Bidding adieu: the importance of a full stop

As an English teacher these last two years, much of my time has been spent poring over adolescent notebooks correcting spelling and grammar. In the hurry to teach the difference between ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ what often got left behind on the wayside was the importance of punctuation. Every once in a while, I’d dedicate an hour to the comma or the quotation marks and that would be that. The class would go on, in the assurance of a continuation, a tomorrow.

On June 18th 2018, I lugged two massive suitcases out the door and left the door unlocked. For others to walk in and write their own stories. For someone else to study the particular patterns of the cement on the wall, wonder at the remnants of occupants past, make the space their own. I put a full stop at the end of my teacher-ing sentence. At least until I begin the next one.

For the last few days, I have been putting off writing this post. I was not sure what I would put down, where I would begin, which moments I would narrate. There were so many things this piece could be about. Which one should I choose? Until I decided to jump in with no answer. Perhaps the heart of this story, much like the heart of the last two years, lies in this chaotic multiplicity, this multi-stranded story, this bouquet of threads up for the asking.

This story could be about my students – the ones who visited on Sunday and witnessed the train wreck that was my room to give me farewell presents, the ones who called on Monday morning to wish me bon voyage, the ones who texted on Monday evening to check if I had reached safely.

This story could be about my colleagues, my fellow residential souls – the ones who procured a cake and cut it in my honour, hosting a cozy little “farewell” under our trusty Teachers’ Quarters Tree, the ones who cheerfully accompanied me on a final walk through town as I visited my usual haunts one last time as a “resident”.

Home of two years, green all over.
Home of two years, green all over.

This story could be about the physical space – the trees and the skies that truly showed me what the “real” green and blue look like, the buildings with their sloping roofs and the hills always just there, the dogs both hyperactive and lazy showing the rest of us what it means to just “do your thing”.

Backyards that look like that.
Backyards that look like that.

This story could be about habit and routine – the unspoken knowledge of showering order and laundry order in the Teachers’ Quarters, the confidence of who wants coffee/tea when we head to the bakery, the assurance that Saraswathi bus will leave at 6 PM and go till Gandhi Park.

Laika,
Laika, constantly reminding us of the important things in life

This story could be about hindsight – the realisation of how natural red pens seem even as I sit at my desk in Chennai, far removed from any correction that may need to be done, the constant complaint of home food being over salted thanks to being acclimatised to another kitchen, the reflexive habit of setting the weather app to Anaikatti on my phone even when Chennai is what I ought to be worried about.

This story could be about my ‘lasts’ – meals and classes and goodbyes, drives and walks and everything in between. It could be about the moment on Monday morning when a colleague asked if I wanted tea, my usual denial only changing because it was “your last one”. It could be about Unit 7 Prose chapter of Samacheer Class 10 being the “last class”. It could be about goodbyes and teary eyes.

Lasts
Last meals and last classes and last pictures that stand witness

There is so much that this could be about. Yet perhaps it is most fitting to leave this incomplete, a random scattering of images and memories and stories of a time and a place that laid the foundation of the adult I have grown to be.

On June 5th 2016, I moved in to be a teacher. On June 18th 2018, I moved out. In the days in between, I have written stories and blog posts, and almost 60,000 words that no one else has read. Much has happened and even more will change. But one thing I know for sure – every time I hear the word ‘Akka’, one part of me will always turn around in recognition, and I will always expect a fifteen-year-old face full of interest, anticipating yet another tryst with elephants and English class.

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Remember when…

Remember the time it was freezing cold and we all tumbled out of bed to be in class before 7 AM? When I used to crib about how your singing voices were my alarm clocks as you used to shower in the bathroom next door to my room? You used to make fun of me, that a teacher’s sacrifice is what makes students flourish, and I used to retort that I had already passed my 10th, thank-you-very-much.

Remember when I gave you inane topics to write essays on? The morning you wrote descriptive essays on classroom objects for me – a boxful of chalk, a streamer left behind from the last celebration, a whiteboard marker. How you cribbed about having to dig up 300 words on the mundane, the everyday. You asked if you could pass or skip this, or at the very least exchange with someone else because after all, greener grass and all. Of course I refused. After the customary cribbing, you pulled it together and rose to the occasion, truly embracing the spirit of descriptive writing. A few mandatory queries on the use of characters (no) and setting (no), a confirmation that you could only describe the senses (yes), and you were down to work. It was a treat that morning, watching as people sniffed chalk pieces and asked if they were safe to taste, just to get content to write for a classroom essay.

