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.

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