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.

My first kids graduated.

Dear Kids,

You know how you always asked me in class how it was fair that I set you tasks and never wrote myself? You asked me how I would feel if I had word limits and deadlines and homework to get done, your innocence not for one second letting you realise that the flipside to your homework is in the red pen that perpetually lies on my desk. You asked me how I would feel if I were asked to go through the motions that I put you through, survive the drill that I made you live out. This moment right here? Here I am, writing because of you.

What would this essay be called, I wonder. A narrative piece of a first-time teacher? A personal essay of my first kids? A descriptive piece on an ESL classroom? Whatever else it is, it is the chronicle of the last year, of my life and yours. It is the story of how I grew up. It is, fundamentally, a story of thanks.

I walked in here mentally a student. I struggled through my first few weeks, complaining to friends and family about how I identified more with you than with my colleagues. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that I was flailing, unsure about IGCSE and eager to do right by the world? Yet here I was, the one with the “system know how” and tasked with getting you to run a marathon in a year.

I remember the first few weeks of correction. I cried regularly. I wasn’t sure if I had bit off more than I could chew. The pages were covered with red ink, notes and suggestions and corrections of everything from vocabulary to grammar structures. In some extreme cases, I rewrote the paragraph myself, telling you what you meant to tell me. My colleagues made me the standard teacher joke, and spoke of everything from how we’d run into a budgetary deficit thanks to my red pen appetite to how boxes of red pens would be the school’s wedding present to me when the time comes. My arms hurt at the end of long days and I was glued to the chair in the staff room. It took me an hour to get through one notebook, and I taught a hundred different kids, twenty of whom were you, hurtling towards board exams. I remember the first few weeks of correction, and how blindly I ploughed on. I told myself that every child deserves to be heard, to be read, to be taken seriously, and some day, this would bear fruit. I corrected, you read, you wrote, I corrected, and the cycle went on. But you, the committed souls that you are, read. And that made all the difference. You read every word I wrote and paid attention. You believed the horrendous red pen marks would eventually build up to something good, and you persevered. Thank you for never once complaining it was too much.

And then it got better. Slowly but surely, red pens started lasting me a little longer. A couple of days became a week, and later, it became a couple of weeks. Some of you asked me how to follow a career in writing, and it made my heart sing. Others I overheard telling juniors that I’d make it difficult for you in the classroom, but after all it was for the greater good. Every time I felt an overwhelming emotion that threatened to wash over me, a gratitude that of all the classrooms that I should make my own, it was this one that came to me. Thank you for pushing yourself through it, and making sure that all of us stayed committed to the path.

This last year has been hard in more ways than one. The only thing that kept me committed to the 7 AM class was you lot, who would turn up uncomplainingly everyday well on time to do more. How is half day on Saturday bad news, Akka? After all, it is for our own good. Your blind faith that what we did was for your benefit pushed us to be better people. It made me look up the official rules to comma usage and the actual definition of a gerund. It made me Google questions I expected you would ask, so I would have all my bases covered, seeking knowledge I never would have otherwise had. It reminded me to continuously, doggedly, without exception, commit to excellence, so that I could demand the same from you. Thank you for never settling for anything less than the best.

Today, you finished your last set of exams, the second paper of English. When you walked in to your first, some of you came to wish me good luck, telling me not to worry and that everything would be okay! Today, you heard British folk talk of literature festivals in an accent you have barely heard in person, of places and people and things so alien to your own life. And yet, you came out smiling. It was not easy, Akka, you told me. But we managed. If only you knew how much you really have managed, how far beyond everyone’s expectations you have come. In the last year, you have studied of things and people far, far beyond your own boundaries. You have sought out spaces far removed from your geographies. You have pushed and pushed and pushed, refusing to set limits and be fenced in. Each of you have done so very much in my classroom that the grade card makes no difference to this one truth – you each have done far more than ‘manage’. You have pushed yourself to be better versions of yourself. And you have pushed me to be a better version of me. Thank you for expecting interesting classes and challenging essays, every single day.

As you sat in front of me, the last day in your red and green uniform, with the weight of the exams behind us, I felt my heart grow heavy. I busied myself in chores to distract myself. Were the answer papers packed and ready for dispatch? Was the ice cream we had gotten in your honour ready to be served? Was everyone contentedly tucking into their paper cup? When the principal asked me to speak, I could hustle no more. To each of you kids, I meant every word I said.

