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!

Start of the second year: water words

In the last week since I have started my second year of teaching, many people have asked me the same question. Are you (as) excited about this year? Hopefully, this piece is part in answer to that repeated query and part a sneak peek into what the start of this term has been like.

Am I excited? Yes. Am I excited about the same things? Far from. Last year, my questions were more basic – would I be able to teach? Would I be able to don the persona of a teacher? Would I be able to handle the more difficult aspects of a class – discipline, routine, the demanding nature of correction? Would I be able to make the jump from volunteer to full-time? That was June 2016.

This year, my questions are a little different. Would I be able to keep everyone interested, myself included, after the initial excitement of a new teacher wore off? Fresh from the high of getting one set of kids through boards, would I have the mental strength to start from the very beginning with another set of kids? Would I be able to stay fresh, open, and willing to mould myself, avoiding approaching the classroom with a been-here-before frame of mind? With my class sizes larger this year, would I be able to give each kid just as much attention as the last set?

Truth be told, I don’t know the answers to these things yet. It has only been a week since I began after my post-boards break, and it is still much too early. As I sit down to make lesson plans this year though, I know that my motivation to shake things up a little and keep things interesting are influenced by a new factor – sure, the kids should be involved and interested, but so must I. Changing things around means I do new things in my classes. It is good for me too.

This term, the middle school kids are working around the elements of water, wind, and the sun. Though there is a specific focus on energy in the sciences, it is slightly less direct in English. Not wanting to inundate them with literature through the term again (last Project Day was fun!), I was hunting for something to do around water, when I chanced upon a very helpful book titled something along the lines of ‘Water: An ESL curriculum’ and milked the few pages that Google Books gave me as a preview. I decided we’d largely do vocab exercises with water.

The number of phrases, saying, proverbs, what-have-you in English that have to do with water is a little mindboggling if you think about it. In preparation for the class, I wrote each line on a strip of chart paper and then proceeded to cut each of them in half. Each child chose two halves and then proceeded to walk around class trying to find the missing part of their saying, the one that made the most sense. We then sat down and understood the meanings of each of them, using the more common ones in examples of our own. Some of the stories that came up were:

  • When I first came to this school, everyone spoke in English. The teachers also spoke in English. I did not understand what anyone was saying. I felt like a fish out of water.
  • When I went to Kanyakumari, I felt like a fish out of water. I had never seen the ocean before and I had never gone to the beach. I did not know what to do there.
  • The first time I went to the movie theatre in Coimbatore, I felt like a fish out of water. I had never seen such big buildings and big bridges [flyovers] before.
  • If you want to hit a six in cricket but you do not have a bat or a ball, it is like going up the creek without a paddle.
  • If you only have a piece of chalk but the classroom has a whiteboard, using the board to teach is like going up the creek without a paddle.

We also spoke of it raining cats and dogs, saving things for a rainy day, the tip of the iceberg, and so much more! If the first week is anything to go by, we are up for an exciting year ahead!

Wrapping up the 2016-2017 classroom

Board exams begin today and with that, the countdown to the English papers on June 7th and 15th. Friends, acquaintances, strangers, and people of the internet, this would be as good a time as any to put positive wishes out into the universe and hope they find their way to us! But desperate hopes for good luck apart, this also marks the beginning of the end of one academic year for me at the school, half the time I promised I would be here.

While I will save my nostalgic, lessons-learnt post for another day, this post is a dedication to my classroom and all the very many hours spent on the impossible nuances of the English language. Evidently, the class 9 and 10 students at the school spent the last academic year dealing with my compulsive need to try and do it all. Here is a sneak peek on what we did through the last few months.