Remember when we went to Brookefields after your last exam? You girls wouldn’t let go of me. We ended up walking, four of us together shoulder to shoulder, down that corridor. I was constantly tripping over someone’s foot, bandage and all. One of you refused to let go of my hand, and only swapped at the escalator when another needed the support more. You wouldn’t buy it when I told you we were all going to the same place. And then, when we had a few minutes to spare as we waited for the boys, I pulled you guys into Hamley’s, a toy store like none you have ever seen before. I told you it was okay to try things out, touch them, and be a child. I sang out loud, along with the music, and you were caught between embarrassment and amazement. Could a teacher really behave like this? Would we get kicked out? Is it okay? I hope you learnt that day that we don’t ever need to silence the child in us.

Remember when you used to stay here on campus for IGCSE? The day when I left a dosa on my plate to go refill the chutney only to come back and see it was missing. One of your seniors had stolen it off my plate and was embarrassed beyond conception! How we laughed that night, to the point where you brought it up the day of your farewell, almost a year later. Or the day before one of your exams when you decided to play hide and seek (have I ever told you guys it fills my heart with such joy that you find hide and seek worthy of your time even in 10th grade? I don’t think my childhood lasted that long) and one of you shimmied up the pillar and onto the roof to stay out of sight? I couldn’t find the words for a few minutes but eventually, the teacher in me half-heartedly yelled at you to be careful and behave.

Remember when they announced that I’d handle Samacheer Social? I walked in to class and announced my ignorance, said I didn’t know what was happening, and started with what came easiest to me. Economics and then Civics and then Geography. History was dutifully avoided for as long as I could get away with it. I felt bad that day, questioned myself whether I should have proclaimed my ignorance like that, wondered whether it would negatively impact the confidence you had in yourselves and the school to prepare you for these all important exams. But a couple of you approached me that day and taught me to read the blueprint, showed me the websites to get the past papers, and held my hand as I learnt to teach you.

Remember when I sneakily got you guys to set questions from an article I wrote to give you a taste of the process? Or the multiple times you have asked me how much I got in my IGCSEs and A Levels? Or when one of you thought to Google me and spread the word? You would keep slipping it into conversation randomly, about how you know I do not belong here. One of you even asked me in the moment of lull in class. Why are you here, Akka, he said. When you are so multitalented, why? When you could be anywhere you wanted, why did you choose to be here? Why was it so hard for you to believe that I was here for you?

Remember when you guys published an article in the newspaper for the very first time? I sat in the room with you as you interviewed and took notes from the desk behind so you wouldn’t miss out on anything. The day it came out in print, I was happier than any byline has ever made me. I still have that article filed away with all my others. A few weeks later, one of you promised me that no matter what else you do in your life, you’d never stop writing. Today, at the interview with your new principal, you told her you wanted to study Literature and then do Journalism. I could hear my heart sing.

Remember when one of you came to me and asked if I have truly cried because of students at the school? Others have told us you cried, Akka, but we have never seen. Can you show us? I laughed you off and then realised it was true. Yours was the batch that never really reduced me to tears. Through two boards and five board papers, we have survived each other.

Remember when I was class teacher for you lot? Remember how you used to yell at me for keeping “boy glass” on top of “girl glass” and conversation would need to be cajoled out of you? One year later, we had to solve love spats and jealousy issues, teasing and bullying. In one year, you gave me a peek of adolescence itself, long before I had kids of my own.

Remember when you interrupted board exam mugging to ask, four of you, when it was that I was getting married? I laughed you off, and you asked if I’d invite you. I asked if you’d come, and you said you would if I got you tickets too. One of you even offered to come a week in advance to help me run around, though I was advised against it by your classmates. I’d go bankrupt just feeding you, they said. I told you it was the thought that counted.

Remember the time you asked if I’d be a member of the media on the day you make it big? You said you’d be a cricketer or a collector or someone worth knowing. You’d host a press-con and you wanted to know if I’d attend. Write good things about us, Akka, you instructed. When you become collector, all I need to do is show up, you said. You’d wave the crowd aside and make sure I had access to you immediately. Enge Akka nnu naan solren, Akka, you said. You’d make sure no hassle stood in my way.

Remember the time you spoke of how I was like a mother, massaging your hurting feet? I cried before you could finish that sentence. Remember when you texted me to ask what I wanted for a treat the day your results came out? I told you I didn’t want a thing. Remember when you thanked me after we got you admission? I smiled and waved you away, unsure of how to react.

Do you remember all the tiffs and battles and small victories? Do you? Really? Because I don’t. I remember some, I wish I could remember more, but more than anything, I remember a feeling. It is the feeling of being loved, of finding family, of experiencing impact, both given and received. It is of being someone and becoming someone, moulding another and being moulded by another. It is the story, like I once said, of how you made a teacher out of me. Remember?

 

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.

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.

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.

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.