Nothing I say today, I did not say the day before your first English exam. I walked in here a student myself and it will forever be this batch that made me the teacher I am. Whether I continue to be a teacher or not in the future, I am yet to figure out, but this batch shall always be special, the ones who grew with me in the class without complaint. And I can tell you today in full confidence – I know I have not been easy. I know I have been tough and set high expectations. But each of you have far exceeded them. When we first began, the principal asked me to be nice when I correct. I refused. Each of you know how that went. Each of your notebooks is testament to how far you have come. By the time you wrote the exam, I was handing you grades because there was no reason for me to withhold them. That essay was everything it needed to be. Nothing you did in class was easy. Many of the issues debated and discussed were far ahead of your grade level, and yet, not once did you complain. Each of you have written about four hundred essays for me this year, and that speaks of your engagement, your commitment, your determination to never give up. In that process, you taught me. To teach better, learn more, and never underestimate the power of trust and time in a classroom. So to all of you, thank you and congratulations.

I don’t know how it will be next year to walk in and not see your faces in the classroom, but I know better than to worry. One of you today told us that we had taught you to “tackle” – situations, people, issues. I’d like to think that is true, that we have set unto the world a set of people with the fire to be more and the strength to face the world. You told us how teachers supported you in every way they could, how you were thankful for the comfort you found in the school. There were quite a few moist eyes just about then.

To each of you, you should know this.

You supported us too. You pushed us too. You taught us too. Thank you for teaching me.

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. 🙂

Six months on.

I was talking to an old teacher a few days ago who asked how my last year of teaching had been. What year? I reminded him that it had only been six months since I started work, that a year ago, I was battling the rains back home and then waded through the trench of a Masters thesis. It was only since June 2016 that I had been here, I told him. It had, in fact, been exactly a day over six months since I started work.

I remember the date unnaturally clearly for someone with a questionably memory. I signed in a red pen for the first time that day, and the act etched itself in my head. ‘YR 5/6’ I had written, so come Project Day on 5/12, I was finishing six months of teacher-ing in rural environs.

That conversation with the old teacher was not the first time someone assumed I had been here a lot longer than I have. It does seem like a really long time even to me. Who would have thought that just nine months ago, I was in class myself, that my bag was significantly more populated by blue pens than red, and that I didn’t have a small army of a hundred kids who genuinely believed that I knew what I was saying? But six months it is.

Any look back at these six months is a rather tough ask. What have I learnt, people what to know. What does it feel like? What stories can I tell?

I can tell you of how terrified I was to start teaching class 6, the traditionally notorious set in the school. But in the same breath, I can tell you how at the end of my first class, a kid came to tell me how she never noticed time fly by that hour. She said it, smiled at me, and waltzed out of the class, while I stood there mid-swipe of the whiteboard, allowing myself a moment of relief.

I can tell you of the frustration of marking pages and pages with red ink, running through pens like they were filled with water. I can tell you of colleagues who pulled my leg – neeye ezhudi, neeye correction panni, neeye ‘good’ podareya, they would ask. (You are doing it all yourself, writing and correcting, and then you mark it with a ‘good’?) But I can also ask you to pick up a notebook and flip through it and watch the miracle. Over the months, look at the red marks, I would say. And you will see for yourself as they become more infrequent, less important.

I can tell you of feeling out of place, off centre. I could regale you with stories of how my dressing, my language, and my body became fair play for comment and critique. How do I know how to wear a sari? Why do I not bother with a dupatta? Why would I cut my hair? I could illustrate how time and again opinions or points of view were written off because I was ‘periya ooru,’ and how even though I knew the language, I felt like an alien more than once. But listen to me long enough and I will tell you more. I will tell you about how I stopped trying to be in the centre, of how my off centredness has become my strength, of how I am happy almost fitting in but not quite, a slightly rectangular peg in a square hole. The distance has become comfortable, I would say.

I can tell you of all the stories that come my way. The stories of happy families and unhappy ones, of violence and difficult homes, of not finishing homework because of something far more serious than weak memories and hungry dogs. But I can also tell you another brand of stories. Of students so eager to seek out knowledge that there are knocks on my door at all points of day and night, of parents whose joy finds expression in clutched hands. Of classrooms bubbling with questions and queries of why it is the way it is and who said it must be that way. Of S, who refused to back off until the angle of the origami tiger was just right, or P, who refused to budge until all twelve of the comma rules had been mastered. Epdi Akka varaadhe pogum, they wanted to know. (How will it not work out?)

