Chaperoning to Bhopal, checking privilege

This is coming close on the heels of writing a 2700-word account of this trip for my own records, so here is hopefully an attempt to summarise the true crux of all those words and all those days into bite-sized nuggets for the internet.

If I had to choose one overarching theme for the eight days we went away, it would be privilege.

On Dec 9th, a group of four teachers, the principal, and twenty-two kids (class 9) set out from the school to make the long, long journey all the way to Madhya Pradesh. We were to get off at Itarsi and spend a couple of days at Hoshangabad before moving to Bhopal and the places around the capital. We got back on the night of the 17th. For all the kids, this was the longest they had ever travelled. For many, this was the first time on a train. And while the next eight days was filled with a lot of excitement and learning for them, it taught me just how deep privilege truly runs.

The way we explore the city – I love travelling, and over the last year, I have made sure I travel a lot. And yet, my preferred mode of travelling is more wandering than travelling. (More on that here). On this trip, we checked off a lot of boxes. When the choice presented itself between skipping something because we were dog tired and pushing ourselves that tad bit more, we pushed like I never would have alone. And then it struck me that my wandering came from the confidence that one day, I could be back here. That reassurance is privilege.

Sanchi Stupa, December 14th

The food we ate – We had warned the kids before we left. There will be a lot of roti and aloo, we said. And we shall have to make do. Once again, I automatically used my own travel as a benchmark. I am far from a fussy eater and usually make do with whatever is at hand. And then there was this trip. Even if they did not complain, they’d rather not eat than to eat theplas and all of them were initially quite baffled by the concept of jeera rice and palak paneer. With that came the second realisation. The tongue is just like any other muscle in the body. It needs exercising to be used to certain flavours and textures. And that exposure is privilege.

The ideas we recognise – During our brief layover in Chennai, we drove past Nehru Stadium and one of the students asked me what that was. I told him the name. He asked me what a stadium was. In the heat of the moment, I gave him a rushed, but-this-is-obvious explanation. No amount of excuses of fatigue and tiredness takes away from how ashamed I am of my arrogance. Many hours later, better rested and calm, I realised he had no way of experiencing a stadium, even second-hand. He asked me what they do there, I told them it is for play. I thought it was obvious. What is obvious though, is the school playground. Nothing more. Access to infrastructure even from a distance (and the vocabulary to describe it) is privilege.

Bhimbetka Caves, December 13th

The notions of hygiene and cleanliness – As teachers on an outstation trip, all of us doubled up as parents too. We were constantly behind the kids to wash up, not put their feet up, don’t pick that up, what have you. And sometimes, their behaviour baffled us. How could such seemingly basic habits of cleanliness elude them? Until my principal pointed out something quite straightforward. Where would they have learnt? Having adult role models to emulate is privilege.

On this trip, we visited Hoshangabad, Sangakheda, Adamgarh, Bhimbetka, Bhopal, Sanchi, Udaygiri, and Vidisha. We took a train from Coimbatore to Itarsi and then back from Bhopal to Coimbatore via Chennai. We saw lots and spoke lots. The kids bought souvenirs enough to send my accounts-keeping abilities into a tizzy. Yet my greatest lesson was this. Every instance of our experiences are influenced by privilege. Literally the very least we can do is be cognizant.

PS – Forgive the generic travel pictures. Didn’t take pictures of food and trains!


Why should Time be our Father?

Time. Project Day this year is going to be based on time, and I could not be more excited! There is something about vague, abstract concepts that allows the imagination to get carried away, that makes everything possible. Many of the time, preparing for these classes is a great learning curve for teachers as well, making us push our own limits, ask why we choose to cover one subject or count one as more important when making our lesson plans. In many ways, it empowers the student to become the teacher, putting the onus on them to ask the questions and drive the conversation, simultaneously expecting the teacher to be prepared with a wide ambit of possible classes.

