Sunday, March 11, 2012

TWO Wackers in India! Part 1: “Ma’am! Your father is very white, ma’am.”

Less than a week after I returned from Hyderabad, something very exciting happened.  Mere pita-ji (father) landed in Delhi!  It was great to see him, and talk to him, and introduce him to my friends, my work, and my current home.  Additionally, we had a lot of fun little outings together, including visits to Safdarjung’s tomb, Lodhi Gardens, Old Delhi, and The National Gallery of Modern Art.  We also attended a really excellent sitar performance together, one that I probably would not have thought to attend had my dad not been with me. 

One part of my dad’s visit that was very interesting for me (and hopefully him too!) was his visit to my school.  Bravely (or perhaps naively) my dad agreed to spend a whole day with me, from assembly to the final bell.  The day started off fairly normally; I signed in as the other teachers and the principal introduced themselves to my dad.  Assembly followed.  For the past few months, assemblies had been growing progressively more lackluster; while the assemblies in my first few months at school had been student organized, with poetry recitations, readings of the school mission and vision, “today’s news,” and a “thought of the day,” such things had slowly died away.  On the day my dad visited, however, class 7b had been asked to put together a program, and they did an excellent job, including in their program the day’s headlines, some English poetry, Sanskrit slokas, and much more.

We spent much of the next three class periods sitting in the principal’s office drinking tea, sampling the school lunch, and chatting about cultural differences, what India was doing right, what it was doing wrong, the fact that very few people in America get any education beyond high school (we had to correct her on this one), and what I had been like as a child.  Soon enough, fourth period rolled around, and it was time for me to head off to class 8a.

As you may remember from my Christmas post, 8a is one of my most challenging classes.  On that day, dead silence descended as I walked in with my dad in tow.  The lesson went on well enough, for 8a, and they enjoyed listening to my dad read from their textbook.  Then I asked if any of them had questions for my dad.  Again, dead silence.  Then an explosion.  “What is your favorite sport?”  “Do you like football sir??”  “Who is your favorite cricketer sir?”  “How do you feel in India??”  “Who is your favorite hero?”  The period ended with a (LOUD) 8a rendition of the hugely popular song, “Kolaveri di,” especially for my dad (see the video here if you are curious about the song).

The next two periods, in 8b and 7a, passed in much the same way.  But then, it was eighth period, and my dad and I walked through the doors of class 6b. 

Before I relate what happened next, I should explain something about how “Abby mam’s class” works.  After several weeks of total mayhem, I finally worked out that my schedule was made up not only of English classes that I had taken over from the English teachers, but also so-called “library periods.”  As it turned out, the school librarian had recently left, so the weekly “library period,” a period of browsing and checking out books that each class had once been entitled to, was no longer in existence.  Therefore, the available periods had been given to me.  I decided that I would teach the English curriculum during the English classes, and, if the class had been able to make it through the required chapters, that week’s library period would be devoted to a special activity.  If the class was too unruly though, the activity would be cut, and we would use the library period for the English syllabus. 

For a while, this worked very well, and each class not only finished the Government mandated curriculum, but was also able to engage in special activities for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, along with other non-holiday centered word or grammar games.  Unfortunately though, my dad visited in January. January is an interesting time in the Indian school year: it is late enough in the year that final exam pressure is weighing down on teachers, but early enough that students are not yet feeling nervous.  Though I was frantically trying to wrap up the syllabus, the kids could not have cared less, and their behavior reflected this fact.  One by one, my classes began losing their activity privileges.  Fortunately however, 6b and 7b, my best-behaved classes, had not. 

My dad’s visit to 6b happened to coincide with “Abby mam’s activity period.”  As this was my first activity with them in 2012, we did a New Year’s activity during which we learned about the bizarre things that people in America do on New Year’s Eve.  We looked at pictures of Time Square, did a mock ball drop (I was the tower, and I dropped a ball after we counted down from 10).  Then my dad and I taught “Auld Lang Syne” to the class, and all enthusiastically sang along.  We also took time to write New Years' resolutions for ourselves, and for the class as a whole.  Throughout the various activities, the class was respectful, attentive and very willing to try out all the crazy things I asked them to do.  In the end, when I asked if anyone had questions for my dad, there was no explosion, but rather a polite raising of hands.  When the bell rang, some of the kids ran up to shake my dad’s hand and introduce themselves.  Though the day as a whole had been a little crazy, I have to say it ended on a beautiful note.  

My dad’s visit came at a time at which I was really beginning to feel at home in my school.  Things that had once shocked or overwhelmed me were now completely normal, and completely un-frightening.  Slowly, I had grown accustomed to the chaos that was a typical class period, to the desks and chairs routinely falling apart in the middle of a lesson, to the lackadaisical way in which the school was cleaned and maintained (or not cleaned and not maintained), and to the rigid hierarchies among the staff.  For pita-ji, however, all of this was as new and strange as it had been to me on my first day.

Discussing my dad’s school visit with him afterwards reminded me anew of the deeply problematic nature of the Indian education system, and of the reasons I had chosen to come and teach English in India in the first place.  It also reminded me once again that education is a very tricky thing, and that no one has the one magic method that will right all wrongs in any school system.  I firmly believe that, while India has a long way to go in terms of its education system, there are many things that America (and likely other countries) can learn from India as well—for example a focus on learning foreign languages at an earlier age.

Thus, in addition to being a great opportunity to show my dad a “day in the life,” his visit to my school served as a healthy reminder for me to continue to think critically about my role in the school, about the school itself, and about education in general.  It also reminded me how passionate I am about these things.  I have very little time before my Fulbright grant comes to an end, and I have only very vague ideas of what I will do next.  Still, I sincerely hope to be able to engage myself with these issues long after my days at Navyug School, Laxmi Bai Nagar are over.

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