My first kids graduated.

Dear Kids,

You know how you always asked me in class how it was fair that I set you tasks and never wrote myself? You asked me how I would feel if I had word limits and deadlines and homework to get done, your innocence not for one second letting you realise that the flipside to your homework is in the red pen that perpetually lies on my desk. You asked me how I would feel if I were asked to go through the motions that I put you through, survive the drill that I made you live out. This moment right here? Here I am, writing because of you.

What would this essay be called, I wonder. A narrative piece of a first-time teacher? A personal essay of my first kids? A descriptive piece on an ESL classroom? Whatever else it is, it is the chronicle of the last year, of my life and yours. It is the story of how I grew up. It is, fundamentally, a story of thanks.

I walked in here mentally a student. I struggled through my first few weeks, complaining to friends and family about how I identified more with you than with my colleagues. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that I was flailing, unsure about IGCSE and eager to do right by the world? Yet here I was, the one with the “system know how” and tasked with getting you to run a marathon in a year.

I remember the first few weeks of correction. I cried regularly. I wasn’t sure if I had bit on more than I could chew. The pages were covered with red ink, notes and suggestions and corrections of everything from vocabulary to grammar structures. In some extreme cases, I rewrote the paragraph myself, telling you what you meant to tell me. My colleagues made me the standard teacher joke, and spoke of everything from how we’d run into a budgetary deficit thanks to my red pen appetite to how boxes of red pens would be the school’s wedding present to me when the time comes. My arms hurt at the end of long days and I was glued to the chair in the staff room. It took me an hour to get through one notebook, and I taught a hundred different kids, twenty of whom were you, hurtling towards board exams. I remember the first few weeks of correction, and how blindly I ploughed on. I told myself that every child deserves to be heard, to be read, to be taken seriously, and some day, this would bear fruit. I corrected, you read, you wrote, I corrected, and the cycle went on. But you, the committed souls that you are, read. And that made all the difference. You read every word I wrote and paid attention. You believed the horrendous red pen marks would eventually build up to something good, and you persevered. Thank you for never once complaining it was too much.

And then it got better. Slowly but surely, red pens started lasting me a little longer. A couple of days became a week, and later, it became a couple of weeks. Some of you asked me how to follow a career in writing, and it made my heart sing. Others I overheard telling juniors that I’d make it difficult for you in the classroom, but after all it was for the greater good. Every time I felt an overwhelming emotion that threatened to wash over me, a gratitude that of all the classrooms that I should make my own, it was this one that came to me. Thank you for pushing yourself through it, and making sure that all of us stayed committed to the path.

This last year has been hard in more ways than one. The only thing that kept me committed to the 7 AM class was you lot, who would turn up uncomplainingly everyday well on time to do more. How is half day on Saturday bad news, Akka? After all, it is for our own good. Your blind faith that what we did was for your benefit pushed us to be better people. It made me look up the official rules to comma usage and the actual definition of a gerund. It made me Google questions I expected you would ask, so I would have all my bases covered, seeking knowledge I never would have otherwise had. It reminded me to continuously, doggedly, without exception, commit to excellence, so that I could demand the same from you. Thank you for never settling for anything less than the best.

Today, you finished your last set of exams, the second paper of English. When you walked in to your first, some of you came to wish me good luck, telling me not to worry and that everything would be okay! Today, you heard British folk talk of literature festivals in an accent you have barely heard in person, of places and people and things so alien to your own life. And yet, you came out smiling. It was not easy, Akka, you told me. But we managed. If only you knew how much you really have managed, how far beyond everyone’s expectations you have come. In the last year, you have studied of things and people far, far beyond your own boundaries. You have sought out spaces far removed from your geographies. You have pushed and pushed and pushed, refusing to set limits and be fenced in. Each of you have done so very much in my classroom that the grade card makes no difference to this one truth – you each have done far more than ‘manage’. You have pushed yourself to be better versions of yourself. And you have pushed me to be a better version of me. Thank you for expecting interesting classes and challenging essays, every single day.

As you sat in front of me, the last day in your red and green uniform, with the weight of the exams behind us, I felt my heart grow heavy. I busied myself in chores to distract myself. Were the answer papers packed and ready for dispatch? Was the ice cream we had gotten in your honour ready to be served? Was everyone contentedly tucking into their paper cup? When the principal asked me to speak, I could hustle no more. To each of you kids, I meant every word I said.

Nothing I say today, I did not say the day before your first English exam. I walked in here a student myself and it will forever be this batch that made me the teacher I am. Whether I continue to be a teacher or not in the future, I am yet to figure out, but this batch shall always be special, the ones who grew with me in the class without complaint. And I can tell you today in full confidence – I know I have not been easy. I know I have been tough and set high expectations. But each of you have far exceeded them. When we first began, the principal asked me to be nice when I correct. I refused. Each of you know how that went. Each of your notebooks is testament to how far you have come. By the time you wrote the exam, I was handing you grades because there was no reason for me to withhold them. That essay was everything it needed to be. Nothing you did in class was easy. Many of the issues debated and discussed were far ahead of your grade level, and yet, not once did you complain. Each of you have written about four hundred essays for me this year, and that speaks of your engagement, your commitment, your determination to never give up. In that process, you taught me. To teach better, learn more, and never underestimate the power of trust and time in a classroom. So to all of you, thank you and congratulations.

I don’t know how it will be next year to walk in and not see your faces in the classroom, but I know better than to worry. One of you today told us that we had taught you to “tackle” – situations, people, issues. I’d like to think that is true, that we have set unto the world a set of people with the fire to be more and the strength to face the world. You told us how teachers supported you in every way they could, how you were thankful for the comfort you found in the school. There were quite a few moist eyes just about then.

To each of you, you should know this.

You supported us too. You pushed us too. You taught us too. Thank you for teaching me.