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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Next time you push your children, push yourself a little bit too

So this is going to hurt a little. But often, I find that the most problematic thing about teaching children is their parents.

They come in all shades. The over-protective parent. The helicopter parent. The pushy parent. The lazy but ambitious parent. They may request special attention, feel their children need to be challenged more, give teachers pointers on their teaching, make excuses for their children not completing their assignments, advise house parents on communication skills, want their children to be more competitive, expect school staff to respond to e-mails within the hour, the list goes on.

It’s as though parents send their kids to alternate schools for the right reasons, and then start expecting the wrong things. They think about success. They think in comparisons. They think about milestones, achievements and shiny trophies. It’s like they have already scripted their children’s lives and whatever the child says or feels is irrelevant. Needless to say, children are confused.

I meet them every weekend. I can smell them from a distance.

“Can you give me a list of phrases he can use so his language can become better?” asks one mother. The father is busy looking at the sky, as if to say, “I don’t know how I got here.”

“I am still looking for those,” I say. “Besides, it’s not Math. There is no formula to good writing.”

“But his spellings are so bad! I read his emails and he makes so many mistakes.” She seems flustered by now. She turns to the father.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as he is still writing you long emails and telling you what he feels,” I reply.

They stare at me. “An English teacher who doesn’t care about spellings! That’s weird,” they seem to be thinking.

Another one asks, “So how’s K doing?”

“He’s having fun,” I say. Another stare.

“Give him more work. Tell him what to read. Make him read,” she tells me.

I often wonder, would you tell a doctor or a chef how to do her job? Then why does it become okay to tell teachers?

A third says, “She doesn’t read!  During the holidays, she watches TV all the time or is on Facebook!

“Oh! What do you read?” I ask him.

“Me?”

“Yes. Do you read?”

“Well, I want to, but I hardly get the time with my work,” he says. He seems offended. I have my answer though.

It goes on.

“How’s H doing?”, asks his father.

“I think he has really opened up, and is writing without inhibitions these days. He used to shy from putting words on paper, so this is big,” I say, beaming.

“But his grammar is bad, no?”

When I moved to be an English teacher at a residential school, I came to a bunch of students, even the best of who didn’t know the difference between its and it’s and to whom, books were either fiction or non-fiction.

I could choose to do one of two things: tell them all that was wrong with them, their spellings, their punctuation, their grammar, their sentence construction. Or I could teach them to find their voice, to write without inhibitions, to express their thoughts without the fear of making mistakes.

I chose the latter. I chose well. There was a time when a paragraph would make them groan. Now I give them 500 words and they go, “What? That’s it?”

Here’s the thing. We read words visually. If a child has put a word out there, he/she knows what it means and how to use it. If children are corrected or reprimanded each time they use a wrong spelling, they may fall out of love with words very soon.

To every parent that is constantly dissatisfied with their child, I want to ask this: When was the last time you tried something that scared you? When was the last time you taught yourself how to make a Dragon’s Egg? When did you last read a genre that intimidated you? When did you last tell yourself, ‘I am not very good at X or Y, so let me take an online course.’? When did you last do something knowing fully well that you would get it wrong?

So take some risks. Break some barriers. And don’t tell your children what to do. The best thing you can do for your child is to set them free. Allow them some control over their lives. Ask them what classes they want to take. Give them the opportunity to make some decisions and watch them smile in return.

And above all, listen. Listen when your children speak. When kids feel like their parents truly listen to them (about spotting a nightjar near the art room to the 100 metre race they almost won), they feel more connected. This increases their self-confidence and increases their overall happiness. They are more likely to take healthy risks. They are confident and secure in their decisions. They learn that sometimes people make mistakes, but there is always a chance to right a wrong.

I know that in the age of social media, conversations are old fashioned. But have them. They will last longer than your smartphone.

 (This first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 2nd February, 2015. If you have something to share, mail me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

English Vinglish

 In a recent turn of events, I traded an over-cluttered life in Bombay for a school on a hill to teach English to grade seven and eight students. I was as untrained as they come, but I knew one thing. I had always been thrilled about words coming alive on paper. I figured teaching would involve spreading a bit of that disease.

On day one, in an attempt to “know my audience”, I asked the students to share their favourite word and say why they liked it. They quickly came up with words like music, joy, peace, love, happy and others. My heart sank. It felt frugal. This is not going to be fun, I thought. Was this what they meant by the economy of language, I wondered.

Then I told them I was making word soup and needed something chunkier – words with more gravitas, more texture, more back-stories. I sent them off shopping for words and asked them to come back the next day with words that would make for a hearty word soup.

The results were delectable. On day two, we had words like askew, malevolent, punctilious, extol, prevaricate, misanthrope, apoplectic, inexorable, formidable, recalcitrant and more. My initial fears of dealing with an auto-correct, tweet-ready generation were soon dispelled.

On day five, they were using formidable in a sentence. A month later, they are itching to use inexorable.

A recent Wall Street journal article blames technology largely for the fade out of big words. The article points out that we are being conditioned to communicate faster and in shorter bursts. There isn’t room for big words in a text or a tweet or even a quickly dashed-off email. We’re communicating across so many different channels that, by sheer necessity, our language is becoming abbreviated.

