Swansong Part 1: The fear of forgetting

Perhaps there are many reasons for my refusal to write these days. My time here is almost over, things don’t seem as ‘exotic’ or ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ anymore, I’ve just grown lazy. Who is to tell? But this evening caught me off guard and reminded me once again of the charms of this life, one that is ending before even I got a chance to truly recognise my surroundings as the choices I have made.

For years, almost for as long as I can remember, I have had the fear of forgetting. It has manifested itself in many ways, most obviously in how much of a hoarder I am. I save scraps of everything, movie stubs and tissues from restaurants that made memories. All sorts of things. I have notes my kids wrote me, Happy Holiday cards that I was given, and of course, this blog – a personal recording of the stories that have made this experience what it has been. Yet, as time here draws to a close (34 more days!), I find myself gripping tighter, harder, trying to make some moments linger, some memories stick.

This evening was one such.

There is this tree just outside the Teachers’ Quarters. It has seen quite a bit, this tree. It was my writing spot for many of these posts, saw colleagues bonding, saw crying on rough nights, saw lesson plans and corrections. It has borne witness to my teaching tenure and that of many before me. And today, I sat under it doing nothing for a few minutes. I noticed it was getting dark and the weather was quite pleasant (it had rained in the afternoon). The far end of the compound was covered by a carpet of jacaranda flowers, yet another addition to my Anaikatti vocabulary. The coconut tree was bearing fruit, and my view was only barred by the cashew nut tree in my way. The mosquitoes were starting to set in and I could hear the calls of crows and sparrows and insects I knew not the name of. It was silent, pristine, so much so that the accidental honking by a driver seemed harsh, unnecessary, out of place. I sat outside taking it all in – the sounds and the silence – and I realised yet again how transient this experience has been.

Knowledge Tree

When I signed up to come here, more than one person looked at it as a sacrifice – of potential, of possibility, of “what could have been”. I have been honest time and again in the acceptance of two things – I did not truly know what I was signing up for, but whatever it was, it was entirely a selfish move. These last two years have only reinforced the reality of those two beliefs.

I am confident that this is only the first of multiple posts where I try to find the words for what this school has taught me. Sitting on a bed (yes, I moved in thanks to the mosquitoes. No amount of romanticism can take away from the stings through leggings!) that is littered with answer papers waiting for my attention, I am not sure where to begin. As a teacher, the learnings have been many, unquestionably so. Yet what of as a person? As a serendipitous teacher and a self-proclaimed “development sector person,” why did I choose to come here? What do I go back with?

Rainy day

This school taught me to breathe. It taught me to let go and step back. When a high school teacher told student me that I was not Atlas, I could neither comprehend the implications nor entirely accept the lifestyle it asked of me. Being a high school teacher myself gave me no choice. I taught, I watched, I prayed, and I stepped back. That was all.

The school taught me that I was important, in myself and of myself. My principal regularly reminded me to take breaks, told me when it was important for me to step back, and watched me as I struggled to strike the balance. Today, finally, there are days when I choose a movie over correction, a phone call over lesson planning, and do not feel unduly guilty for claiming some Me Time.

The school taught me responsibility. I remember clearly the day that I was given a certificate as a five-year-old for being responsible. My school chose a kid a week and awarded them for a virtue they possessed, and that was deemed to be mine. Yet, twenty years later, it is this school that truly taught the newly-minted adult what that meant. When parents leave their wards in your care, what does that mean? When children ask your advice for career choices, how do you react? When your words have more power than you would realise, what do you do?

Anyone who has spoken to me would have heard stories of my own school, the one I studied in till Grade 10, and how that laid the foundation for the person I have become. These last two years have nurtured the sapling that was sown into the adult I will be. It has taught me to be confident in the person I am, proud of the choices I make, and responsible for their consequences. Whether I ever sign off another report card again, these remnants will stay on.


Creating a new normal

I had written recently about how it takes more and more these days to catch me off guard. Things that once surprised me in the classroom have become the details of the everyday. But even so, there are some things that come up every once in a while, and surprise me. Yesterday was one such day.

With the 10th graders writing the state board exams and the last two papers being English, I barely had time to get down to anything else. So it was with great trepidation that I decided to attack the stack of 9th grade IG correction on my table yesterday. I had waaaay more than I could handle, and it would take me a good few days to get anywhere near completion but ah well. Chipping away at the iceberg, right? I was correcting in a stupor induced by hot afternoon air (it can get hot here, I swear!) and the neverending river of red ink when I chanced upon a sentence that deserved its own blog post. Entirely unexpected but so reflective of deeper thought processes.

