In my first month as a teacher, I believed I was good. No matter how badly classes went or how unprepared I was or how smart the students were, I believed I was good. It is my fourth year now and I believe I’m not so good. I may have improved but the threshold for anxiety, for taking offence is smaller than it was when I started.
There are good days and then there are bad days and this has nothing to do with how prepared or not I am. If a student has decided to disrupt class one day, it will happen. Sure, it’s up to me to decide if I’m going to let it affect the class but there’s only little resistance that I can put up. Beyond a point, I want that disruption too, I am curious to see what happens.
I am 24. I walk into a class on the second floor in H Block. This is a class I have been warned about. It’s a second year B.A class. There’s noise before and after I enter. We settle down but it’s not easy. The air is thick with leftovers of conversations that subside only to come back stronger and more forceful than before. I am nervous, I scream an expletive. They giggle. I lose it.
That is one kind of helplessness.
I am 25. I walk into a class that I have been warned about. Again. This is a classroom in the science block — more reason to feel nervous. We begin. They have all their computer science lab records stretched out in front of them. I remember what M has told me about not giving them the satisfaction of watching me get irked. Calmly, I tell them to stop writing in their lab records. They shuffle in their seats but in seconds, they go back to doing what they were doing. I still have patience but their disregard for what I’ve said makes me feel like I have the right to be angry and so, with gritted teeth I practice a deluded voice. ‘Keep the books away’
They are scared. But not all of them. Some of them are caught between the desire to join the few who are aggressively resisting and the few others who are giggling. I stand quiet and hold in what I’m feeling. What I’m feeling is total confusion.
When the bell rings, I storm out of the class preparing to ignore anybody who follows me out to apologize. Nobody comes. I wait weeks together for the apology to come. It never does.
That is one kind of waiting.
I am 27. I’m standing before a class that I’ve been told is special. And for some time, they really are. I have started to read and write with them. I am learning with them and a teacher never forgets something like that. It’s the first batch – one of its kind – filled with talented yet shy students, quiet and watchful ones, passive and aggressive ones.
Things used to be great. I looked forward to all my classes with them with a mad enthusiasm. I’d decide on the text and discussion with an energy that was new and encouraging. We’d talk endlessly. People who were usually quiet ventured to answer questions. I was thrilled. But something happened months later. They outgrew me and I didn’t.
I was standing before them after things had turned bitter and then turned very bad. And now it was frozen in a moment that I couldn’t touch. People on the outside had messed with this class. Things were said, jokes were made, and then just their remnants remained like echoes. It will be months before I find out exactly what happened. But then, there, in that moment, I have no idea.
I am doing Synecdoche and Metonymy. The concepts have confused me just as much as they have confused them. But I am trying. I get lost often and every time I try to recover, I get the feeling that it’s not going to go well. More jokes will be made, more accusations, more justifications, and more indifference. My head is throbbing with a desire to open the can of worms and let it all out. To sit with them, look them in the eye and ask them what went wrong. I am almost going to do that when I realize the pointlessness of it all.
Instead, I focus on the students who are making attempts to understand what I’m saying. I am back. I realize I must try harder. I tell myself that I will make sure they understand the concepts. I look at Maria who is looking at me with renewed interest. She tells me that she finds the topic fascinating. A boy sitting in the back wants to know if AM is in the department. The class shakes with a tension that has been waiting to erupt. They all laugh. I laugh with them. AM can explain Synecdoche better, I say. I don’t know if the boy’s comment was intentional or accidental. I decide not to answer that question. I let it go.
I start reading out a long story I’d found – it was a parody on the examples of Synecdoche and Metonymy. When I finish, the air is thin with something that I can’t put my finger on. It is a lot scarier than confusion. I sense disinterest, I sense irritation, and I sense a very big question mark – not just regarding Synecdoche and Metonymy but also my abilities as a teacher. This is amplified when the boy on my right rolls his eyes and puts his head down in a manner of giving up. His shoulders are bent with rehearsed indifference. Everything that he does, I take in. I want to remember.
Later I will discover that an outsider but no stranger to teaching has tampered with what I had with these students, what I could have had. They sat together, these people, to assess my qualification. The joke that they made, went something like this –
How many Vjs does it take to make a life? None. Because she is busy polishing shoes.
When I first hear this, I am reminded of the things my father had told me about being careful at the workplace and to keep him informed if anything went wrong. I ignored him. I thought he was being unnecessarily protective of me. Perhaps he’d always known that caste may not always follow me but other people will always follow caste.
I am reminded of my father’s disappointment when I chose not to do IAS. He was persuasive about IAS in a way that he has never been persuasive about anything else — even marriage. I think he’d figured out that to be able to survive as a Dalit woman in this country, his daughter is going to need something as powerful as IAS to shut people up.
I don’t know what to make of the joke. What is so funny or humiliating about polishing shoes, I will never know. My ancestors probably polished their ancestor’s shoes. Are they suggesting that I quit teaching and do something else that suits my caste? Like polish shoes?
Thankfully, when I find out about the joke, I am not teaching them anymore. Classes are done with. But I see them very often in corridors, in the canteen and in the department. I don’t know what to feel. I am angry but I am sadder. I start thinking about all my classes with them. I might have taught them the next morning after the joke was made. I wonder if they giggled when they saw my face that morning. Did they snigger as I continued teaching? I might have made a thousand pronunciation errors. I spend hours going over every detail – every single thing I did in their class that they might have made fun of.
I feel unqualified and want to quit. I am unable to write because I have started to doubt everything. I start depending exclusively on other people to tell me that I am good, that I can do this. I feel hopeful when I find that there are many people who have faith in me.
Months later, I’m sitting with two of the unhappiest women I’ve ever known. Since the day I got stuck with them, I’ve been trying to unstick. They are explaining why students hate me. Everything in their part of the world is understood by connections, contacts. Who hangs out with whom? Where? Are they cool enough? How to make connections? It’s too much like the world my father has always been cautious of. Contact making and keeping is another way of showing/hiding caste. And here with them, everything they say is drenched with caste. They don’t see this although they’d be quick to see it in others. This isn’t the first time they have thrown around big words. Access, favours, talent, qualification, social-climbing, power.
Upper caste women.
They are gone. I’m nigh on 28 now. I feel lighter, cooler and a lot more independent. When I turn into a corridor full of new students, I smile. They smile back. Their faces are innocent. They lack history in their demeanor and this is liberating. They are not shadowed by my past and that thought makes me appreciate what I have.
I enjoy teaching more than I did when I was 24, 25, 26 and 27. I find that the more I write, the more interesting teaching becomes. I also find that all that happened last year had to happen so I could feel a lot more forceful about my freedom. Friendships that began for disgusting, ambitious reasons had to end hatefully so that I could learn to value the many undemanding friendships I have come to acquire.
My relationship with students – even those I’ve had memorable conversations with, had to change so I could learn how to continue teaching despite the visible hatred. I’m a teacher. For every one and a half student who likes me, there will be a dozen who don’t. For what it’s worth, regardless of what happens later, I always have a nice time talking to students. And that probably shouldn’t change because that’s what teaching has come to mean. Conversations. In this profession, it’s the only pleasure that can be kept alive and away from people with all kinds of ugly designs.