The Extra Class Fiasco

We tried an hour of extra sessions, after school, for some students who needed extra support for about 2 months. The parents seemed happy the kids were with us.The main gate of the school building gets locked and teachers leave at 3.30 pm. We were not permitted to keep the keys. we stay back and sit at the entrance of the building on the steps. The school campus is open all the time for the public. Things were okay. Now and then, the teachers laughed at us.

Then, things changed, the Principal started asking more questions about safety. We tried to assure her. Then we got signed permission slips from parents.

It was then announced that there would be extra classes till 4.00 pm for selected students from all classes till the final exams here on. So all teachers stayed back till 4.00 pm (reluctantly). Seemed like there was a zone wise directive from superiors. It has been mandatory since last 4 months in the nearby zone. We were asked to stop staying back after 4.00 pm. It would be nice if there is some clarity or consistency. But I guess that’s how it is and we have to go with it.

Perhaps offering to take up Turn-Duty (a set of school related admin tasks, each teacher is assigned on a rotation basis in public schools) which we are currently not expected to do, could help us gain acceptance.

For 6 months we had held 1 hour of Spoken Eng for 3rd, 4rd, 5th grade classrooms everyday, during Tamil when another teacher came to our class. But then the Tamil teacher decided to withdraw from 2nd grade and my colleague and I took up Tamil for our classes. Maybe re-starting the spoken english sessions will lead to more teacher interaction and better relationships.

Fitting in and Permission

Trying to start a conversation with her was the last thing I wanted to do this morning. But it had to be done. Most times I keep it to a minimum and run away to my classroom. It was just hard to fit into the teachers conversations.

There’s an event being organized for kids across schools in the city, my non-profit employer works with. So we thought of taking the kids to the event on a Saturday, when we don’t have school. But the conversation went as expected. The Principal preferred we didn’t take the kids out of school. She feared trouble from bureaucrats in the city government education department. She wouldn’t risk taking any decision unless it was directly from the officials or superiors in the form of a memo or letter to prevent any blame falling on them later.

She narrated various imaginary possibilities of disasters quite graphically to make her point, with regard to any such field trip ideas. I then didn’t want to push anymore unnecessarily as it felt pointless. I left the room as the other teachers just nodded their heads in agreement.

Its kind of sad, how educators in such public schools are reduced to a state of inertia and tangled in fear and bureaucracy. Reduced to mechanical, mindless beings so disconnected from education and the children, lowering actual teaching down the list of priorities, to accommodate senseless paperwork, reports & record keeping. They’re probably conditioned to do these tasks by an apathetic system, without question over many years.

A while back we were asked to conduct a survey explore ways to offer training workshops for the teachers. The response was generally negative. They seemed to feel they are over-burdened or don’t need it. This wasn’t a surprise. I tried to explain that it maybe 3 years till there are more visible outcomes from my second grade classroom for them to take us seriously. And that we didn’t have credibility as a new unqualified teachers or trainers to start to push for change as imagined by my employer.

These are teachers with 10-25 years experience, who are busy looking out for themselves in a system that does not encourage good teaching or focus on the children. The focus is on producing or faking data/records for the bosses in the government departments. The cycle of retribution for long hours and poor support lead to the approach of survival by doing less work as possible or only what is expected. To compensate for injustice meted out to them. Student learning is irrelevant unless asked for.

Teacher absenteeism. Fudging school data. Superficial/pretend teaching to appease visiting inspectors. Ridiculous importance accorded to classroom note-taking or writing and book correction/marking. Branding of some kids( those who can memorize) as good and others as dumb. Using kids as delivery boys and girls. Parent teacher meetings where no one cares if parents attend or very little feedback is offered. Teachers so eager to leave school early or have a holiday. Kids in fifth grade are unable to read and write their mother tongue/local language and do basic 3rd grade math.