Writing

Perhaps the biggest chunk of our writing exercises were centred around mastering the essay form. Going back to my own tenth standard training, we ran through the basics of three types of essays – argumentative, narrative, and descriptive, and figured out how each one was different and the most effective ways of planning each one. We read example paragraphs of each, seeing how the same topic can be dealt with differently. Somewhere along the line, the essay bug bit them and how! I had written earlier about how the nine-student ninth standard class had written out 130 essays in a span of a month and a half, and had to be begged to stop. In my moment of desperation, my only possibility was pleading incapacity – I cannot correct, I told them, I just cannot deal with the mountain on my desk! In June 2016, we were talking of how paragraphs were structured, how descriptive writing used more adjectives than most other forms usually, and how you must pre-empt the opposition in a good argumentative piece. By March 2017, they were churning out a thousand words a day, helping themselves to the Box of Essays as they saw fit.

20161017_122332As board exam prep drew closer, box after box got ravenously polished off. Each “box” had a set of fifty topics spanning initially just the three main forms of essays. By the third box, I had to dig deep to think of subjects, and the format of the personal essay was included too. What is your biggest challenge? What is the most important lesson you learnt from your grandmother? The list seemed endless, literally, and the red pens being thrown out, even more so. A sample of these topics can be found here.

When we took a break from the essays, we did a few off-beat exercises as well. When the Rio Olympics were going on, we learnt about the refugee team and wrote letters to Yusra Mardini. We even imagined a day in her life for a diary entry, and tried to see if there were ways of reaching out to her, but to no avail. Following a listening exercise based on See You Again (Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth), we wrote letters to Paul Walker, trying to convert the musicality of lyrics to a personal essay. I can no longer listen to that song without remembering the confused looks flash across their faces when the rap started playing, but more on that later.

Grammar

Other than this never-satiated appetite for essays, there was some other writing to be done as well. Most of the “oh so boring” grammar saw a pretty strong writing component, but I’d like to think we made it as fun as possible. From using recipes to learn continuity and “following words” (first, secondly, next, etc.) to using nursery rhymes to learn tense (Mary will have a little lamb…Mary has a little lamb…you get the drift), there was quite some fun to be had. If nothing else, now all the girls in the class are busy trying to perfect ‘Betty bought a bit of butter’ in three different tense forms! We even did ‘spot the error’ exercises that got dubbed the ‘revenge exercises’ when they realised “how difficult it must be to correct, Akka!” More on the birth of revenge exercises here.

Reading

Through the year, the younger classes did most of the literature reading in the run up to Project Day, a host of fiction including Marquez! As for the board exam kids, apart from the constant reminders of the beauty that is the library, we did a wide range of comprehension exercises as well. Given that the board exam is structured in such a way that 50% of Paper 1 is reading (the other half is writing) and listening has an independent paper altogether, we had to remind ourselves to not get too caught up with the essay box. Through the course of the year, we ploughed through comprehension passages about everything from women winning the Fields Medal (“the Nobel Prize of Mathematics”) and Henrietta Lacks to edible cutlery. Yet, even though I was on the look out for comprehension passages every time I idly scrolled through my Facebook home page, there was one website that never let me down.

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Photo Credits: Geethapriya

Through the academic year 2016-2017, my students of English as Second Language read articles from Scroll, a portal that describes itself as a ‘digital daily of political and cultural news for India…(with a focus on) analyses, reportage and commentary.’ They read about everything from sanitation in Mumbai’s slums to the trend of capsule hotels. And not only did they read, they ploughed through 50-mark worksheets on each of them, every worksheet acting as a mock-up of the board exam question paper pattern. Here is a sample (article and exercises enclosed), based on an article on ‘why Bhutan lost its appetite after a ban on Indian chillies.’ If we have to prepare for board exams, might as well pave ways for parts of the larger world to seep in, right?

Listening

This could easily be the most fun part of the term, for me at least. Every week, we tried to dedicate one class to listening exercises. We tried to focus on the lyrics while getting past the accent, make sense of the overall meaning while simultaneously focusing on the details. And our music came from everywhere.

Over the course of the last year, we heard a fair bit of Disney (Moana and Beauty and the Beast!) and the Oscar-favourite La La Land. What kind of a teacher would I be without introducing impressionable minds to the beauty that is Audition? And of course, the mother of all English-music-for-ESL, Sound of Music, and the classic John Lennon.

