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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Notes from a teacher to a child

The hardest thing about parenting is deciding at what age a child stops being a child. Perhaps children too are always under pressure to “grow up” or “act their age”. Yes, there are reams written about milestones and what a child should know by the time he/she is three, five, ten and twelve. I still get emails on baby milestones from websites years after I stopped reading them. But for lack of a better term, here is a list of what I think every child or student should know:

1. If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t right. Your instincts are more valuable than you think. Grown-ups may look like they have thought things through, but they are mostly relying on instinct.

2. Coloring within the lines is overrated. It is usually the beginning of boundaries. It is usually a trap for other things. Looking like everyone else, talking like everyone else, also thinking like everyone else. Soon they will say, “You can’t do this” or “you can’t do that”. Soon they will say, “you are this” or “you are that”.

3. They may tell you that the sky is the limit, but they may still frown if you paint it purple. The fact is, the sky is whatever color you want it to be. There is enough of blue in our lives anyway. Go paint it orange!

4. Adults can control how you speak or what you wear or what you eat or read, but they cannot control who you are.

5. Books are not fiction, non-fiction, thrillers, fantasies or mysteries. They are things that let you inhabit a world and stay there as long as you want. Don’t label books, let them mark you.

6. There is something about you that is uniquely different from anyone else in this world. Keep it. Cherish it. Learn to love it. And don’t let go of it easily.

7. Happy is not a default state to be. Feeling sad, angry, lonely, jealous is as natural as feeling happy, elated, generous or chirpy. Although people will seldom ask you why you are happy, they will always ask you why you are sad.

8. It’s okay not to have an opinion when everyone else seems to have one. It just means you are still making up your mind on it. Take your time.

9. The teacher is as intrigued by the quiet ones as by the talkative ones. So may be it’s a good idea to conserve your energy sometimes.

10. Adults are people who have been in the universe longer than you. It doesn’t necessarily mean they know more. They are still fumbling around with many things, but they won’t tell you.

11. It is important to laugh, or act silly sometimes.

12. It is totally okay to not love numbers.

13. Or poetry.

14. If you were read to as a child, you probably are luckier than most people in this world.

15. Every time you ask a question an adult laughs at, they probably haven’t had the guts to ask it themselves. Or perhaps they have been caught off guard and never really thought of it and don’t know the answer. Or it perhaps takes them to places they don’t want to go to.

16. The world is a magical, amazing place and there are a lot of secrets you will uncover. Some will make you happy, others will make you sad or angry, but you will always be happier when you find this out on your own.

17. Very often, the things you think you love will not be the things you love when you are 18. That’s what growing up is all about. Finding new things to love.

18. More often, the things your parents think are good for you may not be the things you like. But you don’t have to dislike them just because they came up with the idea.

19. It’s seldom an either/or. Sometimes there is more than one answer to a question. That is how it’s going to be in life.

20. Zero has gravitas. Wear your zeroes proudly. But help them take you someplace you like to belong.

21. You are more powerful than you know.

22. You are going to create more long term memories in people than you possibly imagine.

23. There will always be someone who doesn’t understand your point of view. There will always be someone who does.

24. There will be times when your questions will remain unanswered. That doesn’t mean you stop asking questions.

25. Sometimes, you may touch someone’s life, but they may forget to tell you. But it still happened.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 8th September 2014)

 

Open letter to my three-year-old

 Dear Re

Unlike last year when your vocabulary was still on the verge and I had to fill in the details, I thought I’ll beat you to it this time and write you a letter on your birthday before you slip one under my pillow (yes, the number of times you have borrowed my pen has made me increasingly suspicious). It’s just that I have so much to say, and get so little opportunity to talk these days, what with you being in love with the sound of your own voice. So here goes, in no particular order:

  1. I know you are on a testosterone overdrive, now that you are a raging three year-old  boy and it is evident now that we are on opposite ends of the chromosome chain, but it will be nice if you tone it down sometimes. I am a lady, you see.
  2. I do enjoy it when you go to school, and I love that you are on the school bus now and I don’t have to meet all those psycho mommies at your school gate who are either whining about their kids not eating, or that they missed their gym class or that their nanny ran away with the watchman. You going away makes me want you to come back even more, so that’s kinda nice.
  3. I can multi-task bloody well. You won’t get what that means, since you just missed being a Gemini.  But I can be listening to you, typing on my computer and answering a phone call at the same time. It is not sacrosanct to make eye contact every time.
  4. When you tell me to read you a story, I GET TO READ THE STORY, OKAY? OKAY? I am tired of pretending to read to you and be actually read to. I know you can make up stories, but what do we do with all the books we have?
  5. The cats were here before you came in. They know that I am the boss. Don’t mess things up for me by taking up for them every single time, okay? OKAY?
  6. I know your daddy can lavish you with technology. But I am the only one who can give you time, so, some consideration, please.
  7. I think I have had enough of being nice mommy and I think it’s time for me to show my badass side. So whenever you are on a testosterone overdrive, out she comes.
  8. If someone ever asks you why you wear your hair long, please feel free to toss your curls around like they do in those shampoo ads and say, “Because I’m worth it!”
  9. I know that sometime last year, you developed an aversion to baths, but you have no choice in the matter. You need to bathe every single day, sometimes twice. If that’s not cool, well, so be it. Also brush your teeth. That’s the way it’s going to be, until you find a woman who is okay with you not doing it.
  10.  Whenever you are faking a tantrum, I can tell. I wasn’t born yesterday.
  11. Don’t play back my strategy to me. I needn’t be asked to take big bites if I have to watch TV. The rule was invented for you.
  12. I am happy to note that you are not one of those boys who points at things in the mall and wants to take them home. Please stay that way.
  13. I am also delighted that you are a natural with animals and think you are one of them (which, I secretly think you are, especially, the bath angle).
  14. Make up your mind who your best friend is. I am tired of hearing new names every day.
  15. I know your teacher is sweet. Don’t rub it in. In any case, it doesn’t affect me.
  16. Night suits are not brunch wear.
  17. Don’t keep asking me to “run away”. I just might.
  18. All those toys and books you keep attributing to other people? I got them, just FYI.
  19. I am tired of this good cop-bad cop business and you playing me against your father all the time. Think about this: You will be dealing with me far more than him. So I would advise you to be clever about it.
  20. Yes, your father will be okay with you eating ice-cream for breakfast, wearing nighties to school, not brushing your teeth or skipping baths for days. You still have me to contend with.
  21. But you know what? You are still the funnest person to have around, and I am so happy to be your mom. Thank you for coming into my life. Happy Birthday, munchkin!

Pic: Rahul De Cunha