As for me, I can tell you stories of feeling like an actor for the first few months. Of half expecting someone to come and take off my mask, and demand to know where the real teacher was. Six months on, I will tell you of how I lost the shine to teacher-ing, how I understand that I don’t need to feel different to really be one. I will tell you of how I am the same person really, even in my classroom, and I have come to be okay with that.

After it all, if you really want more, I will point you to S, a loud, brash, not-afraid-of-anyone kid from my grade 6 classroom, and he will tell you the rest. Of the Yashasvini Akka in the classroom – adikka maataange, thitta maataange, English le-ye pesi kashta paduthuvaange, kovam vandhaa pesa maataange, niraiya ezhudha veppaange. (she doesn’t hit, she doesn’t yell, she troubles us by speaking only in English, if she gets angry she goes silent, she makes us write a lot.)

These last six months, I discovered a hundred others like S, but I also discovered this Yashasvini Akka.

A quarter done. Three to go.

The Evolution of the Report Card

My bed was a mess this morning, littered with a stapler, stapler pins, pens in three different colours, a pencil, and of course, sheafs of paper. There they lay, all bundled up, waiting for me to check whether every copy had all the pages, whether they were stapled right, whether the print was clear on all of them. Class 6, Class 7, Class 8 Written, Class 8 Listening, Class 9 and 10 board exam practice papers; all of them. And as I reminded myself not to skimp on the time I was spending checking, and not to fall prey to the “if one is right, they all must be” assumption, I remembered all the cursing I have done as a student – about teachers who did not give portions early enough, of those who gave them and then changed their minds, of question papers that seemed foreign, of question papers too long and occasionally, too short. And suddenly I realise how easy it is to be all those things. Yikes.

IMG_20160905_102756

Over the last few days, just as I thought I was getting used to this whole teacher identity, I was struck by a new wave of incredulity. I pinged my brother furiously last evening, saying, “I cannot believe what I just wrote. ‘X is an enthusiastic child with an ear for phonetics. With some more attention and concentrated effort, his writing will reflect his imagination.’ What is happening??” Needless to say, he had a riot, calling me old multiple times over, but the thing is this. As I sat down to write out the reports of a bunch of students that I had known for barely three months, I could hear the voices of all my own teachers in my head as my own string of report cards danced away in front of me.

When I first joined school in India, reports were a rather stoic affair – a blue piece of cardboard folded in half, with a tabulated page for individual subject marks. Term I, Term II, Term III for English, Math, Science, Social, Hindi, Sanskrit, and MI/GK (LOL). The last few rows will tell you how many days you took off and then the class teacher would scrawl her initials into a tiny box to put her stamp of authority on it. On the right side, there were three boxes, one for each term, for the class teacher to fill in her comments. If she liked you, you would get ‘Excellent,’ if she knew you, it would probably read ‘Good,’ and everyone else dealt with ‘Needs Improvement’. That was the end of that affair. Finito.

Through middle school, report cards got a little more complicated, more because of a change in school than age, to be fair. We had little yellow booklets (and then later I think the covers became pink) which a page per term, and grades as well as marks per subject. Our class teachers wrote out a paragraph for each of us, which I guess she could because we were half a dozen kids in total. ‘She is hard working but prone to careless mistakes,’ it might say. Or ‘she has a tendency to distract the class after finishing her own work.’ In this pink/yellow report card, she had a little more space to sign her own name, leave her mark.

And then, higher secondary school. Another school, another system, and more elaborate report cards. Well, to be honest, I don’t think they were called report cards at all. Personalised Learning Plans (PLPs), if my memory serves me right. Before we wrote an exam, we would be asked to set a target for ourselves and after the paper got corrected, our reports would have bar graphs for every subject – expected, actual, expected, actual. I vaguely feel like there was a third bar as well, though I can’t remember what it was. Each subject was also judged on a number of parameters, again can’t remember what, but I remember fancy colour print outs with different colour for each parameter being dutifully lugged home every term.

It was all of this, memories coloured blue, pink, yellow, purple and green, that flashed before me as I drowned in mountains of paper. In the years since I left school, it seems report cards have changed. Today, I fill out what is called a ‘Progress Report Book’. Yes, you read that right. Book. And I get a page to myself. English Listening/Speaking, English Reading, English Writing – everything is assessed, further broken down into tiny components. From ‘listens attentively to ‘evaluates information for bias,’ everything gets a grade. After filling letters in twenty-six different boxes for every kid, I then get another box all to myself, ‘Teacher’s Comments’. And am faced with the task of figuring out something new to say, different from the meticulously spelt out parameters judging English learning that spanned out above my weary hand.