In my very first introductory class, I did a word association exercise, just to get a sense of where their mind goes when we speak of time. After we got past the days and weeks and months, the minutes and hours, the decades and centuries and millennia, things got interesting. We spoke of clocks and sundials, and then we spoke of mobile phones (because how do you tell the time today, really?). We then spoke of over-dependence on gadgets – how during the Chennai floods, people wanted power banks from Bangalore to charge their phones because suddenly we had no clock, no torch, no nothing. We spoke of all sorts of things and then one little boy piped up “money” and the rest of the class became about inflation. I loved it, obviously, and you can read the story here.  Introductions and basics over, we got back to the mindmap I had promised to execute over the course of the term.

That is how I found myself at my laptop making an ‘Introduction to Personification’ worksheet, leading up to Father Time. I wrote out about a dozen sentences about time, using ‘it’, and asked them to convert all the ‘it’s to ‘he’. I left it at that, went on to write a similar paragraph on nature, and asked them to convert all the ‘it’s to ‘she’. And then I caught myself. Why was I dictating the ‘he’s and ‘she’s? Why was it okay to impose internalised associations on thirteen-year-olds without being critical about it. What if I asked them to choose and sneaked in a little about norms and socialisation as well? With that was born the personalisation worksheet. You can find it here.

As expected, about 85% of the class conformed with the universal norm when personifying. These kids, learning ESL in a rural classroom and being introduced to the concept of personification for the first time, still knew intuitively what gender to assign. Time-Nature-Death. He-She-He. And then I asked them the tough question. Why? Why did they choose the he and the she as they did? That is when the class got interesting.

Akka, boys are stronger.

Girls never get angry, but when they do, it is dangerous.

Girls are only beautiful and caring.

Boys are never on time. They come whenever they want.

Girls are not on time.

Boys are stronger and faster.

Boys are hardworking and determined.

Girls listen better. Girls make better friends.

There are more men in the world.

Girls are positive and good people, like mothers and sisters.

Boys like the outdoors better. Girls get tanned.


I spoke about internalisation, about how many people across the world would agree with their lists – boys are strong, fast and outdoorsy while girls are beautiful, soft and caring. But I asked them what would happen if I switched the headings on the table. What if ‘he’ became ‘she’ and ‘she’ became ‘he’? Do they still think it could be true?

In one of the two classes, this turned out to be a Eureka moment. While the other class nodded in agreement, pointing out characteristics from the “he” list that could fit girls, this class jumped up in recognition. Their list had “they are everywhere,” “impatient,” and “anger/danger” on the “he” list, along with “hardworking” and “determined”. The words look familiar. Our class girls are like this only, Akka! It is true, Akka. Girls can also be like this – look at them! Suddenly it all made sense.

Amidst the laughing and giggling in class that day, I hope a lesson stuck, one deeper and more important than the concepts of personification and pronouns. If I had to choose one sentence that would linger on in that class, there is no doubt in my mind what it would be.

We all make decisions and assumptions all the time. But let’s get into the habit of asking ourselves why. Why did you reflexively yell your collective protest when I started reading out Nature with a ‘he’? Why do we believe what we believe? Why.

Teaching Economics in English class: why do prices increase with time, Akka?

When I walked into Class 8 yesterday, I was a little unsure what to expect. Usually there is a little bit of a catch-up phase after vacation when everyone has to reacclimatise to the sounds of English and become comfortable with these words coming out of their mouth. Couple this with a subject as vast and abstract as ‘time’ and I was not sure what I was getting myself into.

The first few questions received lukewarm responses and monosyllabic answers. Would you go back in time? Would you want to know your future? Do you think time travel should be a thing? And then I hit the jackpot. I did a word association exercise with ‘Time’ written in big block letters on the board. Tell me every word you can think of when I say time, I asked them.

Day, month, year. Day, night, seasons. Alarm, clock, watch, mobile phone. Late, early. Postponed, advanced. Punctuality. Money.

