Have you ever felt discriminated against?

I recently made a detour from my lesson plan on a whim. I had done the same listening comprehension exercise last year and was on a personal target to make this new crop of kids write. And then write some more. And then write even more. So with a few minutes to spare after doing nature words from ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocahontas, Disney), I explained to them the meaning of the song. We spoke of colonisers and hierarchies of knowledge, and eventually, we began talking of discrimination. I decided it was the perfect window to slip in an essay.

Over the last year, I have found one thing. Either one must learn an alien language or one must learn alien content – it is rather unmanageably difficult to do both simultaneously. So I asked them a question that they’d definitely know the answer to, a question about themselves. And asked them to tell me more.

Have you ever felt discriminated against?

I spent my afternoon yesterday correcting these personal essays. Written by thirteen-year-olds in class 8, the answers sparked a range of emotions in me from righteous anger to a quiet pride in these crop of kids we were helping mould.

The first on the pile was A, a girl who was a rather shy character in class. I haven’t spent much time with her personally and only knew her through her work. I did not expect what I was going to read. A wrote of how, a few years ago, she had been playing with a neighbour girl when the girl’s grandmother told her off for playing with a tribal child. Hurt, A came home and cried. A few months later, the girl was lagging behind in school and said grandmother approached A to help her with her studies. As she stood by watching me correct, she told me of how the girl never had enough to eat after her brothers were done, how she struggled through school, how her grandmother was scary. In her essay, she questions why she should help the girl when her grandmother refused to let them play together but then describes how she dealt with the situation. I told the grandmother she was like my own and that I would do everything I could, she writes. The grandmother apologised to me and I showed her that even tribal girls can be intelligent.

Next up was P, a short boy with premature greying on his early-teen head. He wrote of how he gets teased about it, about how everyone assumes he is older, about how he just tells them it is ‘style’. He alluded to popular actors and his writing oozed of the nonchalance he has come to handle the problem with.

The third in line was A, a small built waif of a boy who was always picked on for his size. He wrote of how he is always picked on during games period, how he is the last to be chosen on sports teams, and how classmates joked that the wind will blow him away. He wrote of how bad he felt to be the only kid cheering from the stands when everyone else was playing, only because others deemed him too weak – what if the football hit him and he flew away? He spoke of the teasing and the lost opportunities with a resignation far beyond his age.

On the other side of the spectrum is D, a tall girl built “large for her age.” Her essay was a tale of being called big and fat and large, of teasing about gait and stride and clothes sizes. She spoke of how adults and children alike told her she looked like she was much older than she was, how it hurt to be picked on for something she couldn’t help. She even spoke of her grandmother warning her about getting darker, as if that was one straw too many for her to handle.

P spoke of intelligence. He spoke of how he gets asked how he is so stupid, how a boy can only eat so much but not get smarter. He spoke of children picking on him based on academic performance, adults deciding he was good for nothing. In his sentences hastily pieced together were the words of a boy who has heard this tale once too often.

V wrote of how she loved to feel the wind in her hair at night but her parents never let her out. She described how she evolves from begging to pleading to demanding to crying before they grudgingly let her brother chaperone her around. Though the rest of her essay is littered with errors of grammar and spelling, one sentence stands out loud and clear. I asked my father one question. Why can’t girls go out too?

Somewhere in that pile of notebooks, there was also the seemingly flippant and frivolous. Take a closer look and we realise that pain lies in the ‘simple’ as well. R wrote of how he was the only one ever made to work at home, his parents writing his brother off as younger and more irresponsible. He never does anything while I am always running around, he wrote, even describing a time when his father punished him just to make his brother feel better. I will never go anywhere with him again, he declared. And then there is P who spoke of clothing. He wrote of the time he bought a pair of pants in keeping with what he understood as the latest trend. Paying a fair bit of money for it, he wore it to school one day very excited, only to be met with disdain and ridicule. What is this, he was asked. How is everyone letting you get away with it? His essay was of how he felt let down but finally picked himself up and owned the pair of pants anyway.

