New girl on the block

Thousands of feet tapping to guided movement, discipline chants in teacher voices, involuntary chuckles and unstoppable laughter breaking through hushed jokes, random tunes playing on little tape recorders and trendy walk-men (yes that’s what they were called! Who knew we were soon to have walk phones transforming our world?) and the continuous chatter, all of it made for a rather mysterious cacophony in the sunny school corridors.

Yet, we were expected to magically listen to detailed nuances of music notations and synchronise taught steps to those. Yes we did. Perhaps all generations of children often manage the unthinkable during school days. The scorching hot wind gushing through our veins in the july summer afternoon only made for a comforting breeze cooling off the sweat. There were no fans in the corridors.

There was a lot more to be heard amidst the cacophony though. The tones of excitement and many muted disappointments. The latter were mostly ignored. Who had time to deal with the sulking souls amidst preparations for the annual concert? They were left to sort themselves out… Some could and learnt useful life lessons in the process. Some could not.

Well, the schools hardly ever seemed to have time for these. The schedule always seemed too tight and a bit too matter-of-fact to accommodate the emotional vagaries of the human mind. Each time my father got a new posting, I found myself amidst strangers in an unknown territory. I found myself in an unfamiliar city, in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar neighbourhood, an unfamiliar school trying to find my way in the hearts of strange unwelcoming classmates and unreachable teachers. Education somewhere meant trying to eek out the unknown from the unknown and making sense out of it. Now that’s quite a definition. Isn’t it? It was my constant rigorous training into the art of fitting in, the art of finding my tribe, perhaps finally belonging.

Amidst concert rehearsals in this school corridor cacophony, I heard an unfamiliar teacher voice say, “Hey there, Vaishali, that girl is out of sync. I don’t think she can dance. Tell her to leave the show.” They were both staring at me. So they were talking about me. Oh no!

Two things were clarified in that moment. First, Vaishali was the invincible favourite student and the de facto director of the show. Second, I was being thrown out on the first day of rehearsals. They all thought I was incapable. Was I? But, I loved dancing. Didn’t I? They had always appreciated my performances at the previous school! Didn’t they? I needed to begin again. I had to find my place here.

This was my epiphany. Dance was my calling. I pestered my mother to make me join classical training in Bharatnatyam outside School. I envied Vaishali’s special place with the teachers. I had to be better than her. There is a raw hunger in comparison with others. I think I was guilty of it in those initial months at the dance school. My feet tapped on and my body swirled effortlessly filled with an unquenchable passion to be called better than Vaishali. My riaz went on for hours on end fed by that raw passion.

The passion bore fruit just two months later when the same teacher told Vaishali to let me take the centre stage instead of her. “There is such grace in your movements. Are you learning classical dance?” This time Vaishali heard the teacher say it to me! I had managed to find my place. Perhaps my gain was Vaishali’s loss. It hits me with guilt today, but back then I was too immersed in the new-found glory to comprehend it. For 10 year old girls, this was much more complicated. I needed friends. She had snubbed me earlier. She was the leader of the tribe and clearly it had a guarded territory. Once again, I extended my friendship and this time she finally accepted it. I suddenly had an upper hand! We went in to do various stage performances together thereafter and her friendship was a blessing.

Comparison with others may make for a beginning. It’s a fleeting passion at best. Continuous unbridled meditative effort, the real riaz, as we call it in our classical art forms, makes for excellence. What followed was incessant comparison with myself and sheer love for the art form. Bharatnatyam is an inseparable instinct of my being. It flows through the rhythms of living and growing. It manifests itself in my body’s expressions, my mind’s discipline, my powerful emotions, my resilience…

Teachers’ statements and decisions rule our lives in multilateral ways. Perhaps Mrs. Rosalind, our dance teacher in school, who always had a beautiful red rose bud sticking out of the tight bun on her nape, never realised her contribution to my classical training or my sense of belongingness in the school.


Travelogue School

The kids were all over the place, running amok in glee. Well, that’s what was apparent to fellow travellers staring at us, askance expressions on their faces! We teachers, smiled back at them, beaming with our all-knowing demeanours. We knew the method to the madness. We had created it. To us the madness indicated the levels of engagement, the depth of learning.

This was in Amber Fort, Jaipur. More than 100 primary and middle school students were working in explorer groups to unravel the secrets of history, geography, mathematics, architecture and politics ensconced in this epoch of a building. They had half an hour to run around, find information, places, justifications, rationales and possibilities to answer the set of thinking questions assigned to each group. Each little discovery was a little victory of team work. Within their teams, they distributed areas of work, defined timelines, planned circle-back discussions and brainstormed conclusions based on analyses of evidence collected. Can learning be better achieved in a 30 minute lesson?

And yet, all that is but a trickle in the stream of true learning that naturally gets integrated with travelling. The planning of a journey, backpacking for survival in unknown territory, often with unfamiliar companions, dealing with an array of deranged deep emotions, exploring, navigating, improvising to make it all work out better… it’s a simulation of life, a simulation of growing up and becoming. Each journey is a piece in the Bildungsroman.