In a question asking the writer to frame a letter “inviting a world-famous dancer to perform at your institution,” a ninth grader had written a gloriously inclusive sentence. The best part? Nothing in the letter gave it away. It was not about disability or inclusion, there was no hint to include an element of it. It was just…natural. Normalised. Perfect.

She wrote:

Normalising disability
“We would like you to dance because you’re the one who proved that a disability (sic) person can also dance with an artificial leg as well as others.”

Much of my work these last few months has been to introduce new ideas and ways of thinking into my classroom. Every worksheet and exercise is an opportunity to question a stereotype and shatter some stigma. None of it ever has immediate results, but every once in a while, in a stray sentence amongst a stack of uncorrected worksheets, there lies a reminder that you never know when a thought can be sown, an opinion can be changed, hope can be renewed.


April 1st 2018.

Today is April 2nd. Meaning yesterday was April 1st. And other than the annual spate of weak April Fool’s jokes that flood our internet, it was a day of rather intense realisation for me. If yesterday was April 1st, it meant that I was exactly two weeks away from the official end of my last term as an ESL teacher here. What.

You see, in reality, I am here till June, prepping the next set of my kids to take the IGCSE ESL exam, and so my eyes were set on a June finish line. Until I realised with a bam that I teach about 70 kids regularly. For the 26 kids in Grade 8, given I have started teaching Social Science as well, one-third of their timetable is with me. And for all but eleven of these seventy kids, the summer vacation is in two weeks. And with that comes the end of my classroom. What.

Now if you have the rational logical mind of my father, I know what you will say. I can almost hear his voice in my head saying “you knew this was coming, right? Of course April 13th-14th is two weeks from April 1st. Why is this a surprise?” Let me try to delineate the very scattered, very hurried thoughts bouncing around my head for space right now:

  • There are printed worksheets in my corner of the staff room that I may never be able to teach because I don’t have enough time. That means my grand plan of using HONY to teach summary writing and identifying a story will go unused.
  • For the last year and then some, I’ve been welcoming in a new month by calculating the Class 9 attendance. It was drudgery, something we’d all crib about as another month drew to a close. This morning, as I filled in April 2018, I realised the attendance for the next Class 9 will have someone else’s initials on it, and I won’t pause my breakfast to check on who was absent for the day. Okay then.
  • These last few days, when everyone was enjoying a long weekend, I was taking a couple of hours of class every day. On Saturday morning, I was being lazy and whiny. I wanted to sleep in, not teach gerunds and sentence patterns. So I got up, showered, and threw something on to class. My personal form of rebellion was not wearing kajal. I had not been in class for a full two minutes before a boy in Class 9 interrupted me. Akka, are you not well? You look a little sick. He didn’t realise it was all in the kajal, but he knew something was not right. Do we “busy, fast-paced adults” have time to check on each other, for the small moments like this?
  • The very first week I joined this school, I struggled to realise that “may I come in, Akka” was addressed to me. Today, I caught myself keeping an ear out for the call and nodding without as much as looking up from the answer script I was correcting. How quickly mannerisms have become second nature and how quickly the scripts will have to be rewritten.
  • Red pens probably don’t have reason to be in my bag anymore.
  • For the first time since 2012, I won’t have a classroom to look forward to with any kind of regularity. What does that feel like?
  • The odds of me waking up to peahens in my front yard and hills covered by mist is falling faster than the hair I’ve lost to Anaikatti water. And my favourite tree? That one around the corner past Arnatkaadu, on the way to the Biosphere? That won’t really be around the corner any more. With that, my Instagram spam shall stop too, promise.
Favourite Tree
Can you imagine how much she has stood witness to?

Oh I could go on. Another minute spent staring at that list will see the addition of something else. My brain is on an overdrive of preemptive nostalgia and recording memories-too-fleeting. But in the middle of all this noise, I do know this. My time here has made me a stronger person. I have learnt far more from my classroom and my colleagues than I had any hope of teaching. I heard stories of lives far removed from mine and saw lives of resilience and sheer will play out every single day. Some of my colleagues have become role models, some of my students have become reminders of everything that Can Be. In a folder within a folder within a folder of my laptop, I have a document of material thusfar unpublished, and those 50,000 words bear witness to the journey that this has been.