For the children in my class, this was an exercise in grammar and writing. They groaned at the 150 to 200-word limit and grudgingly decided to try their hand at it. For me, it was an exercise in self-awareness. Ever so often in the social sector, we vow to do more, be better, create healthier spaces. Those dozen notebooks though were the reminder I needed. Discrimination, bullying, and exclusivity are not experiences restricted to specific conversations and crowds. Right in front of me every day were kids dealing with ageism, sexism, ableism, and every other –ism spoken of in more formal ‘discourse’. They were shamed for their body, their mind, their clothes, their background. They were made to feel small for things they could not control. They were hurting for things that were not their fault.

For the children in my class, this was an exercise in grammar and writing. For me, it was an exercise in self-awareness. As teachers in a classroom, it is our responsibility to inculcate safe spaces for learning and sharing before the tendrils of shame root themselves too deep. It is our job to ensure these remain experiences without turning into scars that last many years into the future. It is for us to draw the line of respectful conversation and unquestioning, inclusive acceptance.

Rural Tamil Nadu meets British drama

There was an evening I remember in late June, when I sat in the staffroom finishing up some chores and heard the principal call out for me. I found her sitting at the table in the dining hall, that mischievous glint in her eyes letting on that she had something up her sleeve. I have an idea for your second play, she told me. We had been talking about it for a couple of days, wondering what to do with senior school kids for Annual Day and which script would be most appropriate. She called me over and asked me what I thought of Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice, she said. Just the court scene to be precise. I balked instinctively. Are you sure, I asked. She told me she was, and perhaps I could do an adaptation? I told her I would think about it.

And I did. I thought about juggling two plays and the logistical mess of one of them being written in 16th century English. I thought of whether audiences would be able to understand and relate, or whether Shakespeare would be assumed to be boring and banal. I thought for a long while and then decided, why ever not. I love Shakespearean drama and here was a chance to teach it, yet another opportunity that would hardly present itself to the traditional ESL classroom. So Merchant of Venice it was.

It was a few days before I got around to looking up the script online. ‘Just the court scene,’ it turned out, was quite the mammoth exercise. I told the principal we would do just the meat of it, but we would do it in the original language, perhaps slightly edited for length. Everyone I told asked me to think about it. Why would I pass up on the offer to just do it in present-day English? Why insist on outdated grammar, the struggle between ‘thy,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thou’? But no, I decided. If we were going down the Shakespeare hole, we would dive in head first.

And so we did. We did readings, found our Portia and Nerissa and Shylock, and did voice exercises. We did stage blocking, procured props, and struggled through the lines of dialogue. We told each other the story, practiced speaking slow enough for audiences to follow, and then rehearsed some more. By the time we were getting closer to Annual Day, Portia was answering quotidian questions about homework with ‘But the Jew must be merciful!’ and Shylock could be heard muttering ‘Ay, so says the bond’. As for me? Shakespeare would creep up on me unannounced, in moments that I was least expecting it. Phrases and words would drift into my head as I texted friends, lay in bed, even had a shower. I woke up with their voices in my head, wary of the one line each of them tripped up on, hearing Shylock’s tongue get tied up in knots as he tried to say ‘How much more elder are thou than thy looks!’ In my own 12th standard, Hamlet had been a text for Literature. Six years later, I was being haunted by another Shakespearean drama.

And then there was another one, an elongated, Indian adaptation of Peter Lancaster’s ‘Across the Road,’ a story of how a woman peers into her neighbour’s house spying on thieves only to realise they have in fact been looting her own bedroom. Through practice, I was unsure – the kids who were acting were younger, struggled more with English and intonation, and I wondered if they saw the humour in the lines themselves. And yet we persevered. We stole carpets and keys and picture frames. We made cardboard TVs and parrot cages and stole them too. We were the most well-practiced thieves you could ever imagine!

And then Saturday came. Amidst much sleep deprivation and confusion, we descended upon a city auditorium and it all began. Those next two hours were a personal lesson in faith. For every doubt that the students wouldn’t be able to stomach Shakespearean English, they improvised lines to cover up their faults and no one in the audience was the wiser for it. For every uncertainty that the younger children may not tap into the mood of the play, they had the audience in slips. For every person who sought me out at the end of the evening to congratulate me, my eleven actors proved that they can do British drama too, no matter which century it is from!