Thoughts on Teacher’s Day: What I learnt from my students

BY INDU HARIKUMAR

When I think of my school teachers, I think most were real ‘halkats’ ,(colloquial for meanie; has more gravitas) to the point of scarring young minds. Comparing, telling children off, telling them how to bend to authority –these were common. As a mini person, what you said, thought and wanted didn’t matter because you had to mold to fit into the world. You were shown the way to get that job, learn English at the cost of never knowing to write in your mother tongue.

And if you brought any part of who you were to school, like a language or flowers in your hair, you’d be shamed. A remark would appear in your diary: “Please don’t put flowers in your child’s hair. This is a school.”

Any sort of anomaly would be questioned. My sister’s class teacher actually called my mother to find out if we had a father because we all have my mother’s name.(So I was Indu Lalitha  but at some point, I dropped my mother’s name and chose to go with my father’s.) Dissent would be shouted at, called out, made fun of, so that you find the holy route to the right marks, to learn what your text books teach, never question and be a cog in the wheel.

Despite the adults who ran school, I really enjoyed school. But most of my life, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, maybe I just didn’t want to fit in and yet wanted acceptance. I did many things: studied fashion, worked on the web, studied animation, got my bachelor’s degree, enrolled for my master’s, looked at schools abroad. And desperately  tried to fit in. Then one of my web jobs took me to Chandamama where I started drawing again and did a lot of craft. From there to a publishing house, as assistant editor – children’s books then to freelancing.

While freelancing, I signed up to volunteer with Mumbai Mobile Creches. I was to teach a class on a construction site. Mostly craft. We had no budget and very eager children. For the first class I picked up leaves, I was nervous, the children were very well behaved. Over the next few classes, I asked them what they wanted to do. Mostly because I was so clueless, some would say – “Didi, Aeroplane banate hein.” We’d go with popular choice, the materials were all picked up on walks.

Since, there was no agenda except to have fun, new ideas were always welcome. The children came from different parts of India and spoke various languages. Most  could not read but they would pick up  books, look at pictures and tell stories. One of the stories:

Ek Tote ko bhook lagi thi. Woh Udh kar ek mirchi ke pedh ki taraf gaya. hai, kitni saari mirchi! phir usne teekhi teekhi mirchi khayi. bahut saari mirchi khayee. phir jungli janwaar neeche aaye. unhone kaha humko bhi thoda mirchi do. tota bola, yeh mera hein, mein kyun doon. Janwaron ko gussa aaya. unhone Haathi ko bulaya. Haathi ne pedh ko jadh se ukhaad diya. Saari Mirchi neche aa gayee. Sab ko Mirchi mili aur Tota bhi Udh gaya.

(story of a parrot who ate too many chillies and got the whole animal kingdom into a tizzy)

Often the adult in me would want to intervene and correct the child. Slowly, I learned to let go of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and how tos, had to tell myself, the children will pick their own lessons, learn what they were ready to.

My next big teaching experience was in 2012 in a village school in Haryana. Around the time I was really depressed and we had  a new child in school. Six years old, a runaway. She’d walk with her head held high and do what she pleased with the confidence of knowing that she would get her own way.

She couldn’t be cajoled, she couldn’t be bribed, she couldn’t be threatened.

Once, fed up with trying to get her to listen, I asked her what she’d do if we punished her with no lunch. She looked me straight in the eye and announced, “I will eat mud.”

That look she gave me was the turning point. I was willing to bend so much in my personal life, beg and plead to get some love in return. But with that something started to change. 

To go back to her, when she learned the ABC, it would be “H for hen, I for ice cream,” and then with great seriousness, “J for Jai Prabhu”, no matter how much I tried showing her “J for Jug”. I could only laugh and accept and say, “Yes, J for Jai Prabhu.” 

Another very unique teaching experience was at the German school in New Delhi in 2013 – 14. We were culturally so different, we didn’t speak a common language and I didn’t know the dynamics which made me a little nervous. It took us a few classes  to warm up. I often paid extra attention to see what was happening, to find out if any one was being mean. And my questions were very direct, often I would ask, “Is someone being mean to you?” In no time, someone would come sobbing, telling their part of the story, looking for comfort. And soon the next person  would complain saying, “I was being partial” and start crying.

I would look forward to Wednesdays when I took class. It was relaxing, engaging and very entertaining. We read stories, made drawings, celebrated festivals, they told me about their travels and would be sure I could recreate their vacations on paper.

For Christmas, I took colored handmade pendants for the children. I anticipated them fighting and complaining saying – Oh you gave the best one to her. And to avoid such a situation, I told them – “Look, I have something for you, I don’t know who is going to get which color but I can only give you these if you agree not to fight.” They’d usually keep their promises.

On my last day of class there, the youngest boy who’d keep making rockets, gave a me a book of his drawings. He said, “Mrs Indue, do you know why I like you?” I said I didn’t. “Because you never ask me sit down all the time, you let me run, I like that.” I just smiled, I didn’t how to get him to stop so I never tried.

This year, I haven’t worked with children much but it is something I love going back to. Working with children has taught me that if you don’t ask, you will never receive. 

It taught me a way to distance myself from the negativity of social media.

It taught me to step out of the moulds that we use to define ourselves with – things we like and dislike, what’s wrong and right, dirty, clean, beautiful.