A few months back, on my way back from observing a class in an another school (as mandated), I find my student with a broken hand. I wanted to take him to hospital right away, leaving my class with my colleague. But the Principal does not allow it and insists the parent come. After some negotiation, she agreed to send for the aunt. On arrival, she did not want to take him and kept asking the mother to come. I lost my patience, and got an auto rickshaw to school. The Principal stands in my way saying its a risk for the school as the kids parents would blame the school. I then try to convince the aunt and probably my anger got her to do it. I ask the mother on the phone, to meet them at the hospital. This whole process took me more than 1 hour.

It has been hard to connect with the other teachers as there is no discussion on teaching or learning. And the fact that I was from outside the system, not a native, had a pony-tail and did not speak as the local language fluently, adds some barriers. Although I never saw them as barriers. I guess I was too naive. Its hard to be empathetic sometimes although I remain respectful. Currently my colleague manages to source information better with his friendly local native touch. Hope things get better.

dhanush

I always had trouble figuring Dhanush out. He seems be someone the other kids stay away from, since he would most often, take something from them, or hit them, or start a fight.

Perhaps I was too hard on him today.

He had missed class yesterday after lunch and left his bag and books, back in class. He turned up this morning to class, an hour late as usual. He also missed school last week. I tried to get him involved in the class today but he still ended up hitting another kid an hour into class. After several attempts,  I had to resort to the final option, to separate him from the others, back of the classroom or outside.

He seems lost almost always in the class. Disconnected from the others. No real friends.

After an extra teaching session for a few kids after class today, Dhanush revealed that the wound on his toe was from a burn inflicted by his mother as a punishment for him getting in trouble. During my visits to his home, I never got to meet his father. The neighbors and kids around kept saying he was trouble. He seems to have a reputation for getting into trouble. Like most kids from this community and neighborhood, violence is part of surviving. I knew this was true for kids in high school and teenagers. I seem to have assumed it didn’t affect younger second graders as much.  Him getting into trouble probably has a lot to do with struggles and frustration with things at home. He lives away from his parents who visit only on weekends. He takes care of his younger sister and brother and is watched over by an aunt or grandmother.

Despite my time in school and visits to the homes of these kids, there’s a lot I don’t know about them. I guess I keep trying till I can get through to them .

End of the road or the begininning

Does it begin at the end of the road? A road you can’t see? Do you fall in reverse or forward, if you dont know where its headed? I guess you fall anyway. And walk again. And fall again. And maybe walk again. Mr. Vedder. He might know.

It was my last week at work. It hadn’t hit me till the end. It was hard. Harder than I thought. I tried not to show it. I had hoped I could avoid a farewell but they had it planned. It was nice to hear your colleagues say good things about you. Though I know I don’t deserve them all. I was too small a person. I wondered if they would really miss me and meant it. I’m not really a popular guy. I usually keep a low profile. But they seemed to suggest that I would be missed. It felt good.

To avoid having to give a speech, I wrote an email thanking everyone for their support and the opportunity to work with children and learn, quite a lot in the process. Many seemed surprised that I was leaving, and that too, for a teaching assignment in a different city. But there were others, who seemed encouraging and wished well. My own team said some very kind words. They also gave me a couple of souveniours that were sweet.

In a way, I’m glad I took the leap 3-4 years ago, starting with an internship, to try something different. I think I would have been a very different person if I hadn’t. Despite the ups and downs and doubts along the way, its helped me look at life and people differently.

It’s been quite a journey, the last three years. I’ve been lucky to be a small part of something. To have met and worked with some good, kind and interesting people who try to empower young people. It’s challenging to run after-school programmes for young people for empowerment, through arts and sports. Maybe it may take a few more years, for it to be accepted in India, especially with pressing issues like poverty, unemployment, lack of basic education and healthcare services.

So many challenges crept up at work every day and somehow we kept going. Sometimes I can’t believe we got by. I worried all the time if I was doing enough. If it was really helping. If I overlooked depth and attention for one young person, in the rush to meet goals. There were doubts all the time. And then one day, you experience a moment of magic when your with the kids. You feel happy. They end up teaching you more about life than you could possibly teach them.