Bringing us back to X and his vivid imagination. Coming from a system myself where outright negative comments were not appreciated by the school management, I got the thought process. I also agreed with it. Kids could use the prep of hearing nice things about themselves after three months of putting up with us, and if that saves them some trouble with the ‘rents, then why ever not. Perfect. Except talk to me at the end of forty-odd reports, with almost as many left to go, and I will tell you this. There are only that many ways you can talk about being distracted and careless, without using the words ‘distracted’ and ‘careless.’ (Yuck, I see my brother’s point.) It was in these circumstances that I found myself writing about vivid imaginations that were just not adequately reflected, and a ‘willingness to learn that would benefit from more concentrated engagement in the classroom.’ Thank God for a degree in the liberal arts.

As I closed my black pen and brushed off eraser dust from my dry runs, I couldn’t help but be caught off guard by the evolution of report cards in my own life. Blue pieces of cardboard stamped with ‘enrolment number 9997’ to an exhaustive/exhausting string of twenty-six letters, BBCCBADBCDAB and so on, for each subject. From ‘good’ to ‘active, willing participant with an intuitive grasp of the language’.

This job never ceases to surprise me.

Teacher? Who, me?

When I left Chennai on Thursday night, I was upset at how unenthused I felt. Why was I not feeling the high I expected? How come the thought of figuring out, with some sense of finality, the dreaded ‘what next’ question didn’t bring with it a wave of relief? What was this dreariness of just going through the motions of packing and getting on the train? And amidst all of this general lack of engagement, I boarded the Cheran Express, more relieved by the end of my thesis review the previous day than the anticipation of what lay ahead.

A restless night, a bus journey to the long distance bus stand, finally finding the first ride out of the city and an hour of ghat roads later, I landed in Anaikatti. Ask around the bus stop for the school and they would guide you, I was told. I approached a chai-kadai and dutifully asked, suddenly very aware of how out of place I looked in my jeans, kurti, dupatta and messy bun bearing the brunt of all the travel. After promising him that I don’t need an auto to help me through one kilometre, I walked it up and approached a bunch of stone buildings that I was all set to get to know better.

I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the flurry of emotions of the next 36 hours. Here are a few snippets.

“May I come in, Akka?” they would ask. It would take me a minute to recognize they were talking to me. “Akka, that chair is yours,” they pointed out while I settled down comfortably on the mats in the library. I didn’t understand that was the teacher’s chair. “Why do you like English?” they wanted to know. “What do English books offer that Tamil doesn’t?” How do I explain to them that it is possible that a Tamil girl doesn’t read the language? Definitely not enough to handle literature? It was going to take some time to catch up to this idea of myself as a teacher.

“Akka, give us easy topic,” they giggled as they waited for me to assign them situations to role play. “We like English but we don’t like grammar and we don’t like reading and writing.” I mock-smirked at them. Here I was, all set to don my armour and wield my grammar books, and they were flinging cannons at me. What do you like, I asked them. “You read to us, we will listen,” they said completely nonchalantly. I have a rather steep wall to scale ahead of me.

“Tell us about your childhood,” they launched at me when asked what they wanted to know. “Why did you study what you studied?” And how do I explain to them that I study Development Studies, not English? That my answer to “tell me about yourself” for the last five years has always involved IIT, an acronym that makes no sense to them? That I feel a sense of creation and satisfaction and discovery every time I write, whether it is a blog post or an academic paper? Instead I told them I like to read, and faced their wrath of not knowing Tamil once again.

As I wrapped up my two day trip, a signed contract folded neatly into the pages of my new Teacher’s Copy of the ESL textbook, and boarded my train back to Chennai, I could hear their voices ringing in my head. When asked to choose a city they hadn’t visited before for the role play, a majority of them unanimously chose Chennai, a city I call home and have come to take for granted. “Akka, neenge Chennai-lenda?” they gaped, in the same way some of us might gawk at Times Square or the Tower of London. To them, I had seen it all. To me, I hadn’t even begun.

So much more to say, so much more to get used to. Thankfully, we have a bit to get around to it. Will be back with more reminiscing soon.