I joined here fresh out of college to “get the field work to back up my degree in Development.” It has turned out to be so much more than a job. Amidst the moments of angst about mark sheets and board exams and way too many red pens used were periods of deep learning. Even as I realise that the school’s story will go on while mine gets written on a tangent, I will forever be thankful for the chance phone call that became my first job. What five years of academic engagement couldn’t give me, two years in the hills did – a daily reminder of perspective and privilege that will stay long after the marker ink on my fingers fade off.

Parallel processing and larger pictures

Today, I did something I would have thought impossible a few months ago. As a fledgling teacher almost two years ago, I would plan each class in excruciating detail and then work up a Plan B and C and D, in case things didn’t go as planned. Today, I found myself in a situation that I would have never thought possible. Today, for a little over an hour, I handled three different classes across three different syllabi spanning two subjects. And I survived.

Today’s situation was just unfortunate circumstance – a couple of teachers unavailable and my desire to make sure I get as many hours with board exam kids as possible. So here I was, teaching the map work section of Asia’s physical features for Class 8, while one set of Class 9 kids did exercises on question tags and degrees of comparison and another set did an IGCSE-esque reading comprehension on the fast disappearing Indian vulture population. Amidst the doubt clearing, instruction giving, and checking on the classes next door, there were corrections to do and the next set of worksheets to make. And while my throat may not agree with me, it was a riot. It was a moment to realise how much there was to do and how far I had come.

The last few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, a see-saw between the never-ending (largely) self-induced panic and stress and the occasional yet overwhelming realisation that this stint is almost over, and if I ignored the never-ending stream of correction and the amount I have contributed to landfills in the form of red pen refills, I will actually miss all of this. I will miss the classroom and the laughter, the silliness of mistakes and goof-ups of teacher and student alike. I will miss the joy of being where the change is, not one foot removed or one step away. Exactly there. And while teaching pronouns often does not seem like creating revolutionary change, every once in a while, a smart question or a well-written piece of work or a thought process that hints at something deeper keeps us there.

But more than that, today was also a reminder of why I came. Straight out of college, I wanted to “truly understand development,” bolster classroom knowledge with something more “real”. And in the middle of juggling four different sets of kids in three classes today, I realised this was that moment. Amidst the intent of “making a difference” and “leaving a mark” (which we hopefully are), this is the reality. These are the moments that development discourse has no way of capturing. That amidst the storyline of educating first generation learners, you need to account for substitution timetables, for sore throats and dusters that don’t dust, for classes that don’t go as planned and choose their own path, pulling you along. This was the real deal.

Today, I had a moment where I had to explain to my class that ‘Indo-Gangetic’ by definition meant it was in India but I also had a moment where we learnt about Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press. I had a moment when I gulped down half a litre of water to calm my burning throat after throwing my voice to catch the attention of a class full of buzzing thirteen-year-olds, but I also had a moment where we all cracked up about something inconsequential and just laughed together for no good reason. And both these stories are worth telling.

With only a few months to go and a series of ‘lasts’ that populates the time that remain, I am at that point where things are starting to fall into place. And one is this. I taught four classes today, and that does not make me an exceptional teacher. It makes me a part of a system that is close to the ground. It makes me one of many others around the country. And it teaches me what no degree in development can – that the “real” story of developmental action, the colours of change in the education space, is made of board marker ink on your fingers, the hangover of the last class, and the perpetual flurry of the next one just around the corner.

Sherlock, Paddington, and all things British

Sometime over the last two months, this blog disappeared from the top few things on my mind, and while I knew that theoretically, I should be writing and updating and all of that, I just never did. The days rolled by in a never-ending spiral of preparation-class-correction. Rinse. Repeat. And then an unexpected text shook me out of the stupor.

So here I am, close to the end of my time here (wut!) with some more school stories to tell. Much has happened in these last few months, though most of it didn’t seem “blog worthy”. Just goes to show how much I have internalised and “become a teacher” I guess. Most of this term is largely just exam preparation for everyone in senior school, and let’s be honest, there isn’t really too much exciting about that.

Except when you are a rural school for tribal children trying to climb the ladder of Edexcel IGCSE. Then board exam prep is quite eventful, to be honest.

The thing is, the English as Second Language (ESL) exam from Edexcel involves a Listening paper that has always been the steepest mountain to climb. Being London based, it comes thick with an alien accent and three tasks of increasing speed and complexity. Not only do you need to keep an ear out for British idiosyncrasies, but that accent. Uff. In the last year, the students really struggled with that component and it affected the final grades, so this year we decided to up the ante on listening exercises. Except how?

