections seriously, why my Sunday afternoons are spent digging corners of the internet for comprehension questions, listening exercises, and grammar games. She is the student who pushes teachers to do better.

A month to D-Day!

Board exam prep is in full steam and gosh, there is just no time to breathe! Perhaps the fact that I write this atop a side upper berth of the Indian Railways stands testament to just how maddening the last few weeks have been.

One (academic) year after I began teaching (yes, a one year post shall come up soon enough), I stand at the brink of board exams. Come May 15, seventeen students will begin writing the Edexcel IGCSE papers for English, Tamil, and Computer Science. Without exaggeration, I am more nervous than they are. Correction, without exaggeration, the teachers are more nervous than they are.

The average day goes like this. I start class at 7:30 in the morning and we plough through the specificities of the board till about 10:30 AM with a fifteen minute break for breakfast. From 10:45 to 1:15, the Tamil teacher takes over, and then it is the Computer Science teacher’s turn from 2:00 to 4:00. Post 4 PM, they get a couple of hours to themselves and then they are back to me from 6:00 to 8:30 PM when we break for dinner. Often times, doubt clearance, paper correction, marks totalling, what have you, spills over to after dinner and it is closer to 9:30 before I enter my room again, a full fourteen hours after I left. See, the catch is this. Everyone’s first reaction to this timetable is – oh my god, your poor kids! But. Hold that thought.

Picture me this.

On Monday, I decided I would do a visioning exercise to start us off, telling them to break down every day from Tuesday to the mocks and tell me what they would want to be revising. I told them I would take this into account for when I make my lesson plans and revision material, so that their queries and doubts are answered to the best of my ability. When they were in the middle of their timetabling, I asked them an innocent question. How many model papers would you like to do for practice before the mocks? (Yes, the mocks are practice in themselves, so essentially we are practising for the practice.) The answers left me speechless for a second.

There he was in the far right corner of the room, next to the window, a well-groomed, polite boy. His handwriting was second to calligraphy and his attendance was impeccable. I could not grouse him a single thing in class. When he raised his hand, I thought he’d tell me we didn’t need it. Mocks start in two weeks anyway, he would say, and I would take it from there. If only I knew what was coming.

Akka, we need twenty-five.

I gasped. Literally. In terms of background, Edexcel started offering English as a Second Language only since 2011 and therefore, the number of past papers available are pitiful. This means that every mock that they want to write, I need to create a question paper. One minor detail. Every two hour question paper that they write takes me five hours to set. Just set, forget correct. And this boy coolly throws a number at me.

I reminded him English was one of his three subjects, that he had classes for the others as well, and that it was impossible to write twenty five exams in eight working days. He said they would do take-home exams, that they were staying on campus anyway so working hours weren’t an issue, that they needed practice.

I told him twenty-five question papers meant a hundred and twenty five hours of work for me. That is five full days and then some without sleep or food or water, I told him. Or correction or any other material or pretty much anything else. That is okay, Akka, he replied in an instant. I was too astounded to ask him for who.

It was another student who came to my rescue. Akka, let us do four. Maybe five? After 125 hours of work, 25 doesn’t seem like too much. I agreed.

Now, you there. Now you tell me who is the poor soul here. Huh? Huh?

Thus began our board exam prep. Every session we tackle one part of the six-part question paper. We figure out ways to write informal letters and emails, the difference between articles and reports, how to summarise, and then we skim and scan till words are dancing in front of our eyes. What they write in the morning session needs to be corrected by the same evening so we don’t waste time making the same mistakes, and simultaneously, material for the next few days need to be dispatched for printing and stapling and such. It is a cycle, a machine that grinds away constantly.

Board exam prep is terrifying business. It is a concoction of stress and fear and pride all rolled into one. I oscillate dangerously between overwhelming pride at how far these kids have come even in the last year that I have seen them and crushing fear at systemic competition and the outside world. I think back to my own board exams and the nervousness I felt in the run up, and I think about today. Today I see in front of me children who are not caught up in the fear of the system or intimidated by the world outside. They are fearless dreamers, raring to go. Truly acham illai.

Every time I think of my kids, for in so many ways they really are, there is an image that stands out in my head, an anecdote from my classroom.

One day, a ninth standard boy asked me to explain the difference in usage between ‘in’ and ‘on’. Prepositions are confusing, he told me. I promised him I would double-check the rules and get back to him. A few days later, I took a class and taught them the differences. In the process of preparing for that class, I thought of a question. The question stumped me for quite a few minutes and as I proceeded to ask my circle of friends, everyone drew a blank. I even texted my Grade 12 English teacher whose response to me was ‘enne ma, room pottu yosikkareya?’ We all eventually got around to the answer, a good half hour after we set out.

Take these two sentences. Why is there a difference in preposition when it is referring to the same action?
I drank coffee in the morning. VS I drank coffee on the morning of July 29th.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I walked into my ninth standard class the next morning and set them on the task. I wrote the two sentences on the board and asked them why it was different. I was waiting for whining about how English is an inexplicable language and such. Instead, the class greeted me with complete silence as they all contemplated the sentences on the board. A couple of weeks later, I posed the question to two tenth standard girls as we stood around making small talk between classes. They took all of two minutes to answer me.

Akka, the tense is the same and the subject and object are the same. But in the second sentence, the preposition is actually for the date, so it takes ‘on’. In the first sentence, it is for the time of day and so it takes ‘in’. That is why, Akka. We shouldn’t get confused seeing both the ‘morning’s.

Every time I think of my kids, every time I fear for them, every time I have nightmares about the boards, I remember the faces looking up at me with bewilderment, as if asking why I was posing such an obvious question. Those who have mastered prepositions should be ready to face the world. In/on are greater devils than most. Fingers crossed.