When I heard that last one, I pried a little more, asking what the boy meant. I fully expected him to tell me Thought for the Day-type quotes of time being money and how neither should be wasted. He entirely took me by surprise when he said things become more expensive over time. Ok, I thought. This could be a chance to do an Economics 101, perhaps the most ignored part of what TN government counts Social Science and arguably the most dry for middle schoolers.

So we wrote the words ‘inflation’ and ‘free markets’ on the board. When asked why the prices increase, the answer was ‘taxes’ so that was written on the board too. There began our class, a slight deviation from my intended plan on composition and tense.

I chose the whiteboard marker in my hand as weapon of choice. If you were to put a price to this, what would you say, I asked. The average answer was between Rs. 20 and 30, with one kid saying Rs. 10 and another saying Rs. 35. Assuming you are all shopkeepers right next to each other selling only markers, who would get all the business, I asked. The girl who said Rs. 10 very excitedly put up her hand. I would, Akka. My shop is only cheap. And what would you others do, I prodded. Get angry, Akka, the girl quipped. I chuckled and asked what after that. We’d reduce our prices, they said. By how much? Lower than hers. What else could you do? Give offers, Akka. Great, perfect. So who is deciding the prices? We are, Akka. And how do you decide? Seeing who wants to buy, Akka. And this, is demand-supply 101. My fingers (and the muggu in me, I accept) was itching to draw the graph and take it from there, but I stopped myself. The concept was more important that x-axis y-axis, I reminded myself. Ok, so markets are any space where people want to sell and others want to buy. Whether it is your sandhai or it is Flipkart. Yes, ka. Even if we can’t see it, selling and buying is happening. Perfect. Free markets done.

Now, had anyone heard your parents cribbing about how cheap things were in their time? Yes Akka, my father said he could even go to the theatre with Re. 1! Perfect. What can you buy with Re. 1 today? Chocolate. And how much do you need to go to the theatre today? Around Rs. 150, Akka. Great, so what used to cost Re. 1 costs Rs. 150 now? Yes, Akka. Is that entirely because of taxes, you think?…Umm. You tell, Akka.

Ok, detour number 279401. What are taxes? GST, Akka. Income tax, Akka. Those are examples, what is a tax itself? Something we need to pay, Akka. To whom? Income tax department, Akka. Which is a part of what? The government, Akka. There we go. So if you had to pay Rs. 20 for something, and the government asked for another Rs. 20 as tax, would you be happy? No Akka. And if you were not happy with the government, what can happen? We will not put vote for them, Akka. Great, so they will not get re-elected? So the price of something increasing by Rs. 149 cannot be entirely taxes? Yes, Akka. So what is it?


Today you need Rs. 150 to buy something that used to be Re. 1. Alternatively, the Re. 1 that could get you a full movie can now only get you chocolate? Meaning how much that Re. 1 can buy has fallen? This fall in purchasing power is what has led to Re. 1 becoming Rs. 150, an increase in prices? This is inflation. Now imagine this at a much larger scale. If you can buy a bike with Rs. 1 lakh today but I told you in the next few years, you will need Rs. 1 lakh to buy bread, what would happen? We would become poor, Akka. Now if that happens to the whole country? Everyone would become poor. So when this fall in purchasing power happens at a huge scale like this, when people’s entire savings are needed to buy bread, it is called hyperinflation.

And with this, the English class came to an end. I had not touched tenses, no one had written a word in their notebooks, but I came out of that class rejuvenated, refreshed, and hopeful about everything we can do in the classroom. Growing up, I enjoyed Economics even up to college but never counted myself confident enough to teach it. I remember my own Economics teacher in class 10 and how he struggled with us to labour through the graphs and definitions that IGCSE demanded. I would have never thought I would be on this side of an Economics lesson, even if only inadvertently.

Later in the evening, when I was narrating the incident to someone, they asked if I had taught entirely in English (yes), if they had engaged (yes, asking for repetition and clarification through it) and if they had understood (I’d like to think so). My phone buzzed in response. Wow, the text read. My sentiments exactly.