To the educator, travelling with children is an opportunity to create a multi-level and thoroughly inclusive classroom. Toto Chan’s classrooms made out of converted railway coaches metaphorically capture the essence. The child’s eyes, wistfully peering out of the classroom window, stand for the innate desire to break the shingles and learn from the world out there. Birds frolicking to create their nest in the tree trunk outside the class window, are bound to be more interesting than black and white boards filled with semantic symbols. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre too looks at the horizon from the castle’s daunting walls. Freedom lures and yet we have our innate fears of freedom to tackle as well! Human existence is quite a paradox. Yet, for better or worse, we are changing, evolving from Man to Superman, or should I say Superhuman (to satisfy my gender-sensitive self).

If I had my way as a teacher, schools would be a series of journeys, curriculum a travelogue…planned like lessons, but not to the ‘t’, leaving room for unpredictability, students’ ideas, creativity, inquiry. Virtual reality is making some things come alive but it’s still far from my dream Travelogue School. Nevertheless, some of my most memorable experiences as a teacher have been journeys with children. From learning King Fu at the Shaolin temple in China, wielding the veils with my skimpily clad girls (by some cultural standards) at the Grand mosque in Dubai, making castles on the beach to excavating deserts and brazing the heights of Himalayan ranges, these journeys have charted my life as a teacher. Perhaps, more apt terminology would be a learner, an explorer. Observing my spirited young globe trotters navigating their way through cultures, cuisines, arts, history and languages of human civilisations in varied geographies, I have often admired the merging of dissimilarities, the acceptance of the ‘Other’, an effortless sensitivity to global concerns emerging naturally. This is global citizenship moving beyond the here and now, to much larger paradigms.

Perhaps nothing motivates a teacher more than the joyous sense of achievement on a child’s face, the unadulterated hunger for knowledge, the right questions… It’s our manna in the incessant journey of learning. The destination is for our students to reach. We take pride in them when they do, but our bliss is in the quest itself.


‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’

On a usual July summer morning, flushed faces soaked in sweat and generous sunshine moved about their business like honey bees. Wielding colourful pictures and print material, little hands worked dextrously to design classroom soft boards. One small box of board pins, one large card sheet and two pairs of scissors were being shared between 50 girls. We had 20 minutes to complete the task. If video-tapped, it could have been used as an excellent example of seamless teamwork. I think every teacher has known the unbridled vibrance, the sheer energy, the collaborative enthusiasm of primary school children.

This victory was crucial. A large chunk of our house points depended on it. We were a wild focused army of Gorkhas fighting for a cause… the first cause known to our innocent human existence in Grade 4. We could have given our lives for those Red, Blue, Green and Yellow houses. Mocking slogans mercilessly filled the school air. ‘Yellow yellows, the dirty fellows’ , ‘Blue blues, mend your shoes’… Yes, I was in the Blue house. (Perhaps, that explains my pure love for Indigo to this day.)

The theme assigned by our class teacher was, ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.’ We had collected relevant materials for the soft boards with much ado. In those days bereft of the World Wide Web, it meant rummaging for ideas and meanings in the school library, sifting through piles of old magazines and newspapers, coaxing parents and neighbours and whoever you will into answering endless questions… One week of preparation and here we were. Books had convinced me and my fellow house mates that physical beauty was just one superficial aspect and the idiom meant that beauty could go beyond skin deep, that beauty was subjective, that the beholder’s perspective made all the difference.

Phew! it’s done, dot on the clock. Time to stand back and marvel at our creation, our very own rather wistful representation of beauty. We were proud of it and smirked at the other soft boards that were filled with pictures of models representing the standard conformist definition of beauty. Quite evidently, we were the unrivalled winners!

Nope. Our teacher did not think so! She was expecting good-looking boards and the models from latest advertisements of beauty products did it for her. A debate ensued, as a bunch of little girls suddenly turned into unstoppable crusaders of the feminist brigade. We certainly had a good library! Mrs. Srivastava perhaps cursed the moment she had chosen this theme and ended the discussion with a curt, ‘-5 to Blue house for questioning my decision. Yellow house has put the heading very clearly in bold letters. They are the winners and get 20 house points.’

Disappointment. Yes, and injustice. It was a regular feature of school days and contributed to many lifelong lessons…

The Score card lies in the hands of the teacher. I learnt it that day. For every assignment thereafter, I asked as many questions as I was allowed. I had to gauge the teacher’s understanding and expectations from the task assigned. I gave them what they wanted. I learnt and read what I wanted and thus loved leisure reading and hated school work.

That’s exactly how the subverted class develops intuitive abilities. I read this theory years later in a book about the psychology of women.

Photo Credits- VA. Theme- against the tide.


Newton’s Third Law of Motion..

Mrs. Subramaniam, our rather boring History teacher, rambled on… her sing-song voice devoid of emotion filled the air with sleep molecules. The resultant yawning faces struggled to stifle the forbidden yawn. She was reading to us from the text book and we had to ‘Pay attention in Pindrop silence.’ Offending her meant standard 10 minutes of humiliation and two giant hands knocking your cheeks apart in two head-splitting thunderous thuds.