It is only when you look that you realise that the availability of American pop culture is so much more than British. And surprise surprise, the kids find the American accent easier.

And that is when Benedict Cumberbatch came to my rescue. We watched episodes of Sherlock, pre-watched for classroom appropriateness, and answered comprehension questions vaguely of the format of IGCSE. We watched with subtitles once and then switched over to just audio. And while that worked (and was welcomed with much fanfare and applause in classrooms – never were the kids as punctual as they were when they saw it was a Listening class scheduled!), it quickly became apparent that some of the comprehension was rooted in understanding visual cues. Which they wouldn’t have.

Back to the drawing board. And a suggestion to go back to the classics.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Red Elephant Foundation, where I also volunteer, I got not only personally recorded clips from other volunteers with British accents themselves but also, we found a bunch of links of audio books. And so, in class right now, we are neck deep in British-accented children’s classics.

sherlock and paddington
These beautiful bastions of British culture…and the secret behind my lesson plans.

When you are a couple of months away from Edexcel IGCSE ESL Paper 2 (Listening), your days become filled with Matilda and Paddington the Bear! Whoever said board exam prep was pressurising?

For the students, it is an intense immersion programme in foreign sounds and experiences, a daily audio-visual experience that hopefully will result in increased preparedness for the Big Bad Board exams. For the teacher, it was a moment to look back, recognise mistakes and course-correct, for a majority of my listening exercise lesson plans have been American. It was a lesson in asking for help and reaching out, a reminder that there are good people willing to lend a hand if only they knew what they needed to do.  And so it goes, prepping for board exams.

PS – In case it helps anyone, here are sample worksheets – Sherlock S01E02 Questions and Answers, one part of Paddington Questions and Answers, based on ‘A Bear Called Paddington, Volume 1 read by Bernard Cribbins’ (1975)

Advice giving and class teacher-ing

I really have struggled in the last few weeks to find something to write on this blog, and when I do get struck by an idea, I often can’t juggle class hours and correction demands around well enough to write it before it seems old and slightly faded over the edges. Perhaps this lack of “fodder” is testament to how I have finally become a “real” teacher. My days seem normal, classes and worksheets and corrections. Fewer lines stand out to me in stark contrast and I am less easily surprised. Often I find myself wondering whether that is because I have become a “real” teacher (which is understood as a good thing) or because I have finally begun taking my surroundings for granted, as we tend to when we get something for extended periods of time (which is probably a bad thing). I’m not sure there is a real answer to that musing though, so I shall let that one lie for some time.

Today, though, something did happen that made me smile. One of the biggest struggles for me over the last one and half years has been one that is slightly off-centre to my primary role. In January 2017, I was made a full-time class teacher of Class 9. Till the end of that academic year, I was with one set of kids and from June 2017, was with the next set of Class 9 kids. As it turns out, class teacher-ing involves a lot more than filling attendance registers. It involves a lot more than even hounding students about leave letters and pulling them up for improper uniforms. It involves giving advice. And it turns out that I am not “real teacher” enough to be sure of myself in those moments.

You see, my self image stands fairly squarely in my way. In the face of conflict, many different “facts” plant themselves in my brain. A) I am largely conflict-averse myself. B) I was brought up to be fiercely independent, and don’t particularly think it is anyone’s place to volunteer free advice. C) I am not sure how adult Class 9 kids are meant to be. I would assume fairly adult, or atleast adult enough to not deign everyday squabbling with an actual response, but is that true? D) No matter what, here I am an outsider. I will never have the whole story, the whys and hows and whens and why nots that truly characterise any problem at hand. Put all of this together, and I am unsure of what exactly to do when one kid does not talk to the other, when someone says something unsavoury about something else, whatever else gets thrown up in the everyday lives of rural adolescents.

In this context, when the situation does arise for me to be “class teacher-y,” I tread carefully, lightly even. I give generic advice in groups, personal advice individually. I pass on values and ethics that have built me to be the person I am, trying my hardest to present holistic pictures and stress the need for self-reflexivity and questioning. I tell them to think things through till the very end, and be conscious of the effect of consequences on not just themselves. It was in this context that I told them something a few weeks ago. It was something that has truly defined the way I approach my decision-making and life choices, and I hoped it would make sense to them. In a conversation about studying for exams and work ethic as much as it was about the risk of gossiping and back-biting, I told them my mantra. In the choice between the Easy and the Right, choose the right.