Reminders of ableism and inclusion

A few months ago, in a different context, someone asked a question on a public platform that struck a chord within me. Open your Whatsapp, he said. How many Persons with Disability are in your conversation? Isn’t that reflective of how invisible the population is?

It was in eighth standard that I went to my first inclusive film festival, complete with subtitling and audio descriptions. Between experiences like that, writing that fast grew into a focus on disability, and the experience of studying in truly inclusive environments, I was lucky to grow up in environments that mainstreamed disability. It really wasn’t that big a deal. But why am I going into this story now, you ask me? It all comes back to an essay from my classroom. (But of course!)

Yesterday was my fifth first-day-of-term. Yes, I haven’t gotten over how it has been five already. But this is a story from before the break. I chanced upon scribbled notes in my lesson planner, evidently a note-to-self to not forget the contents of that bout of correcting before I set out to September break, and the time has finally come to tell the story.

One essay was meant to be a story titled ‘Tsunami’. While I got pieces that spoke of destruction and devastation, people dying and losing homes (and realising that these kids weren’t born in 2004! What!), there was one that taught me how bracketed we get in our thinking with time. My question was not ‘A Tsunami’ or ‘The Tsunami’. It was just ‘Tsunami’. So who was I to mandate that the story had to be of huge tidal waves? I got a story of a girl named Tsunami who lived in Thekkalur and dealt with the impact of an alcoholic father. Correcting that essay, I realised I had no reason to mark it incorrect, that the expectation of a certain kind of story was entirely in my head, and that in a subject like English, there truly is often more than one appropriate answer.

But what really struck me in that set of corrections was not from the Tsunami essays. It was from an argumentative piece on whether movies or books are better means of entertainment across age groups. Once again, I was that teacher who expected a bunch of answers – movies are easier to watch, dictionaries take time to look through and movies allow for more contextual understanding, movies take less time versus books are traditional wisdom, you learn more inadvertently from books, etc. Then there was the one essay that caught me by surprise.

Movies are better because we can experience the emotions better. People who cannot see can hear the voices and people who cannot hear can see the emotions or read the dialogues. Movies like Charlie Chaplin are also good for them.


This ability to evaluate a simple, much-too-often used high school essay (I am not proud) through the lens of ableism left more than a little taken aback. It also reminded me of how important it is to encourage this line of thought at this age. It was at their age that I was at the film festival. I may not be able to bring the festival to them, but is it not our job as teachers in the classroom to make students sensitive to these ways of thinking? Should we not be taking more decisive steps to mainstream disability, the gender spectrum, all of these avenues of diversity that cause rifts in adults many years on? Should our classrooms not become spaces that truly reflect inclusivity?

Renewed faith and gusto for Term 5 of 6.


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!

Reminders of doing something right.

There is a warm glow that threatens to overwhelm everything in you when you see living, breathing proof of having done something right. It is quite the feeling.

It was a rather dreary evening yesterday and I sat trying to get most of a script adaptation done for Annual Day (coming up!) before a nagging headache got the better of me. Just as I was ploughing through lines and seeing how to best edit them, I saw two people walk in. The day instantaneously got better. Two of the graduating class (joined 11th in a different school, wrote IGCSE English in May-June) walked in, dressed in their new avatar of tracks and a grey t-shirt. Sports dress, Akka, they explained sheepishly, even as their body language showed that they had grown comfortable in this space. For the next hour or so, one of them spoke to us and every word taught us that we were doing something right.

She first opened with how she thinks she has been nominated for something, she is not sure what. Or maybe they were talking of nominating her? She does not know. When asked what this “this” was, she said “some SPL something, Akka, I don’t know.” I was not sure how to respond to the naivety appropriately. A month after commuting to the suburbs of Coimbatore every day to only the second school some of them have been to in their lives, here she was saying she was on the list of probable for SPL (we then broke down the concept of Student Pupil Leader and houses to her). She told us how other products of the school were making their mark as well – Student Parliament Vice President and Lingua Conclave Vice President to boot. She spoke of how they were preparing for the zonal team for shot put, how she asked to be included in javelin too, and how she told them she did not know how to swim even though she knew the basics just so that “I can learn properly from the beginning, Akka.” She showed us that the kids we had spent years moulding and then months worrying about had grown into their own people, self-assured and confident, with the same unquenchable thirst for learning.

