Goodbyes, Keychains and Oscars

I always wondered why people cry during Oscar acceptance speeches. Why athletes tear up on the podium? How can anybody cry when they are happy?

On my last day at school, Roshan asked for my number. With teary eyes and breaking voice, he tells me that I should inform him without fail if I ever change it. I have taught him for two years. Never have I seen him cry. Once Priyanka, during a fight, stabbed his leg with a pencil. He ran with the bleeding leg to principal’s office to complain. No tears then. I had always perceived him to be strong. No one could ever get into his head. But today he broke down. And I love him more now.

The other day I was talking to Priyanka. She had come a long way from stabbing people with pencils. I asked her what she remembers about me from the last two years. I was expecting she would tell about the time when I taught her a dance. Or the time I felicitated her in front of the whole class. But she remembers that one time when I lost my temper and yelled at her for some unknown reason. I was hurt to hear that. I cannot choose what they remember. They might remember the most insignificant thing. An incident which should have never happened.

Nandini asked me what are my initials. “You know my name!”, I said. “Your full name, sir”, she replied. I was apprehensive. They might try to find me on various social networks. I did not know if I was ready for that. So I said my last name starts with ‘M’. On my last day, I get these keychains with ‘M’ on them. My name is Avinash. I would have liked an ‘A’. Now I have a story to tell everyone who sees these.

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I never thought I had left an impression on my students. But after seeing people crying and holding my hand to stop me from going, I felt they do love me. And nothing in the world can beat that feeling. I can see far away into the future when they are busy with life. They will forget this day and forget about me. It is inevitable. It’s okay. But no one can take this memory from me.

Geetha was shy and reserved. She is 10. Doesn’t talk much. Always in her shell. Not willing to express herself. I once made students perform in front the class. Geeta came up, started to sing, but stopped midway and went back. Later I asked her why. She was uncomfortable as she thought others were making fun of her. I told her even if others laugh that should not stop her. On my last day, she tried to convince me to stay. Why are you leaving Sir? Is it your own decision? I said I’ll keep in touch. Keep visiting. In the evening she called me on my phone. She asked me what I had for dinner, what I was doing, when will I go home to see my parents. In the end, she wished me luck with whatever I have decided to do with my life and hope I get what I want. At that moment I understood why Roger Federer broke down after winning the record-breaking 20th Grand Slam title. I get it. It is the culmination of years of hard work. A sense of accomplishment, fulfilment and gratitude. All squeezed into one tiny moment. I wanted to collect that memory and put it in a Pensieve. And relive it on future Sunday evenings when I question my existence.

Doing the right thing is hard

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My physical education teacher in school (let’s call him Mr. H) has influenced me more than any other teacher in my life. He was a short stout guy who did weight lifting. He talked less. Smiled rarely. Mr. H was a solemn creature with a rectangular face. He walked around swaying the chord which otherwise hangs the whistle from his neck. It was his favourite choice of weapon for misbehaving kids. All students were scared of it. I love sports. Some of my fondest memories of school involve playing with my friends during the games period. I was good at most of it. So, I had regular interaction with Mr. H and was in his good books. He was the one who taught me how to hold a table tennis bat and how to play Volleyball. We did not have great facilities in our school. But he made sure we got the best exposure by sending us to various events in the city.

I remember one particular incident which is still crystal clear in my head. It was just another day at school. We were in are classrooms getting ready for the morning prayer. For some unknown reason, I had a sudden urge to let everyone know that we had to stand up for morning prayer. Hence, I yelled, extremely loud, at top of my voice, to do so. I was just another teenager with raging hormones and mood swings, so don’t blame me. Apparently, it is not good to shout in classrooms. Thanks to my lucky stars, Mr. H was right outside our class. He slowly walked in and scanned the whole classroom. He demanded who did it. Dead silence. He demanded again. Still nothing. He waited for few minutes and gave an ultimatum – if by afternoon the culprit doesn’t come to me, no games period for this class for the whole year.

If he had sentenced us to death, we would have been happier. But no games period, that was crazy! I did not want to be the reason for my class’s misfortune. But I was scared of the consequences if I confessed. To tell or not to tell! After a lot of thought, I went to his room with teary eyes and pounding heart. With incoherent sentences, I blurted out that it was me. Mr. H looked at me with an expression of a blank wall. He nodded and asked me to go back to my classroom. With bated breath, I waited for the inevitable. He came in to the class and asked me to stand up. “This is it!” I thought. The idea of being humiliated in front of my classmates was heartbreaking. But the unexpected happened. He told that he was happy that I came to him on my own and confessed. He gave me a warning and let me go.

Cut to the present, I am a teacher. Exams are on full swing. And it is such a farce! To give a little background – I teach in a part of the world where examinations exist to make parents and government officials happy. How much a student scores in the exam is the only thing that matters. School wants to portray good performance by its students for their own needs which is self-centered. Hence there is no resistance when students cheat in their exams. Rather there is encouragement. And this makes students disinvested in learning because they are spoon-fed answers since the beginning. They know that listening to the teacher is a waste of time. Because they would pass exams one way or the other. End result – no learning. I am forced to turn a blind eye to all of this. But at what cost?

