Some thoughts on Teaching in the age of many Fs

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.

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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

What is Rum Lola Rum, ma’am?

Key of Magic by Hartwig HKD via Flickr
Key of Magic by Hartwig HKD via Flickr

This has been a week full of Magic. I’d like to show you some of this but I’m afraid you won’t like it very much. It’s heavy like a tall glass and salty like bloody Mary, and like both, it might tear the corners of your lips.

when i’d watched The Prestige long ago, i was only a girl in love, nothing but a girl in love. maybe some days it’s enough to be only a girl in love and nothing but a girl in love. Not today.

i watched the film again last Saturday, i watched it like a teacher. is a teacher not in love? yes she is: some days, every day, most days. Some days i fall in love like a healing wound – slowly at first, and then in big quick gulps. everyday i fall in love like shah rukh khan – kisi ke baal ache hai, kisi ke hont. On most days i fall in love like I have never fallen in love before – like magic, like disappearing rabbits, like orange color rain.

i watched the film like i was watching someone teach me something in a classroom. someone teaching me to perform. perform to teach. because teaching, like magic, is performance – it’s where i have to make something appear out of nothing.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”

teaching is getting them to see the magic that i have seen – in other people’s worlds, words, and works. some days this magic leaves me dizzy.

in the same way i was dizzy to discover the old Chinese man in The Prestige who sacrificed being able to walk properly to be able to perform magic. in the same way i was dizzy to read Pauline Kael who takes all her images and squeezes them inside out until words started appearing. in the same way i was dizzy when i discovered how endearingly Joan Didion wrote and taught the world how to make writing a part of your body – so much so that i now feel like all my words belong to her because she knows their weight more than I do.

when i am reading, i am sometimes confronted with a happiness that is far too big for me to hold. like Salvador’s hundred balloons of happiness, like the smile between Dhanush’s tragedy and Dhanush’s dance, like the smell of hot cardamom chai on my fingers, like the fullness of evenings in the department where we all sit and talk and laugh, like watching students be absorbed in their work, like i have the key to doors that open Macondo, Naples, New York,  Bombay, and Mangalore.

it’s a gift. it’s a curse. it makes teaching exciting. it makes me tired when i’m unable to recreate the same magic for students in the classroom – what i know i have felt in the bones, between the folds in my body where hunger is a disappearing rabbit in a black hat.

 

Featured Image Credits: Key of Magic by Hartwig HKD via Flickr

LOL – II

Image Credits - Alison Bechdel, Are you My Mother?
Image Credits – Alison Bechdel, Are you My Mother?

We are separated – you and I

by the big measure of laugh

that my work throws at you,

and others like you.

Even so, I hope that one day –

you too will find something that you love doing,

and then,

at least then – 

I, and the few others like me –

will stop mattering in your world.

And you, greatness embodied, can finally get a life

of your own,

your own.


Learning to Smile like Mona Lisa

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My favourite scene in the film Mona Lisa Smile is Katherine Watson’s second Art class with the girls. It is supposed to be vengeance.  But Miss Watson is able to go beyond it. She was unprepared for her first class with them. She was expecting them to be extra smart, but not unimaginative enough to mug the entire text book. And they did exactly that and blocked her from doing anything else or anything new in the first class.

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So in her next class, she takes things into her hands quickly, quietly and is able to establish control. There is no chance of a one-on-one with the snobbish Betty Warren. She won’t allow it. This is something worth learning from Katherine Watson. Of deciding which battles to pick and which to let go. While Betty Warren’s attacks are malicious and unflinching, Watson is calm and draws focus away from Betty and directs it towards the discussion. There is no malice, only the desire for conversation.

This is a film I have gone back to very often. Now more than ever because I am learning how to be patient with students. They are growing up like me – and are just as prone to shifting perceptions as I am. Often it is easy for teachers to forget what it was like to be a student and become unempathetic.

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And it’s harder to empathize in moments of fury when you are convinced that the student is just wrong or annoying.

Six years of running Meta have taught me that losing calm is no way to handle situations, even if it is easier to yell at sometimes powerless students. Taking deep breaths and learning to let go is the hardest thing to do when you are in a classroom or organising something.

But I am slowly becoming more aware of myself in these moments – it’s a small way to take control.

/to weep or not to weep/

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I came very close to crying in class last week. We were looking at obituaries and I was reading out this one that always makes the lump in my throat grow bigger. I pinched my arm, and told myself that what I find emotional may not necessarily be something that everyone else finds emotional. So I bawled like a baby from the inside, kept a stern face and continued reading.

This obituary is a reminder to myself to never take for granted what I have – whatever little it is.

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.

When I count the number of times I have felt like crying in classrooms, I am distracted by the number of times I have cried in classrooms. If there is such a thing as prayer then I believe in it wholeheartedly – only when I am close to sobbing like a tap in classes and have to pray/beg to stop.

I once wept uncontrollably when a student yelled at me. I like to believe I wept only because it was a girl. Had it been a boy, I would have made a fuss. I am now quite the expert at castration. This could be a good thing but it just means that I don’t know what to do when kutti little girl patriarchs misbehave.

My friends told me I shouldn’t have cried in front of her. But I don’t know how I could’ve stopped it. My voice did the jingly thing it does when it feels bad for itself.

Like it did a couple of days ago when I was trying to explain to my sister why we shouldn’t feel guilty about using reservation. I was repeating what M has told me so often, ‘Reservation is your right. Don’t let anybody make you feel guilty for using it’ — As I was saying this, my voice began to shake and my eyes welled up.