I wonder if this frugality with words makes us frugal in other places too. In our senses, our feelings, the way we live and love. Words are to make friends with. When we have enough words, we have company. Words are a way of making a little seem like a lot. If we always take the easy way out, big words will never find the love they deserve. As long as we shield ourselves from big words, we will never make the next move on them. All they need is a little bit of demystifying and they are reduced to their smaller, less intimidating forms, the familiar, the known.

Parenting is a big word too. I still don’t know what it means. But when you get it right, it’s like using a nice word in a sentence. You can go into tricky areas, follow your heart, take the road less travelled. Or you can play safe, live by the book and do what everyone does and no one will really know the difference. Except you.

My dad used to constantly quiz me on spellings when I was little. The words had nothing to do with what I was learning in school, but it was always a thrill when I got them right. “Spell exorbitant,” he would say. Or entrepreneur. Itinerary. Years after I chose writing as a career, he continued to throw word challenges at me. He still does.

My son Re, who just turned five, has graduated from his hippopotis-rhinopotis days to use words like emergency, disaster, soggy, ridiculous, permission, impossible and incorrigible with nonchalance. I miss his babble and the growing up bit hurt a little, but I love the fact that soon, I will be able to share chunkier, more delicious words with him.

Last week, we returned home to find that our cat Bravo had yet again wandered off into the wilderness while we were at school. Re knows his hideouts, and I asked him to look for Bravo.

Bravo is your responsibility. You have to ensure he is safe all the time,” I said.

Whatity mamma?”

I mean job,” I replied, quickly realising that it was a mouthful.

No, what did you say?” I could sense he was hungry for the word.

RESPONSIBILITY.”

Oh. REPONSIBITY!” he said, tasting, savoring a new word.

I know he’ll get there sooner than I imagine. We are just richer by another word. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 21st July 2014)

Dear Amma. Happy Teacher’s Day!

For me teacher’s day is as much about teachers as it is about my mother. My mother was a teacher for 38 years. She loved her job and never tired of narrating anecdotes from her class or school to us on a daily basis. Two open heart surgeries later, she is still the most enthu cutlet I have ever known, and her stories never end.

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At 4 feet 10 inches, she could barely scale half the black board, yet she stood tall, and commanded pin-drop silence (a much abused term in our school days)

She treated all her students equally and never played favorites, unlike other teachers I knew who only favored the ‘bright ones’. Her heart was always where the underdog was, and I still remember one instance towards the close of her career when I returned from work and she wanted my advice on something.

They had a fancy dress competition that day, and the boy who won (by popular votes) had performed an elaborate KBC gig. But she felt there was another boy who did a Kader Khan as beggar gig and he was outstanding, yet didn’t even make it to runner-up. She felt it was her duty, as a teacher, to celebrate him. “Should I give him a prize on my own anyway?,” she wondered. “But then that wouldn’t look good, as it would seem I am not supportive of the school’s judgement,” she answered herself. When Amma asked questions, you never supplied answers. She knew them, but she just had to say them aloud, so they sounded right. I learned this about her pretty soon. I am like that too.

So she decided to celebrate him the next day. She asked him to stand in front of the class and asked the class to clap for him as he had given a really good performance, and so what if he didn’t win a prize? The boy surprised her by saying, “I never did it for the prize teacher, I did it because I like to do it.”

She cried a little that night when she told us about this boy. She was so proud of him.  Sometimes we were even jealous of how much she cared for her students.

The first time she was diagnosed with a heart complication (her mitral valve had degenerated to 80% and she needed immediate surgery), the cardiologist who performed her Color Doppler (a scan) turned out to be her student. He was so moved, that he was getting to treat his own teacher. She was so proud that someone she taught was now treating her. She told him she was okay with the surgery as long as she didn’t have to wear a silly hospital gown.  They laughed. I cried.

I once found my “Black Beauty” copy missing when I was in class four and when probed, she told me she had gifted it to one of her students. “She writes so well. She wrote a poem about a horse that was beautiful. I know the school doesn’t award prizes for poetry, but I thought she would really appreciate a book about a brave horse.”

But like most of the great teachers in the world, she never stopped being a student. My mother learned to make the most elegant, free-of-lumps sabudana khichdi from her student Prasanna. She also learned to bake her trademark sponge cake from him. She learnt to make torans with beads from another student. That year, enough torans were made for the entire family.

She was gregarious and easy-going, but when she meant business, everyone knew. Once she couldn’t find the duster in the classroom and wanted to erase what was written on the board. She sounded off the entire class, telling them how they ought to be responsible not just for their own things, but the space around them, and treat the classroom as their own and look after it. The entire class heard her in silence. They had seen the duster in her hand, underneath the book she was holding. One girl piped up and muttered softly, “But teacher, the duster is in your hand”.  She laughed a lot that day.

A few years back, to ease her into retired life, I got her into writing. She would write for HT Café,  a paper I used to work for, and I often had dry days when there were pages to fill and not enough content. I began to give her assignments. She was thrilled that someone would actually read what she wrote.  She would eagerly wait for the next assignment, and one day, they dried up, as the paper cut down pages drastically.

Every time Re returns from my mother’s house, he has learnt a new mantra, or how to clean methi or how to string flowers into a garland. She in turn is learning about the adventures of Maya the Bee and Winnie the Pooh from him, things that were never part of her childhood. And I watch fondly as teacher and student trade places with such ease.

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