What did we do with this music, you ask? We did all kinds of things. Sometimes we wrote out the lyrics as they sang, sometimes we answered comprehension questions based on their meanings, sometimes we chose from similar sounding words as the song sped by us. And sometimes, the task was suspiciously simple – all we needed to do was write a basket of words we could hear! We tried making sense of Dwayne Johnson and made sure our scratchy pens kept up with his “this cannot be English, Akka”! Along the way, we found ways of deciphering a largely American accent and put together a new playlist to look up when we get access to the internet next!

Here are a couple of samples, one based on ‘See You Again’ and the other on ‘I am Moana’.

…and with that, it is a wrap. This week, I open a new folder on my computer, title it ‘2017-2018’ and get to work on a new set of lesson plans and worksheets. Hopefully, I see bigger dreams and show them real-time to a bunch of kids as well. To think half the work is done (at least on paper) already!

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.

A month to D-Day!

Board exam prep is in full steam and gosh, there is just no time to breathe! Perhaps the fact that I write this atop a side upper berth of the Indian Railways stands testament to just how maddening the last few weeks have been.

One (academic) year after I began teaching (yes, a one year post shall come up soon enough), I stand at the brink of board exams. Come May 15, seventeen students will begin writing the Edexcel IGCSE papers for English, Tamil, and Computer Science. Without exaggeration, I am more nervous than they are. Correction, without exaggeration, the teachers are more nervous than they are.

The average day goes like this. I start class at 7:30 in the morning and we plough through the specificities of the board till about 10:30 AM with a fifteen minute break for breakfast. From 10:45 to 1:15, the Tamil teacher takes over, and then it is the Computer Science teacher’s turn from 2:00 to 4:00. Post 4 PM, they get a couple of hours to themselves and then they are back to me from 6:00 to 8:30 PM when we break for dinner. Often times, doubt clearance, paper correction, marks totalling, what have you, spills over to after dinner and it is closer to 9:30 before I enter my room again, a full fourteen hours after I left. See, the catch is this. Everyone’s first reaction to this timetable is – oh my god, your poor kids! But. Hold that thought.

Picture me this.

On Monday, I decided I would do a visioning exercise to start us off, telling them to break down every day from Tuesday to the mocks and tell me what they would want to be revising. I told them I would take this into account for when I make my lesson plans and revision material, so that their queries and doubts are answered to the best of my ability. When they were in the middle of their timetabling, I asked them an innocent question. How many model papers would you like to do for practice before the mocks? (Yes, the mocks are practice in themselves, so essentially we are practising for the practice.) The answers left me speechless for a second.

There he was in the far right corner of the room, next to the window, a well-groomed, polite boy. His handwriting was second to calligraphy and his attendance was impeccable. I could not grouse him a single thing in class. When he raised his hand, I thought he’d tell me we didn’t need it. Mocks start in two weeks anyway, he would say, and I would take it from there. If only I knew what was coming.

Akka, we need twenty-five.

I gasped. Literally. In terms of background, Edexcel started offering English as a Second Language only since 2011 and therefore, the number of past papers available are pitiful. This means that every mock that they want to write, I need to create a question paper. One minor detail. Every two hour question paper that they write takes me five hours to set. Just set, forget correct. And this boy coolly throws a number at me.

I reminded him English was one of his three subjects, that he had classes for the others as well, and that it was impossible to write twenty five exams in eight working days. He said they would do take-home exams, that they were staying on campus anyway so working hours weren’t an issue, that they needed practice.

I told him twenty-five question papers meant a hundred and twenty five hours of work for me. That is five full days and then some without sleep or food or water, I told him. Or correction or any other material or pretty much anything else. That is okay, Akka, he replied in an instant. I was too astounded to ask him for who.