The last week was a rush. Trying to complete my classes and handover work to the team and go over lesson plans with the other facilitators. I realised I was choking in the end, when I said goodbye to my students. I couldn’t speak. Although I don’t think they felt the same. But then again I shouldn’t expect them to. We didn’t spend much time together as it was a 4 week course. I wonder if any of the thousand kids over the years would remember. Many I can’t remember either.

Packing up my things was harder than I thought. Though it was mostly packing old clothes to give away and throwing away junk. I carried my things to work a day before, as I could catch a bus closer.

My colleagues and I usually walk together to the bus stand and go our seperate ways in different buses. This however, was the last time. Two of them helped me carry my bags till the bus stand.

When I was leaving the city, it felt a bit like I had lost something. That I was without a place of my own or home anymore. Although I was actually heading to my hometown to see my parents.

A few more days for my new assignment. So is it the end or the beginning. Or the part in between?

Freewriting

Swish

Swish. You would think my parents would give me a better name. Like Ramaswamy or John or Murthy or something even remotely Scandanavian, like Vane Der Murthy. But no. They had to settle Swish.

You would then think there’s an interesting story behind the name that would compensate somehow. But unfortunatetly, that was not true. Swish was the name of a dog. My father’s neighbour’s dog. Which, he, for some reason was so fond of.

I kept wishing and imaginingthe most gruesome ways of murdering this dog I never met. Not that this would give me relief. So the only logicial thing to is to change my name. Swish could become Suresh.

Maybe its not something very out of the ordinary. Maybe its like a cool nickname. It could mean you are fast or too awesome for people to be around. That they would be disoriented by the awesomeness of my name. Maybe. Or just more unlikely.

I can’t blame my father’s neighbour’s dog. Maybe just my father. Or I could just go along with it and be proud to be a Swish. Almost like a Scot or the Swiss.

To make things worse, my mother calls me ‘Swishy’ in her effort to show me heavy motherly affection. Swish has got to be better than Swishy, which sounds more like a fruit juice or an ice-cream._________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Painting – Birth of Venus

They envied her. The angels did not know what to do. The children loved her. Even more than the angels themselves. after all the gifts and miracles, they brought the village, they loved her more. The angels watched her play and sing with the children.

They wondered what she could possibly have that they don’t. They were angels. And she a mere mortal. They should be loved. Not her.

The villagers sought her counsel and not the angels’ anymore.

So the angels decide to end the blashphemy.They felt that she did not deserve to be loved so. At least, not more than them. So they watch and wait. For the right moment.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Woman on a Boat on a River

She woke up to the sound of water. But it did not make any sense. As she sat up in her bed, she wondered why her bed was floating on a river and not in her apartment where it should be. At least, that’s where it was last night.

“Where is everyone?”, she thought. “Where are my parents? Where is my brother? Where is my cellphone?”

Confused and lost she decided that it would be better if she went back to sleep. But she woke up again and found herself still on her bed, on a river. For some strange reason her bed now looked more like a boat.

She immediately started cursing her brother for forcing her to watch a documentary the day before about the Amazon forests. she should have stuck to her usual television shows, she thought.

Right then, she heard someone calling out to her. Calling her name. There’s someone ahead, she thought.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A few days ago a colleague, whos also a friend, took me to a creative writing workshop. I wasn’t quite prepared and it was quite intimidating to write and read out with a group of strangers. The strangers, also happened to be very good writers and regulars. ‘Swish’ was about using the word swish in a story.Thereafter, there were two more exercises where we were assigned a picture and had to describe a painting or interepret a scene. It was difficult as I had little knowledge about the painting or their references. So I had to make things up. Not sure how they ended up the way they did.

But it was an interesting exercise. Sadly it was also my last visit. I had to leave town the next week.