I was supposed to moderate a panel later that day on upper caste control over documenting Dalit experiences, and wondered how I’d hold back from bawling if my voice got all jingly again. One trick is to self-induce yawning. When I know I’m about to weep, I just open my mouth obscenely so no one will know if the tears are actual tears from being an emo fuck or a yawn.

Crying comes just as naturally to me as peeing and I hate it. It makes arguments weak. So my friends were right when they said that I shouldn’t have cried in front of her.

Later that week, while talking to a student about her writing – she asked me if there’s such a thing as ‘too personal’ when it comes to writing — if I feel vulnerable after putting out my entire life on the blog for the whole world to read.

It was a very reassuring conversation. I often forget that shamelessness is the first step towards writing and I need to be reminded of this again and again even though I believe it on auto-pilot terms. That conversation also made me see how much I have changed and grown over these years. And how much writing itself has come to mean completely different things to me now. Today I cannot separate history, caste, and community from writing. It’s important that I write shamelessly, ceaselessly, sometimes aimlessly because no one else is going to tell my story or my family’s story.

As I was saying this to her -I teared up, again. Maybe I should just stare at walls when I’m PMSing.

What a weepy week it has been.

In other news, rumlolarum will soon reach 300 posts. Cannot wait! I am looking forward to doing some blog revamp.

Featured Image Credits: iStock

P for Political. A for Aadhar

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Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.

It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?

My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in. I wonder then –  would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.

I’m glad that my job includes dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, also arrogant students. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.

‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.

I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?

I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?

Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no? I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.

It’s ridiculous to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.

As Christina Dhanraj once pointed out – ‘Is our personal your political?’

But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?

I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’

Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the mind-space to go to a protest.

It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life.

Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach them? How is it visible?

From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you, and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.

Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.

After Ambedkar, AM is an inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot could point a finger at him.

When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.

Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’

It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.

***

An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’

And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.

When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything.

Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂

 

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You can read my report here.

Here’s something that made me happy today. I must be doing a lot of things to piss people off but then I must also be doing something right. @Gobblefunkist – Thank you!

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Looking back at The Husband Stitch

Picture courtesy - Granta

I have always been a teller of stories.

~Carmen Maria Machado

The first time I read The Husband Stitch, I wished I hadn’t read it. Because I knew that the many times after I’d reread it, I would continue to ask myself what it was like the first time -like asking someone who likes sex about their first time.

Reading it the first time was difficult. I had to pause every now and then and do something else. It was early November and I had a whole day yawning at my disposal. AM sent me the link and as I began to read it, I had the vague discomfort that only someone who is tragically falling in love can have.

Then there was this laziness that occasionally comes even when you have found a great piece of writing, and sometimes, especially after you have found a great piece of writing. This happens because the mind bookmarks it for a moment in the future where the reading will happen and where the energy to be left smitten and ravaged can be found in plenty, and- guiltlessly.

But I pushed — because I knew that the preliminary pleasure to be derived from The Husband Stitch was going to be like no other.

The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or
perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one
should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can
sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.

Every time I had read a great line, I’d put my phone away, sigh, and dig deeper into the folds of my rug. I would shut my eyes for not more than three minutes before straightening up and starting over again.

Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make

Pride is the second mistake

And being right is the third and worst mistake.

The Husband Stitch was and still is the most haunting story I have ever read – the kind that makes you want to impose it on all the people you know and love. The kind that allows you to grow a little, no matter how overshadowed you are by it, and want to be.

As a teacher, here was another tiring thing I felt compelled to do – which was to take it to class after class and make students read it, with the hope that they will fall in love with it, like I had.

But – as I have come to learn – This is the worst mistake a teacher can make — especially if you are an Avarna woman teacher. And if like me, your language is questionable, if you falter over difficult words and don’t have answers to questions – then it doesn’t matter how much you love something, you will never be good enough. Not as good as someone Savarna or someone male or someone both.

I used to think I wasn’t good enough. Or rather, I was made to think I wasn’t good enough.

But I don’t let myself think that anymore.

Not because I have suddenly found confidence but because I recognise now how power works. Because centuries of Savarna assholes have gotten away by making a lot of people feel that they aren’t good enough, that they will never be good enough.

So now even if I’m not good enough, I tell myself it is okay. As long as I have stories to take cover under, and learn from – then everything will be okay. From Ambedkar, to Vaidehi, to Marquez, and Machado – I must keep trying. It’s what my father did, it’s what my mother does, and it’s what I must do.

Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. They are each borne from the clouds separately, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.

How did I do The Husband Stitch in class then?

I tried.

That’s all.

Today, I do that story in the classroom as though I own it – as though it came from my body after days and nights of sacrifices. But always remembering and painfully knowing that i did not write it. Maybe that’s how one must do stories in classrooms. As though something of value was sacrificed for it. As though without you, they would just burst into tiny puffs of smoke and disappear.

(If you are reading this story out loud, move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners. It’ll be raining, I promise.)

Soon, I had found another reason to drag The Husband Stitch to other classes; I had to undo the memory of doing it the previous time. And so each time I do it, I am simultaneously undoing it. As a result – as of this moment, I know a couple of lines, and two paragraphs by heart. That’s the great thing about loving the same story everyday– that it can liberate vulnerable people who carry what they love proudly.

I did the story again, today. And loved it –again. And I felt the same wave of possibility that makes writing seem all at once doable and at once monstrous.

It’s what makes teaching enjoyable – I can fall in love everyday, shamelessly – with the same story – again and again and no one can take this away from me – no matter how good they are.

I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten the rest of the story.

*** All the sections that appear within quotes are from Carmen Maria Machado’s short-story – The Husband Stitch ***

*** Featured Image Credits – Granta