It was another student who came to my rescue. Akka, let us do four. Maybe five? After 125 hours of work, 25 doesn’t seem like too much. I agreed.

Now, you there. Now you tell me who is the poor soul here. Huh? Huh?

Thus began our board exam prep. Every session we tackle one part of the six-part question paper. We figure out ways to write informal letters and emails, the difference between articles and reports, how to summarise, and then we skim and scan till words are dancing in front of our eyes. What they write in the morning session needs to be corrected by the same evening so we don’t waste time making the same mistakes, and simultaneously, material for the next few days need to be dispatched for printing and stapling and such. It is a cycle, a machine that grinds away constantly.

Board exam prep is terrifying business. It is a concoction of stress and fear and pride all rolled into one. I oscillate dangerously between overwhelming pride at how far these kids have come even in the last year that I have seen them and crushing fear at systemic competition and the outside world. I think back to my own board exams and the nervousness I felt in the run up, and I think about today. Today I see in front of me children who are not caught up in the fear of the system or intimidated by the world outside. They are fearless dreamers, raring to go. Truly acham illai.

Every time I think of my kids, for in so many ways they really are, there is an image that stands out in my head, an anecdote from my classroom.

One day, a ninth standard boy asked me to explain the difference in usage between ‘in’ and ‘on’. Prepositions are confusing, he told me. I promised him I would double-check the rules and get back to him. A few days later, I took a class and taught them the differences. In the process of preparing for that class, I thought of a question. The question stumped me for quite a few minutes and as I proceeded to ask my circle of friends, everyone drew a blank. I even texted my Grade 12 English teacher whose response to me was ‘enne ma, room pottu yosikkareya?’ We all eventually got around to the answer, a good half hour after we set out.

Take these two sentences. Why is there a difference in preposition when it is referring to the same action?
I drank coffee in the morning. VS I drank coffee on the morning of July 29th.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I walked into my ninth standard class the next morning and set them on the task. I wrote the two sentences on the board and asked them why it was different. I was waiting for whining about how English is an inexplicable language and such. Instead, the class greeted me with complete silence as they all contemplated the sentences on the board. A couple of weeks later, I posed the question to two tenth standard girls as we stood around making small talk between classes. They took all of two minutes to answer me.

Akka, the tense is the same and the subject and object are the same. But in the second sentence, the preposition is actually for the date, so it takes ‘on’. In the first sentence, it is for the time of day and so it takes ‘in’. That is why, Akka. We shouldn’t get confused seeing both the ‘morning’s.

Every time I think of my kids, every time I fear for them, every time I have nightmares about the boards, I remember the faces looking up at me with bewilderment, as if asking why I was posing such an obvious question. Those who have mastered prepositions should be ready to face the world. In/on are greater devils than most. Fingers crossed.

O/D Wanderings Part 1: Doddinakuppa

It is almost time for me to get down to my end-of-term post but how can I not write one on the week that was? So here it is, a travelogue-of-sorts of the madness that was last week.

Anaikatti – Coimbatore – Mangalore – Doddinakuppa – Hassan – Mysore – Hosehalli/Saragur (Bandipur) – Mysore – Bangalore – Coimbatore – Anaikatti

We set off on the stated mission of visiting our sister school in rural Karnataka. Settled deep within the coffee estates that blanket the sprawling hills in the area, the school is a one building/three classroom affair that is about six months old. The teachers, young girls from the neighbourhood, are lovely – forever willing to learn and seeking out new knowledge. But wait, I get ahead of myself.

I was lost to the world for four days. Perhaps that is the best place to start. While I was unsure of internet connectivity, little did I know that Vodafone is entirely useless inside the coffee plantations, and my phone served as a paperweight for the four days I was there. Waking up to someone lighting firewood for our showers and falling asleep to pitch darkness (you have not seen darkness if you have not been in Doddinakuppa without electricity), alarm clocks and Google Calendars became things of distant memory. For four days, I wrote plenty and worked some, conducting sessions for the teachers in English language and communication. Here is a sample of what we did.