Forever Single

He’s one of my oldest friends. I have known him since school. I think since 6th grade, if I remember right. We haven’t been meeting that often although we are in touch online most days. He’s married now and has a son. He married his high school sweetheart. He was the first among our group of high school friends to get married. Along the years, one by one, most of the others got married too. Except for me, of course.

While we talked about other things and work, he inquired if I plan to find a girlfriend or get married. Although it was in a lighter vein and I laughed it off in an attempt to appear uninterested, it seemed to bother me later. I told him, it may or may not happen. That I didn’t really have a plan.

I’ve been here before. I usually evade the conversation with a joke because I really don’t know what to say.

Most times, when I think about relationships or the possibility of a relationship, I’m reminded of episodes in my parents’ marriage. Or my past attempts at relationships – having ended miserably or those crushes that never even took off. Leaves me with an embarrassing and uncomfortable feeling. Do I really want that?

Sometimes I wonder, if it makes sense, all the effort to pursue someone and then try to make the relationship somehow desperately work. Could I actually do it? If I did, would it last?

What if you meet someone else? What keeps two people together in a marriage or relationship for so many years? What if you drift apart or start to hate each other? Do we really need to get married? Is it really love? Is there such a thing as a soul-mate? Or is it a socially accepted way to have children? Does it arise from a need to have someone carry on your name? Is it an insurance policy to ensure someone looks after you in your old age? Is it just a way to have socially sanctioned access to sex? Do relationships or marriage, start as a quest for companionship or love and later become a contract one resigns to fearing few possibilities of a fresh start? Is it a desperate attempt at a fairy tale ending we fantasize about?

On the other side, maybe I’m just afraid to commit to a relationship. Maybe I’m afraid of rejection. Could it be that I don’t know how to love someone unconditionally? Perhaps I am too set in my ways and selfish to really care for someone and share my life. When you think about it, I have lived alone for so long and away from home. I barely miss my parents or relatives.I have few friends. I rarely go out to socialize. Maybe I don’t know how to be in a normal relationship.

My efforts to connect with women more or less stay within the ‘friend zone’ or distant friendly acquaintance of a common friend. Any venture outside of that zone and my system stops functioning and crashes. Although at times I find someone interesting or someone find me interesting, I manage to sabotage it, automatically putting up invisible barriers. Suddenly everything feels so fake and staged. I become incapable of normal human interaction that one would call ‘charming’. And I exit the scene.

I have to admit. When I see my friends or colleagues happily married. When I see them with their kids. When I see friends who are in a committed relationship. I’d envy them. I imagine what it would be like, if it were me. Would I be happy? Would I be complete? Or is it just a pipe dream?

Dark Around the Corner

It was my third time. The office takes everyone out for some fun with colleagues and discussions with the management about the year and plans for the next few years.

It was hard to feel the excitement the others did. I felt more like a spectator this time. I kept thinking that with me leaving soon, I was in a strange place. Most people were relatively new to the firm. They were still in a happy bubble. And they probably wouldn’t remember me. I’m old news. Somehow it all seemed temporary. For some reason I was afraid to jump in and have fun. Maybe this is what they call, separation anxiety.

It was good though to see everyone having fun together. The pool seemed to be the ultimate destination though I couldn’t get myself to go beyond dipping my feet at the edge. I don’t know why I couldn’t.

I have another month left. The last few times I left a job, I had felt a sense of relief and closure. But now it’s mostly doubt and fear about where I am headed, if I am making a mistake. Most people try to build a career and move up the ladder and become ‘managers’. But I turned down a promotion and decide to leave the possibility of a stable job and commit to something I’ve never done before, teaching in a school, for the next two years, in another city, I’ve never lived in. I can sense people looking at me thinking, he’s lost his mind, he’s never going to make it. Sometimes I wonder the same.

For the last 8 months, it did not seem like a big step. It seemed like something I should be doing. But as I get closer it feels strange, starting again from scratch. Trying to learn something new. Having to prove myself at work. Making new friends. It wasn’t easy making friends over the last 10 years with my minimum social skills. It’s almost a miracle I am left with a few.