She told us how they had all created a good impression amongst the new teachers, about how our kids always did their homework and were the first to answer questions. The quieter of the two then turned to me – Akka, here I was the quiet one, there I am the only one who speaks! She remembered how the Principal had seen red rice in her lunch box and congratulated her for standing apart from her peers and eating healthy. She said her friends had seen an old notebook of the school that she uses as a rough notebook, noticed the aerial picture on the cover, and wanted to know why she had left such a “big, beautiful school.” She laughed about how classmates had asked if she copies in exams and when they were told that none of them did, their response was how they came from a “good school, ya.” (On an aside, when these kids were writing pre-boards and mountains of correction were threatening to overwhelm the teachers, we would hand over the question paper to them. They’d administer it themselves in pin-drop silence, time themselves, and hand over completed answer papers with absolutely no need for invigilation. Copying? Pffbt.) She pulled out a flyer from her bag for a science Olympiad in the city on Sunday and asked if she could use my phone to ask them what it was all about – how could she register, did she have to participate through a school, where was it being held? She said they were all participating in the English elocution on Wednesday, and she wanted to research if NEET was good or bad. I will be back on Sunday, Akka. I want to interview a few people for their opinion. I am working on some questions.

But of all the stories and laughter and pride that filled the room yesterday evening, there was one that stood out for me hands down. She told me how her English teacher had written two sentences on the board and claimed only one was right. The sentences used the If I were/If I was forms and the teacher said the first was right. Now grammatically, the truth is that both are, and correctness depends on what you want to express. ‘If I were’ is subjunctive, speaking of things that are not true in the present, while ‘if I was’ refers to things that were true at a past time. ‘If I were President/Prime Minister, I would do things differently’ versus ‘If I was asleep, I wouldn’t have picked up your call.’ Except my win yesterday was not that the girl knew the difference between the two. That is a specific detail of English grammar that is easily taught. Yesterday’s win was how she dealt with that situation.

My English teacher said only ‘If I were’ is correct, Akka. I got up and said that it is wrong. She told me to go research and let her know why I think so, but I told her I can explain it there itself. I told her that both ‘was’ and ‘were’ were past tense forms of the verb ‘to be,’ that ‘was’ is for ‘am’ and ‘were’ is for ‘are’. I told her that ‘I’ is singular and ‘are’ is plural, so ‘I were’ cannot be correct. It has to be ‘I was’ only, no Akka? I explained it nicely only, Akka. The teacher did not say anything at all.

That day’s win was not about knowing or not knowing the subjunctive mood. It was not knowing that ‘to be’ is a verb, one as irregular as they come, and all the simple tense forms it takes. It was not anything to do with English language teaching at all. That day’s win was this girl and her ability to articulate what she believed, her thought process and her logic. It was how easily she was able to stand up for what she believed is right, the same strength that drove her to refuse the friends who asked her to let them copy. It was the fact that these children, who grew up in our classrooms, have no concept of the baggage that usually comes with authority, the resulting hierarchies and fear. It is the rightful assumption and ownership of their ability to think independently, not buying every word that they are told. It is the ability to question, raise objection respectfully, and be willing to converse.

When she first walked in to the Principal’s office yesterday and noticed me sitting in a corner, she reached out to give me a hug. Given that I had not been at school the last couple of times she dropped in, it was the first time since the last board exam that we were meeting. I miss you, Akka, she said. A few minutes later, talking of how she was largely enjoying her new school, she went quiet for a minute and looked down at the black tracks that had taken the place of the red-and-green salwar. I miss this school.

This school misses them too, I told her, and I meant it. For an hour yesterday, an old student came and told us about her new life. She told us her stories and experiences, asked us her doubts and clarifications, and through it all, she reminded us that we had done something right.