What can I do now? I am in an ethical dilemma. Doing the right thing means to go against everything and everyone. The marks that they get here does not have any value in the future. But as a teacher it is my responsibility to make them understand that it is not okay to cheat. I fear if it continues they would never learn to work towards a goal, fail in the process and try again. To be true to yourself. To do the right thing.

So here I am correcting papers. All papers look the same and have picture perfect answers. Answers every teacher would dream of. But not me. I am searching for places where I can reduce marks and rob them from their perfect scores. I think of the 13-year-old me walking up to Mr. H. I wonder what made him do it. Answers are hard to come by.

My Experiments with Teaching

I had a teacher in school who on her first day made us sit like robots. Back straight, hands crossed and perfectly still. Every time a student turned his/her head away from the black board, she used to give a warning shout which was so loud, I am pretty sure it created sonic booms which slapped on our faces as it passed by. As the year progressed we realized that she was not so bad. She was a lot of fun. We used to talk about a lot of things apart from studies and school. There was light banter and arguments too. At the end of the year we were sad when she decided to continue in another school.

I started out being a fun teacher. But I realized the students had more fun than me. My 4th grade classroom was in chaos most of the time. Spending a whole day in such a class can seriously damage your self-confidence. I realized much later that I had to be more firm, which was very difficult for me. I had to be someone who I am not. It is easier to start as a strict teacher and then try to be fun, but not the other way around. If I think about my school teacher now, I think she did an amazing job. She had set the expectations clearly from the word go. May be in a harsh way. But in the end, everything worked out for the best. You cannot compare two classes. But I feel my class needs someone like that – firm and who means business.

I have tried many things. But I felt what was missing was a consequence that the students really hate. Lately I started sending misbehaving students to another teacher’s class (who they listen to) where they have to complete the given work and then come back. This has drastically reduced some incidents like cartwheeling in classrooms or randomly getting up from the place and rubbing what I have written on the board. They are seated now. But still they are not learning. You can bring the horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink. They either sit doing nothing or start chatting with others. May be this is the right time for some rewards and recognitions. I have a love hate relationship with giving rewards to students. I had tried rewards earlier. But dancing on the desk in the middle of a lesson was more fun than any reward for them.

I teach 7th grade too. They give me a hard time sometimes. But they sit and listen if the lesson is interesting. The other day I was showing them the documentary Before the Flood. The moment they saw the effect of palm plantations on Indonesian forests, there was a collective gasp in the class. The gasp which made me so happy, which will keep ringing in my ears for a long time now. I showed them the film Gandhi. The silence in the classroom was deafening. I could hear the sound of my voice going through their ears, being embedded in their brains and their eyes lighting up. I felt like a magician while showing them the magnetic effects of electric current. Talking to a classroom full of students who listen you with unwavering attention, trying to make sense of what you are saying is one of the best feelings ever. To know that you have the answer to most of their questions, to know that you can teach them a new thing today, is something I call a teacher’s high. Happy thoughts about class are a rarity for me these days. But when it does occur I grab it with both arms.

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The silence before the storm 🙂 In dire need of a proper classroom!

Being a student and being a teacher

I loved school. Everything about it. Packing my bag with two neat columns of books and running to catch the bus are things that I fondly remember. I even skipped important family functions happening in my own house to attend school. Whenever I do miss a school day, there is this constant anxiety. I think of all the things I am going to miss. Oh, now the teacher might be doing the roll call and she has discovered I have not come! Now Math Class is going on and Ma’am might be teaching something new; I will have to compete the notes tomorrow. I wonder who win will today’s volleyball match. I think what my friend has brought for lunch.

And now I am a teacher. It has been about 6 months. And I am failing terribly. My class is in chaos most of the time. The job has tested my limits and uncovered my weaknesses. Every morning I think how my fourth graders are going to surprise me today. I dread who is going to disrupt the class in the most creative way. Apart from the class, I find it arduous to keep myself motivated. I need to keep reminding myself of the reason I am doing this, several times a day. I am surrounded by people who are doing good or great. Many kids from other classes are doing long division or showing great theatrical skills on stage. And here I am struggling to make them sit for few minutes and listen to me.  Sometimes I need to do a quick reality check to know if I exist as a physical entity with life or as an invisible ghost that my students cannot see or hear.

But then I feel, it is okay. If you are insecure, you are not in your comfort zone. It is critical for you to be in that state from time to time. It will help you grow.

What experiences make us who we are? I don’t remember most of the mundane days at school. May it is these days that has unknowingly shaped me. Or is it those few moments which you do remember? That image of my teacher smiling at me when I told a correct answer. Or that of my friend grinning from ear to ear for an unknown reason while having lunch. These small glimpses of the past have stuck in my head and I know not why. Or is it big moments – performing on stage, receiving a prize, a field trip that makes you – you. And certainly, it is not just the school that affects the child. Home, community play major roles too. So, now I wonder what experience have I provided for my students and what will they remember. Just keep the hopes alive, I tell myself.

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A rare picture of students sitting