I’ve never had thought of options outside of my current job for a long time. It’s almost like I wouldn’t know what else I could do. When people ask me, what I’m going to do after 2 years, I don’t have an answer either. Sometimes I wonder, if not for the work I do, who am I really… do I even exist? Who am I really?

What I’m Reading

Its not the first time brutal rape or violence against women has happened in the country. But its good to see protest and discussion. Maybe its because it happened in the capital, in Delhi. Or maybe it was because this incident was broadcast on the national media. I hope this leads to something constructive – a systemic change – reforms in the police force, laws protecting women and children from violence, stronger civil society involvment in setting up helplines and changing mindsets through education or sensitization programmes for adults, children and young people.

Interestingly, most people express anger or shame and demand violent punishment  like death for the perpetrators . Intially, there was very little discussion to understand the causes of violence against women in our society and how complicated it really is.

Violence against women and discimination exist in many of our own homes and across neighbourhoods in the country, not just in urban cities.  Very few offences are reported or protested due to social stigma and inefficient police and legal systems. But its rarely acknowledged that the root lies in the societal norms or culture or even religion in different parts of the country. In a way, I realize that I may have contributed to the problem as well.

I’ve seen the way my grandfather treated my  grandmother and the women in the family. He looked down upon them. My father rarely protested. I’ve seen my father’s violence against my mother. It took many years for me to find the courage to protest. Perhaps too late. Ironically, my mother believed in corporal punishment and terrified me. She was always bitter, angry and quick to snap at everyone. Was it in retaliation or retribution for her suffering?  I wonder if she would have been different otherwise. Maybe violence breeds more violence and hatred.

Ever since I can remember, I realize violence has been inside us and all around us. I just didn’t notice.  Like they are alternate dimensions of reality.We glorify past wars and take pride in them. We like violence on TV and movies – the guns and explosions and the blood and the gore and the titillating beautiful women around and available for the hero.  I rarely protest when I see parents punish their children violently in public or see policemen beat up someone in the street or see teachers punishing students or see a fist fight in a traffic jam.

We are immersed in violence everyday. Does that mean I indrectly endorse violence or likely to be a violent person? I really hope not.

The Wait

It’s been a long time since my last job interview. Being there, waiting in line with the other applicants for my interview was so much more difficult than I expected it to be. I was surprised that I was nervous. I wondered if it meant I wasn’t ready.

Maybe it was because I was attending a job interview at my current office. Strange. Yes. It was lent for the weekend as the CEOs are good friends and from the same non-profit fraternity.

There were so many of them. They were confident, young and had strong academics or work experience. They were good. Some were graduates right out of college or in their final year of college.

We started with a sample teaching session. Each of us was to simulate a class for any subject for grade 2 to 6 in front of the selectors and applicants within 5 minutes.

I spent the night before trying to choose a lesson between Indian History and Science. Eventually I picked a lesson. I found it strange that I would stress so much about a lesson plan when I seem to do it at ease at almost every day at work. Had I been too complacent?

After watching some brilliant teaching sessions, I eventually found the nerve to go next. I’m not sure if I managed to do things the way I intended. It finished much faster than I expected, almost like a blur. My visual aid (a hand drawn map) kept falling down or flying away. I don’t know if I managed to connect with the audience. I wanted to kick myself for not making it more interactive. That was the least I could have done.

We then wrote an aptitude test. Then came the group discussion for a school problem. It was the highlight of the day. It wasn’t disruptive or egos clashing or everyone trying to push their way through. There was a genuine effort to discuss the issue and solve a problem. It was refreshing.

When I left there was a sense of relief and excitement and I realized I was stuck. I couldn’t share it with anyone or talk about it. Maybe, not just yet. I felt alone.

So I called up a friend who got selected a year back. She seemed more excited and confident of me getting through than me.