Julie Andrews belted out ‘My Favourite Things’ in class and we put the lines in order, paying attention to whether ‘shnitzel’ comes before ‘strudel’ or the other way around. What are the seasons in other parts of the world with a winter to speak of? What is a sash? What are mittens? Or sleighs? We laboured through the cultural context, the pronunciation that isn’t entirely natural, and finally, we understood this song of a young woman comforting small children; an environment the teachers are only too familiar with. What came next is the fun. We wrote our own songs, listening out our favourite things, tweaking them around to make sure the number of syllables matched, and sang it a few times over. What fun, the lyrics were!

Rainbows and colours

And dancing with friends

Birds with long feathers

And dosa, black tea

Children with kites on strong, windy days

These are a few of our favourite things.

Songs in the bathroom

And making sweet jamuns

Crows’ sounds

And ant hills

And gobi manchuries

Shopping for dresses in the big bazaars

These are a few of our favourite things

Watching a movie with my family

Going for long drives on my own scooty

Staying for long days in Anaikatti

Colours on flowers

And plants on the hill

Fishes in water

And stars in the sky

Brown bread and jam and a lot of butter

These are a few of our favourite things

White-coloured rabbits

And dry-roasted biscuits

Love birds and twittering

And pani with puri

Flying like a parachute and aeroplane

These are a few of our favourite things

Princess costumes with bright-coloured wings

Dancing in the rain and splashing too

Swimming in the water in summer season

These are a few of our favourite things

In the days that followed, we discussed Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise,’ and spoke about whether we agreed with what she said and what we made of it. Some liked it, some were unsure, some said it went over their heads…all in all, a good session of poetry!

We sang plenty. Karadi Tales’ ‘My name is Madhavi’ for their Annual Day (and even added a paragraph about Kaveri from Madikkeri!), ‘I love to wander by the stream’ from my high school days, and our very own Sound of Music tracks. Every once in a while, as they whipped up some food for our lunch, I’d hear strains of the songs floating in from the kitchen. The thought that neerdosai was being cooked to the tunes of English music made me happier than it should.

We did vocal exercises plenty too. How many different things can you do with a potato? You can make fries and chips and curry. You can boil it and steam it. You can cut it and dice it and grate it (ish). But you can make it a paperweight. You can carve it. You can do oh-so-much with a common potato stolen from the kitchen! Did anyone notice the sneaky vocabulary lesson as well?

The final day was my personal favourite, an exercise that everyone has consistently found buckets of fun. We learnt directions with a blindfolded hurdles track, forcing one partner to guide the other only by voice. I told them I would make them start from the beginning if they guided them by holding their arm or some such, and they had a ball, walking around campus and unexpected dogs and collisions along the way. When blindfolds are removed and paths are seen, the conversation is always hilarious. I thought I was going around in circles, someone exclaimed. I thought I was walking into walls, another retorted. And an hour of stumbling around blindfolded later, all the retorts and comebacks were in English – a little stuttered, sure, but English nonetheless. Somewhere amidst the step-ups and step-downs, a little bit of the fear, the caution, the reluctance was lost.

My four days in Doddinakuppa were a lesson in camaraderie, of sharing stories in the light of a phone or none at all, and giggling like Mallory Towers schoolgirls. But my four days in Doddinakuppa were also a lesson in patience. I spent the first day restless at this sudden disconnection to the world, my friends and family who did not have any heads up that I would disappear. Once the initial sense of being unnerved settled, I learnt to embrace the quiet, the absence of the telltale vibration of my phone always at arm’s reach. I learnt how to be fully present in the conversations around me, stories of childhoods so drastically different from my own and circumstances that seem so alien and yet increasingly familiar. I learnt to slow down a little, to stop just to see the coffee blossom like sheets of snow. I learnt to be.

PS – O/D stands for ‘on-duty’, a term that was signed against my name in the attendance register the week that I was away. Another first checked off the list. 🙂