That talk happened, many classes after that happened, and I forgot all about it. Until this morning. I finished my forty-five minute class a very grumpy soul, battling a stuffy nose and the impatience of a Friday morning moving too slow, when something caught my eye. My kids had been on a classroom decorating spree in the last few days and suddenly, more posters adorned the walls. There was not really anything unusual about that, but then I saw this.

Class teachering
When they say ‘leaving one’s mark,’ I really hope this is what they mean.

In the last few weeks, I have struggled with what I call The Beginning of the End. In the next four months, lots of kids write lots of board exams, and then my time as an ESL teacher is done. It seems like the clichéd yesterday that I set a countdown on this blog for my first teaching day. In these moments where I worry about having done enough, spent enough, pushed hard enough, reminders like this are lifelines; reminders that change does not happen overnight, that we all do the best we can, and like a very wise teacher from my own high school days said, I am not Atlas.

Now, it is possible they read this elsewhere or heard it somewhere else. It is possible it sounded like a catchy phrase more than a dictum of decision making. A whole plethora of possibilities exist, and even if it was words of advice from a teacher, there is no reason to believe it is more than writing on the wall, literally. Yet, the fact that I could have had a small part to play in sowing a new seed of thought some day is enough to get past a stuffy nose and Fridays that move too slowly.

English, Economics, and learning to teach

There was a time, I don’t remember when, that someone said something that just stuck in my head. If you were to get a teacher to take an exam, and tell them they had to choose a subject other than their own, would you be confident of taking the test? Invariably, the colleagues around me said they’d choose a language – English or Tamil. What about us language teachers? What would we do? (Fun fact, I realised IGCSE Math would be my test of choice – yes, I know.)

The shock of realising I’d actually choose Math apart, the question got me thinking. Somewhere along our adult lives, most of us end up getting pigeonholed into our areas of choice and start focusing on “specialising” – a journey that often takes us deeper into a specific subject, at the cost of the plethora of others at hand. While we may make concentrated efforts to branch out, be open, and embrace things outside our comfort zone, how many of us can claim any kind of expertise?

Fast forward a few months, and a colleague was suddenly and unexpectedly not able to continue teaching. That left a huge gaping hole in timetables and with board exams of various sorts looming on the horizon, it fell on me to handhold the 10th grade class through Social Science. That meant the whole shebang – History, Geography, Civics and Economics. That day, I found myself flipping through the TN state board textbook for social science and making notes myself, the line between learner and teacher getting rather blurred in the process.

Over the next few days, I would do so again and again. Even this minute, I am wondering whether to embark on Civics or Geography next, now that the Economics boat has sailed. And I think back to my own teachers – English teacher who taught Geography, Economics/Business Studies teacher who taught a module of History…and in hindsight, I realise how much of their individual effort it must have taken to take those roles on. And why they did it. As I sit and make Eco notes akin to those I made for myself as a student prepping for boards, I realise the growth in those pages.

Eco notes
Teacher or learner: Eco notes

On Friday, I taught my class the role of National Income, the difficulties in its calculation, and the ways in which it can be calculated. I taught them the lacunae in traditional economic theory, the idea of a free market, and the utopian demand-supply equilibrium. All of this was sandwiched between a lecture on modal verbs and another on figures of speech, but there it was – economics amidst the English. Today, we traced economic development through independence and liberalisation. We spoke of Cadbury and Colgate and Bindu appalam in London and Walmart in Amritsar. We talked about how American products have flooded our markets that we can’t imagine a life without them. We spoke of how, just ten years ago, their families did not have phone connectivity in the village and today, we can buy Jio across the counter. We spoke of how there are no STD/PCO booths to speak of now, of how when I was in school, we’d carry Rs. 2 in our pencil boxes for “emergency phone calls”. And in the end, we tied it all into the story of Indian Economic Development.

For two hours after lunch, we ploughed through Indian economic history. I could have sworn I went back ten years to the times when I was a student in multiple-hour Economics classes. I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that one day, I would be on the other side, drawing D-S graphs from memory and explaining the difference between ‘gross’ and ‘net’ and the definition of depreciation. In these moments, when I feel least confident, I also feel most energised. The classroom becomes more of a challenge, the textbook more of a climb, and every day’s timetable throws up something new to look forward to. Every class spent on Economics is a reminder to not get too comfortable in the English teacher’s chair. No matter how easily parts of speech roll of my tongue, there is more teaching to be done and perhaps more importantly, more learning.