During the interview I realized that I hadn’t really really discussed this with my parents or sister. I guess I was avoiding the inevitable conversation where they suggest I get a ‘better job’ or a ‘normal job’.  And so I wrote to them. And yes, there were elements of it in their concerns. I didn’t want any more arguments.

I just tried explaining that this was the line of work I chose 3 years back and that I knew the risks when I started then. I wasn’t really seeking their approval. I just wanted to let them know. We don’t talk much about my work. So I sent them some reading material and link to the website hoping they take an interest. Fortunately, there haven’t been further conversations about my life choices since.

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for a decision on my interview. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hopeful yet. I also realize I need to choose a location if given a preference. Do I move to Delhi or Mumbai or choose Chennai because it’s closer to home or Bangalore?

 

Am I Doing Enough..

The work with children and young people in many ways have kept me driven. But sometimes I wonder if I am doing the right thing or am I back in a regular job? Did the cause or desire to make a difference get sidelined along the way? Is this way of life getting harder? Was it was just the novelty of being this social worker that appealed to me in the first place? Were my intentions in the right place, am I really altruistic? Am I just a floater an opportunist, a poser, a fake?

I generally keep away from people conflict and controversies at my workplace. When I start to think about it or worry, I bury myself in work and spend more time with the kids to find some meaning in midst of the apprehensions. I now spend more time at a youth community center program in addition to the program I normally work with, to keep myself occupied and focused on the kids and the cause.  I tell myself everything else is not important.

But sometimes  you notice things – questionable managerial or organizational decisions. Lines being crossed in the name of the greater good, number of beneficiaries vs depth or quality of programs/projects.  People being walked over or  pushed aside, colleagues  quitting or leaving disgruntled. All of this affect you.

It’s been a little more than two years. I would have never imagined myself doing what I do now when I was in school or college. I never planned this. When I quit my last job four years ago, I was lost. I was a publicist at a public relations firm. I didn’t looked forward to the work anymore. So I took up this job at the non-profit hoping there would be more meaning and purpose to my life. I spent some volunteering before I took up the job. It seemed like everything in my life was leading me to this.

But now I get this odd feeling if I was too naive to assume that the non-profit world would be perfect and everything was good.  I guess its always in a grey area.

Scale seems to be the favourite word for non-profit and social projects these days and the donors who give the money. We must rapidly grow to reach more people and change their lives, is the war cry. Big numbers are projected as goals. But most often there is no clear plan on how to get there or discussion or understand or evaluate impact.

Sometimes  you see very little discussion or debate. Sometimes lines and boundaries get blurred and everything gets personal, there is an informal and friendly atmosphere at work thats encouraged. Socialising outside work’s big. But then suddenly everything becomes about business and goals and being professional. So you have to always be on your guard.

Non-profit or social projects are gradually growing bigger, maybe enough to become a regular job. And there is the ‘good samaritan or hero’ status small organisations, people leading them, get because of charity or social work.

Maybe it’s gets to your head eventually. You become too proud to admit you could be wrong and diligence and introspection goes out the window .  I guess most social workers and organisations didn’t start out that way. Perhaps after a while ambition and vanity takes over in the guise of wanting to do good. You are blinded by the milestones. You start to ignore feedback or criticism and fall back on achievments to counter. Because that would be outrageous considering all the good we do and when the outside world applauds you for your work.There are funds coming in. Volunteering and charity becomes cool.  Everybody wants to shake your hand. So every time a different thought or criticism emerges, it dies a slow death as the counter-argument would mean you are not loyal to the cause or the disadvantaged who need our help or value the work and so your intentions may not be good.

I wonder sometimes, if we are getting lost in some kind of denial to feel good about what we do and in the process ignore to acknowledge the mistakes. Somewhere along the way social projects become self-absorbed  in its own survival and rapid growth rather than remaining relevant and getting better.  Small is bad. Growth is good.

So I try to keep a low profile here on and just focus on work and the kids. Everytime someone says I doing good work and making a difference I feel undeserving. What if I am not doing the best I can.