I don’t remember her name and this makes me feel guilty. Because that was one of the first few things I’d learnt as a teacher. AM had told me – Always learn their names. Don’t mark attendance by calling out numbers. In a system that reduces students to numbers, making the effort to learn and remember their names is a way of showing kindness. And I had failed.
She was a science student who was in a General English class I had taught long ago. I didn’t remember her although her face was familiar. She wanted help with her term paper. I spoke to her about research for a while and she said she’d come back the next day with some writing.
She came promptly the next day. I was in a biting hurry to prepare for a class and became terribly impatient with my feedback to her writing. She sensed this and said she’d come back another day. I said ok and went back to my notes. I forgot about her after my class, and surrendered to the general blurriness of the day. A little after lunch, I went to the filter to get water, and found her sitting on the ledge, eating lunch alone.
She said, ‘No, my friends eat in the canteen’ when I asked her why she was eating by herself. Quickly she returned to her Puliyogre and I felt stupid asking her that. At any given point in college – there are many students who eat their lunch alone. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I had done something to contribute to her loneliness in particular. It seemed like no ordinary moment. Something was happening. Without meaning to, the girl had shown me my impatience. I called her back in and we spoke about her term paper.
Her mother and father worked as tailors in Marathahalli. She had an older brother in Chennai who also worked. She left home at 7 every morning, changed two-three buses to get to college and returned at 6 in the evening to take math tuition for neighbour kids. She said it paid enough to manage extra college expenses.
I wasn’t sure what to say next. But she helped. She only wanted to get her term paper out of the way so she could get back to her life. Months later she came to get my signature. I never saw her after that.
That was a long while ago and I return to that moment often. It made me see how teachers have an odd power in contributing to the loneliness of students that is often imposed by institutions. It made me see how small kindnesses can go a long way in making some of this loneliness go away. Much of the business of being a teacher today is about this.
In the month of May this year, I was assigned admission duty. I was in charge of verifying documents before sending the student and parents to the interview round. I sort of began to enjoy this. I learnt to observe people. They behaved like their surnames. What I was seeing before me was what I had read about in Ambedkar’s writings.
Sometimes heavy surnames meant that the fathers were answering all the questions I had asked their daughters, while their mothers pointedly sat a little away from the whole process. Sometimes it meant that fathers were the ones asking me questions – ‘What guarantee can you give me that if I send my son here, he will get a good MNC job later?’
It also meant that I got to see the other side of the structure – what do those who don’t have surname power do?
In the afternoon I saw a frail looking girl and her father walking towards me slowly. They looked frightened and it seemed as though they were expecting to be asked to leave. They stared at me when I smiled at them and weren’t sure if they could sit down, even after the attender and I told them to please sit.
The girl sat and pulled her father by the elbow — signalling to him that it was ok to sit. I asked for her documents and knew that she was SC. She wants to study history she said. Throughout our conversation, her father appeared very uncomfortable. His focus was on impending danger – that numbness in teeth we sometimes feel right before we crash. Almost as if he was sure something wrong was going to happen any moment now. His hands shivered when the girl showed him where to sign on the application form. Still trembling, he wrote his name down in block letters.
It wasn’t hard to guess why they were frightened or what their prior experiences with institutions were like. It’s baffling no? That to some institutions are just buildings. And to others, it’s a battleground. At least battlegrounds offer the impression of an equal fight. This was prison.
I wonder why the science girl approached me in the first place. Maybe no one else took her in, maybe she was less afraid of coming to me, or maybe something in the General English classes gave her the impression that she could come to me. Either way, I learnt more from her than she did from me.
Often among students, the assumption is that the General English classes are spaces to unwind, something they needn’t take very seriously – especially since it is not their core subject. And this is not a problem. Students do need to unwind and if classroom spaces are offering them that, then good.
But beyond the unwinding or the general whining about these classes, it is ultimately a student like that science girl who seems to really get the point behind GE classes. Whether it is a student like Deepak Bhat who sat in the last bench and inspired this blog post, and managed to give a whole new direction to teachers like me. Or like Sevanthi Murugaiyyan who took her life in 2016 – it is the unprivileged who value learning more than the privileged.
Probably because they recognize love and mercy much more naturally than those who spread hate. And only the privileged have the energy to hate.
When there is too much privilege in the classroom and too much hate in the country, these lines bring me a sense of direction:
“When people you know yap without reservation about merit, and how “they” are taking away what is “yours,” maybe you should remember this girl’s story. Remember, perhaps, the loneliness of those who struggle against odds greater than you can ever know, and how little the abstract mercy of our system can help those who fight hard and grow weary. Practice the small humility that can come from knowing”
The abstract mercy of our system is Reservation, yes. And it is also a classroom space where sometimes a student who never spoke in school finds the courage to speak, it’s also a syllabus that opens up a whole new world to a student who fought with his parents in Bihar, dropped out of engineering, and came all the way to Bangalore to study Journalism.
And for this, I am grateful.
Featured Image Credits: John Ryle
A visit to the Panopticon