Looking sleepy was potentially dangerous. We had mastered the art of looking busy taking notes while she read on. There was nothing to note though, so we busied ourselves with the infinite Mathematics or Science homework, hidden half-baked under the History text book. My two buddies, Shivani Saxena and Anjan Roy, our class toppers since times immemorial, were busy completing Physics. Wow, Mrs. Subramaniam could make even convoluted Physics look interesting by inverse proportions.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I whispered, reading from Anjan’s textbook. “What does that mean? If I hit you, you’ll hit me back, right?” I asked looking unbearably serious.

“No” retorted Shivani, “It means Mrs. Subramaniam will hit him back!” Irresistible smiles breaking through our innocent demeanours. Who hasn’t known the guilty pleasure of seeing a friend in trouble with a teacher? Childhood is cruelly innocent. “Arre tum log chup raho!” Anjan sensed trouble. There we go. “Anjan Roy!” we heard our teacher’s ear-piercing tone and poor Anjan was summoned to her desk for the standard humiliation routine.

Sorry buddy, I never wanted to see you go through that. More than 25 years now, but the guilt still hasn’t stopped gnawing at me.

Did our teachers draw some guilty pleasure out of this discipline formula? In these scenarios, Newton’s third law failed us quite evidently! The giant hand or the narrow end of the wooden ruler hit you hard on your cheeks, knuckles or shins but you had to react with sheer silence. Earth-shattering pindrop silence, heart-wrenching pindrop silence, blood-curdling pindrop silence…

Explanations were demanded and demanded in a variety of tones while the sing-song teacher’s voice transformed into a bag of dramatic raging emotions. The fervently demanded explanations were certainly not to be given though. They were demanded and not called for simultaneously. Explain that one to us please Newton.

Responding, in fact had magnanimous implicit connotations. From disrespecting the teacher to not being attentive in class to being careless to being immoral… actually explaining could mean anything. Silence was the only safe response, even as one was chided to speak up through the beating retreat.

Newton’s law succeeded nevertheless. We still loved the teachers and they loved us back. We fondly remember and laugh at those memories now. School meant life’s grey lessons in so many ways. The secret of golden silence, the simplicity of acceptance, the transience of difficult moments and pain all mixed into the laws of motion and theories of relativity.


Bugs in my Pen

Ink spots decorating white uniform shirts and some nimble fingers, smeared in blue, drawing caricatures on notebook pages and mindlessly playing tic tac toe…

Yes, school days bring back blue. Blue ink, blue skirt, blue jacket, blue sweater, blue tie, blue house, blue sky, blue water and beautiful indigo blue saris of my favourite teacher, Mrs. Banerjee. Oh and how can I forget what she lovingly called the blue bugs in my pen.

“Are there some blue bugs in your pen? I mean what crawls around and smothers the sheet each time you write? I always admire your imagination, interesting ideas but what’s with your hand-writing girl? So much cutting, so many scribblings, it’s such a mess to read!” She would say, peering anxiously at my rather unkempt notebook while I helplessly witnessed the red blood-curdling bugs in her pen crawl and scratch all over it. The red and blue now looked completely messed up like a super hero!

The spider touch of her pen turned my notebook into a super hero! Trying to make sense of her corrective notes I would be lost in dreams. Red and blue Spider man making my wild spirit fly out of the classroom into the freak universe of imagination. These journeys of the mind’s eye had vivid tales weaved into them, featuring an elaborate range of characters. Tom and Jerry, Super Man, Napoleon, Nancy Drew, Ashoka the Great, Akbar the Great, Sherlock Holmes, Hitler and Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy all came together scheming their way into convoluted plot structures. Some gali cricket featured too. The anorexic doll of our times, Barbie, usually played the vamp! I so thoroughly disliked her. Her bubble bath set featured definitely. It was one toy I had always pined for as a little girl.

The dramatic climax was often cut short by some teacher’s shrill voice, nudging me back into the classroom. “Put away your English work Amrita. It’s the Mathematics period.”

Well, Mrs. Banerjee was responsible for most of those characters and plots. She made them come alive in the History and English lessons. She taught me how to browse through library books making me fall in love with that space. She taught me the habit of sleeping with books and a dictionary under my pillow. I still do.

The red and blue pages always had a valuable remark at the end. Sometimes it would tell me to begin each line exactly below the previous one. Sometimes it would tell me to use ‘their’ and ‘there’ correctly. Sometimes it would tell me to frame the letters ‘b’ and ‘f’ more legibly. Sometimes she would point to the overwhelming use of conjunctions and so on. ‘Avoid those giants of letters. Let me see the Lilliputians in your notebook,’ said one of her remarks. Perhaps even Jonathan Swift couldn’t have imagined Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels as custodians of hand-writing!

The red and blue notebook super heroes created by my favourite teacher gave me a legible hand-writing, my love for reading, and also the bugs infested in my pen. I could barely ever use organisation ideas for my writing pieces though she tried very hard. I still mostly can’t. My pen seems to be on a trip of its own. I can sense the bugs as they take over each time I write…

One of the writing assignments Mrs. Banerjee gave us was to write a story ending with ‘…and the last I saw her was a hand waving out of the carriage window.’