It taught me that it is possible for someone to spend the whole day giggling and saying nothing but “poop poop POOP poop” over and over and over. It taught me that a tight hug and encouraging word  can change many things. 

The art of the matter the language of childhood

About the author: 

Indu Harikumar is an Indian children’s writer, illustrator and art teacher. She likes to turn everyday things into objects of art. She’s recently done a colouring book for adults – Beauty needs space https://www.facebook.com/Induviduality

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On phonics, bullying, art and why Neil Gaiman always has the answers

Scene 1:

The other day, I was at the library with Re and I saw another mother and child, sitting beside each other. Libraries always make me think of this piece by Neil Gaiman and smile. So here, a mother was reading to her child. Correction: Child was reading and mother was facilitating. Correction: Child was trying to read and mother was interrupting him every second with, “Tell the sound of the word!”

Normally I have a warm, fuzzy feeling about libraries. Especially children’s libraries, like MCubed, which we are members of.The feeling gets even warmer and fuzzier when parents and children are reading together.

But I am intrigued and confused by phonics for kids. Ever since Re came home and said sh- am- poo one day. A word he surely knew before, but now was saying it in a weird way, I thought. How can breaking something that is whole help in making it a new whole?

Something happened between my childhood and Re’s childhood. Phonics happened. What was this strange way kids were learning these days, I wondered. I looked at his books for the first time. I felt dizzy. I called Maria. She said, “Stay out of it. You will thank me one day.”

I took her advice. She is one of those people I always listen to. No questions asked.

These days, Re and I are best friends. I never ask him about homework or school work or sounds of words. But we talk about everything and discover new words every day. I am just the cool mom who takes him swimming and to the library every week.  Sometimes we go on rainbow hunts and make cards for people and post them.

I am a new kind of hands-on and I love it.

Scene 2:

Re came home with a note one day. It said he had been chosen for an inter-school art competition. I jumped so high, I almost hit the fan. I immediately got on to the Whataspp mommy group that I had muted (for a year) and shared the news. Who else is in, I asked, excited, plotting future art play dates with artsy mommies.

Stunned silence. No reply. I rebooted my phone. Still no reply.

When I checked for the third time, the other conscientious mommies on the group were busy discussing Olympiad and Hindi homework and other such ‘more important’ stuff.

I felt like a badass who was excited about art. I suddenly felt like a bit of an activist about art being considered a ‘co-curricular’ activity and vented on social media.

Many moms and dads jumped in saying, “Of course they do art in school; they also do plays and sing songs and what not. What are you saying?” A mother of a toddler informed me it is part of ICSE. (No less, mind you)

They obviously hadn’t heard me screaming, “But why is it called co-curricular?” And yes, I know that bit about art being the choice for sixth subject in class nine, because I taught in a school. It still doesn’t say much about the state of our curricula.

It’s very hard to make parents think about why they do what they do. So I give up, and celebrate the child and his art and we draw ten more ‘wainbows’

Scene 3:

Re tells me about being hit regularly by a boy in his class. This is not new. It is not the first time he has been hit/bullied and I am a bit depressed and sad.  I tell him to say he doesn’t like it the next time it happens or inform the teacher. What else is one to do, I wonder. Hitting back has never been an option for Re and I don’t want to be the one to suggest it. 

I peep once again into the (still muted) Whatsapp mommy group conversations so see if I can pick up a thread from there. Perhaps they are also discussing behaviour and other issues? No. They are busy sending cheesy Raksha Bandhan forwards or discussing lost and found Math books. And more homework. I run. 

Scene 4:

Re tells me once again about being hit by the same boy and now my maternal instinct takes over strongly. I track down the mother of the boy who starts out being all understanding although intrigued by my concern, because “no one has ever complained about Y before”. I mumble something about how there is always a first time which doesn’t make sense even to me. A few minutes later, she texts to say her son has denied doing any such thing. I then do the unmentionable of saying perhaps he is not speaking the truth because he has been cornered. All hell breaks loose. She then sends me a long list of things I am doing wrong (thankfully encouraging my child to make art is not one of them). I shudder. I write a note to the teacher asking her to change Re’s place of seating, and she obliges. I have learned the art of “this will do for now.” Re teaches me how to make dresses from playdoh. 

make good art

Art is the answer

Scene 5:

My first PTM meeting at Re’s big school and I don’t have a list of question or concerns as I wait my turn and overhear another mother going over the progress of her daughter subject by subject and thinking about how little I know about what he is ‘learning’ in school. Then I think about the art we made and the laps we swam and the books we read and castles and rainbows we drew and feel better.

When my turn comes, I quickly rush through the interaction, while mentioning concerns of the alleged bullying. The teacher explains that Re is an extremely ‘well-behaved” child and the other child is a very “vibrant and expressive” child and so there is a clash of personalities.

It makes sense to me for 30 seconds and then I wonder. Is a well-behaved child really a cause for concern? When did it start being the exception and not the norm? And when did ‘vibrant’ become a euphemism for ‘aggressive’?

I don’t seek answers to these questions. Instead I quickly ask for directions to the art room so I can meet the art teacher.

As Neil Gaiman would say, when everything fails, Make Good Art.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 31st August, 2015)