I’ve been away from home often. For weeks, months and years. But nothing like being in a remote mountain village, with limited phone and internet connectivity and junk food.
It was an intense three months. I woke up at 5 on most mornings with the embrace of the sun. Usually with a smile on my face. And I was zoned out by 9 pm. 10 on a good day. In between I chased little kiddos to revise their spellings, complete their homework and write neatly. There was a lot of heartache, moments of self-doubt and frustration. Nobody warned me of the days they didn’t do their homework. And I usually came apart when they failed a test.
Their failures were all mine; their successes, theirs alone. Perhaps, I had learnt the art of being committed without being attached.
I returned home lighter and happier. With memories that make me pause in the middle of an ordinary day and smile for no particular reason. A while ago, when the mother reprimanded the father about his posture, in jest, I told her with great pride and a wee bit of longing in my voice, “You know I taught my kids about posture too. I made them repeat the spelling and meaning every day, for a fortnight.”
I don’t know when those adorably cute apple-cheeked brats had turned into “my kids.”
I got all the alone time that I had craved for, in the city. I got my silences. And the big bookshelf in the living room was the icing on the cake. It held all the books that had been on my reading list for a while. And the birthday barbecue will always remain a fond memory. Quiet, but filled with so much warmth.
I miss the buzz in Class Two. I miss the morning assemblies. And I miss sitting on the porch and doing nothing.
Would I go back and do it all over again? I’d certainly like to. With fewer clothes, lesser inhibitions and more enthusiasm.
I’ve yelled at them, spanked them and torn their homework apart. I’ve seen their faces crumple when I’ve struck my red pen across their careless words. I’ve used their words against them. I’ve seen them wipe away silent tears at each of my harsh words.
I’ve seen their faces glow the few times I’ve written a “Good” in their notebooks. I’ve seen them go delirious with joy after having done well in a test. I’ve seen them blush upon receiving an applause from the rest of the class or in the assembly.
I’ve seen the relief and wonderment on their faces when they finally “get” a concept I’ve been trying to feed into their heads for almost a fortnight. I’ve seen them dash out of the classroom each evening even before I’ve completed saying goodbye.
Every morning they are falling over each other to wish us a good morning and relieve our hands of all the books and papers. We hear them shriek even before we can even spot them, almost like a game of hide and seek. And in that moment, all is right with the world.
It scares me how much they trust me. How they hanker for my approval. How they seek my permission for the smallest of things like sharpening a pencil or throwing trash in the bin. How quickly their lips begin to quiver when I raise my voice.
I beam with pride each time these champs find a mistake in my work. I also want to shake them up thoroughly for believing in me so much. I want to tell them to try and figure out their own answers. I want them to learn how to fold the pages of their exam sheets on their own and draw straight lines without calling out to me in utter desperation.
I want to tell them that the world can be theirs, if only they want it!
And when their hesitating eyes meet mine for an affirmation in the harsh sun of the morning assembly, the heart turns to mush. I only wonder how I got so lucky.
Every Tuesday night, I sleep with butterflies in my tummy. The sorts that reside with me each time I go up in front of an audience. Only this time, I’m not the one performing. My class two babies are. Every Wednesday. And I’m nervous until the time they get off the stage.
But trepidations apart, it is the highlight of my days here. It was my introduction (or call it my induction) to the entire school; I remember feeling overwhelmed with the fervor, the enthusiasm and the spontaneity. A little more than a month and the feeling hasn’t diminished.
Most weekdays on the mountain begin with an ardent “Good morning, Mea’am!” as we make our way to school, arms laden with books and papers, which the little munchkins are begging to take off our hands. Once everyone is lined up, we begin with reciting an English prayer, which is followed by a hymn in either Urdu or Hindi, and then a silent prayer. The kids are no doubt distracted. Sometimes, it is too cold. Lately, it’s been very sunny. But they pray diligently. Arms held forward, eyes tight shut, some swaying along with the rhythm, hoping this will end soon. Their voices are loud and cheery. The innocence, the humility, the grace remind me of the assemblies in Sahyadri, where we had similar chants. I silently whisper a prayer of gratitude.
The relief on their faces is palpable once the prayers are dispensed with. Now come the parts where they can day-dream. A student offers a thought for the day in English, then translated in Hindi to aid learning and understanding. Then we have a host of performances, varying as per each grade. While the KG kids entertain us with rhymes, verse, the alphabets and multiplication tables, the senior school enlightens us with facts, GK questions, trivia and current affairs topics. And we laugh, admonish and reprimand. Sometimes, in that order! Every performance ends with an applause.
We celebrate the small victories; great marks on a class test, a brilliant answer to a GK question, a lively performance on stage. And for a few minutes each week, every child can take centerstage and revel in the adulation. To know that he/she can also excel; however fleeting that might be.
Wednesday mornings leave me feeling relieved. Also a tad bit empty. Until mid-week panic sets in and I’m off to wield my red pen!
I had been contemplating a break for a while. And as always, the mother saw it coming before I did. She warned me that Bombay would leave me spent. And so relying on a mother’s belief and my absolute whim, I packed my bags for a sojourn to a village in the mountains, to volunteer at a school.
I remember enquiring if I’d have access to an ATM; how often I’d get a chance to visit the city, if at all; and how much junk food should I stock up on.
Thirty days later, I look back upon these frivolous questions and squirm. I laugh at how foolishly worked up I had been, for no reason (as usual, as some folks would remark) at all.
This place reminds me of the carefreeness of boarding school. I don’t have to worry about laundry or meals. I live out of two bags. One that holds my winter gear; another, my summer clothes. We make do with a lot less, with fewer hours wasted on the Internet, limited junk food and lesser trash. And among the many firsts in the last month, we burnt some trash in a pit. It took far longer than I had anticipated.
I’ve gotten extremely possessive of my alone time. And I cherish the silences. Mostly because I’m disciplining and admonishing a bunch of adorably cute apple-cheeked seven-year-olds, trying to get them to copy answers off a blackboard without a single spelling mistake, all week. I’m yet to taste success though. Please to be sending prayers along my way.
Every evening, before dinner, I scrub my hands thoroughly to rid my cuticles of the stubborn chalk powder that’s accumulated all day (I now have renewed respect for the hands of all my teachers). And each time, I’m assailed with self-doubt; I take a hard look at my chalk-stained and red-inked fingers and smile. I remember the flourish of a tick mark, the elusive star that we coveted in our notebooks and the thrill of being called to the board to write that correct answer.
I’m smiling a lot more these days. Some less cribbing. I find myself glancing up at the sky often. Sometimes, in gratitude. Occasionally, in absolute wonderment at how lucky I got. There’s more time for sunsets in my life lately. And some days, I find my cheeks wet for no particular reason.
I miss home, but I don’t crave for it. Not just yet. And I haven’t thought about pizza, wine or cheesecake in a while. I miss the folks, the soul-bearing conversations with some pals and the sun, each time it decides to play hide and seek with the clouds.
The highlight of my days is the morning assembly, which continues to overwhelm me (more on this in a subsequent post, I promise), even a month later. The innocence of the fervently praying lips, their unabashed spontaneity and the complete lack of inhibition in their expression. It is, in a sense, a celebration of the small victories.
Celebrating the small joys! I think that’s what defines this past month for me.