Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Goodbye LBN, phir milenge!

Shortly after my kathak performance, it came time for another culmination, another ending: my last day at Navyug School, Laxmi Bai Nagar. 

In reality, I had finished my actual teaching duties towards the end of February.  I stayed on at school for several more weeks, invigilating for exams.  After exams officially ended, my school duties did as well, as students were not coming to school.  (The other teachers still had to stay and grade though.)  As I had not had any sort of official farewell prior to exams however, the teachers kindly thought to have a small farewell get-together for me in early April.

Though I had not been asked to wear a saree, I felt that I should.  Fortunately, my saree-tying skills have improved a great deal since Teachers’ Day.  Also in my favor was the fact that I had been asked to come to school at 11am, and not 8am.  By the time I had to leave for school, my saree was not perfectly tied, but it was at least on my body.  I waddled carefully to the metro station, and eventually found myself at school.

As soon as I entered the gates a group of smiling teachers greeted me, welcomed me back, and complimented me on my saree.  Once they saw it up close, however, it was quickly determined that I would need some help re-wrapping it.  I was quickly beckoned into a small room off to the side of the Principal’s office, where two of the school’s workers and one teacher got down to the task of dressing me.  There was some admonition about the slipperiness of the fabric I had chosen, but in general, I think we all had a good time getting me dressed.  I certainly learned a lot.  It turns out that I had been doing my pleats wrong for a very long time…

Eventually, I was dressed and ready, and my coordinating teacher fetched me and brought me over to the library, where the get-together was to take place.  There I sat and chatted with various teachers while we waited for the whole faculty to show up.  I realized that my farewell was to be a whole faculty party, while the prefects supervised the students.  It took a while for all members of the faculty to make it into the library, and finally the Principal voiced what I had been thinking: “Let’s start now; how long do you really think the prefects can hold the school together?” 

Waiting in the library: Deepika ma'am and Shubhangi ma'am

Varuna ma'am

Several very nice speeches followed, and I was surprised at how much the teachers remembered, knew, and appreciated about me.  They talked about how I had not only taught the school’s naughtiest children, but had enjoyed doing it; they proudly mentioned that I cooked my own Indian food, and that I had worked hard on the inter-Navyug Sports Day aerobics dance.  They wished me all the best, and of course, expressed their desire to have me married to a nice boy some day soon, preferably in India.  I was also asked to perform a little bit of kathak, which I did to the best of my ability, considering I was wearing a saree.  It was not my best kathak performance, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

After the speeches and dance, it was time for lunch, which consisted of puri (deep fried flat breads), aloo sabzi (potato curry), raita (yogurt sauce), and halwa (a sweet dish).  All of this was served by the boys of class 9a (formerly class 8a, who featured in my Christmas blog post).  They were unusually quiet and obedient due to the presence of the entire school faculty, but their devilish grins definitely emerged as they served me far too much food.

After lunch I went outside the library where a water cooler had been set up.  I very quickly heard the familiar cries of “Hiiiiiiiiii Abby mam!”  I looked up and the members of class 7b (6b when I taught them) hanging out of their classroom windows, excitedly waving.  At that point I excused myself from the teachers’ gathering and “took a round” around the school, so I could visit with my kids.

It was as crazy as I thought it would be.  “MAAAAM!!!!  Where have you been ma’am?”  “You look gorgeous ma’am!!!”  “Ma’am I think you have taken help with this dress ma’am.”  “Who tied your sari ma’am???”  (How well they know me.)  I think the following pictures will illustrate what the rest of my afternoon was like, much more accurately than any verbal description I might come up with:

An energetic 8b

The energy was contagious!

8b boys

Good-as-gold 9b (there was another teacher in the room)

Sparse 9a (remember, most of the boys were serving food)

7b girls

Best friends

7a boys

8a girls

The disagreement over who would be in front ended in a race towards the camera


The very spirited farewell I received from reminded me again of how much I have learned over the year, about India, education, pedagogy, childhood, and about myself.  Looking back, there are many things I might have done differently, things that would have made my time at Navyug School Laxmi Bai Nagar much easier.  Perhaps if I had “kept more of a distance” between the students and myself, as my Principal had advised, I might have had more luck with discipline.  Maybe saying “no” to the sweet 7th graders who asked “Ma’am…can I hug you ma’am,” might have established automatically that I was far above them hierarchically.  And it is possible that high-fiving the boy who announced that he shared my enthusiasm for movies starring Shah Rukh Khan diminished my teacherliness in my students’ eyes.

During our first week in Delhi, Vinita, the USIEF Director, warned us to be strict with our students, and not to become their friends.  “If you become friends with them…then they will take you on a ride,” she said.  My kids have certainly taken me for a wild ride.  But what a ride it has been…  Over the course of the year I have had the privilege of being invited into some of my students’ homes, where I have been fed generously, been shown family home videos, and had my hands beautifully decorated with henna. 

I have played fast-paced playground games like “ice-water” (freeze tag), chupan chupaai (hide and seek), chiclets (a playground game I have seen only in India), and kho kho, a traditional game that has its roots in the ancient India, but really gathered force in the 1920s.  I was also lucky in that I had a group of 6th grade boys eager to coach me on my cricket bowling technique.  When running games were too hot and tiring, the girls of 6b led me on “nature walks” in the school’s tiny garden, telling me, “We are only small children ma’am, but we have great interest in nature and in saving our Earth.”  And this even after they had given me lengthy explanations of the various native Indian plants, their religious significances, and their nutritional and medicinal properties.

Sometimes I worried that the “cultural exchange” that Fulbright intended was entirely one-way—I often felt that I was learning much, much more than my kids were.  I noticed small changes in my students’ language skills to be sure: they no longer mixed up “good morning” and “good afternoon” for one thing, and quickly stopped interchangeably using the words “he” and “she.”  But were these changes worth all the classroom chaos, the confusion, and—dare I say it?—the U.S. tax dollars? 

In the end though, I really do believe that my time was well-spent.  I certainly grew tremendously over the year, and have many ideas for how to proceed the next time I find myself at the front of a classroom.  My Hindi has improved dramatically, as has my knowledge of Indian culture.  I naturally will never really know if I have made any kind of a difference in my students’ lives.  Still, when I see that the student who has bluntly said, “you have black hair ma’am.  Americans have golden hair” finally understands America’s origins, or when we have a class New York style New Year‘s Celebration which involves counting down from ten, dropping a ball, and singing “Auld Lang Syne,” or when we celebrate Thanksgiving by discussing (in English) the things we are thankful for, I realize that J. William Fulbright intended for the English Teaching Assistantships to be about far more than grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.  As Fulbright himself once said, “Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communications can do to the humanizing of international relations.”

When one of my brightest and most enthusiastic students asked me to “do one thing ma’am.  Please don’t go back to America ma’am!” I was reminded of how much more I have to learn about India, and how much more I would like to give back to this country that has so generously hosted me three times.  I told my student that I could not stay any longer this time, but that I would be back.  And I will be.  Pukka