Teaching is one of those bewildering adult things. I didn’t expect myself to stumble into it beginning at age 11. Especially when I was myself having a trouble in finding a friendly lunch table in my new Gurgaon school.
But it wasn’t quite a surprise either. You see, I’ve been this annoyingly uppity — moralistic little girl all my life. On one such impulse, I wanted to teach the under privileged kids around my block. Right here was my next big adventure.
Gurgaon is a city chasing modernity.
I was in awe of the sky high glass buildings, plush housing blocks, the sleek metro trains. It settled down slowly. In contrast, there was the constant rankling sounds of never ending construction, the dust, pollution and misty haze. We lived in a city under progress.
With construction work came the growling need for physical labor, and thus poor migrants travelled here to work from all around India. These brought along a startling poverty. I saw makeshift shacks sprouting at every roadside, people lathering themselves with soap out in the open, dirty little girls and boys playing in the streets.
They would stare at us unembarrassed, the city kids, as we sailed by on our shiny bikes. We averted our gazes.
There was a frankness in the eyes, demanding some recognition or response from us. The honesty of this demand would astonish me.
It struck me that while we zoomed off to our ‘international schools’, in yellow school buses every morning, knew the best Youtubers online, and have our mothers constantly nag us, they knew none of that.
They seemed to be out in the sunshine, playing all day.
Nobody bothered what they did with their hours. It was then I first felt something more than pity. More than the guilty glances we usually gave them.
It was empathy.
Why did this happen? Eleven years old then, I saw this with a childish simplicity which gave me courage that adults often cannot muster.
That evening I simply walked into one of those shacks and persuaded a father to send his three children to me for an hour in the evening. Where? Surely the park would be fine. Yes, I had the notebooks. The pencils too. No — yes I’m sure — I don’t take any fees.
From that day on, to the next two years we were in Gurgaon, I saw some incredible things. When the first batch of three kids I ever taught, left for their village after their father’s employment ended — I found another tumble of five spirited little girls.
In our last year in the city, my class had ballooned to over 15 kids in the little park facing our house. There was even a special child in my class, Bunty.
Ilearnt a lot about the kind of life privileged kids are often sheltered from, and my experiences have led me to learn a lot about the basic goodness in all of us.
I would struggle to relate all this in a few hundred words. So, I’ve tried and put down some of my memories here as emotions. Thus the story will live on within you, and time cannot threaten to blur it out easily.
Children enchant parents, elders, youngsters alike.
But it’s funnily eerie how fast childhood trickles out of you when you become a teenager.
You’re suddenly plunged into this new world of people, problems and raging emotions. The little things which used to give you so much happiness turn irrelevant and vanish.
In my class, I saw all sorts of displays of joy. Just plain amusement happening for the sake of it. Every time I’d step into the garden, a big rush would break with lots of screaming. Kids were running around, wishing on flowers and what not, grappling with each other — their faces lit up.
‘Why were you not coming?’
‘We were just going to bean a brick to your windows!’
‘Not my windows.’ I would retort horrified !
‘Well the old grandma who lives below us would chase you guys down the streets.’
When we ended our studies, and came to the 15 minutes of play, a literal carnival would break out around me.
No matter how dull the studying had been, the class energy would rise to its highest. Even the little boys who’d ignored when I placidly begged them to draw a C, now jumped and gleefully chased each other at my command.
I always managed to send them home with a smile on their faces, and it struck by just how easy it was to please these kids.
In a life bred with poverty, these children didn’t have a single frown to show for it. They were some of the happiest people I knew. That makes me really curious about us, the fortunate ones. What really is so dang impressive about looking busy? Adult-ish, big worry creases on your forehead. Receding forehead? Mildly constipated?
Just why didn’t people let themselves to laugh more?
2. The Disillusioned Teacher
So I had this vague dream about teaching.
There I was on the altar, spotlight beaming me, as I expounded my theories. Kids, why does it rain? Did you know the earth is round? And I know none of this makes sense, but there’s this place called America.
All in a baritone, impressive, teacherly voice of course. They would gape at me with way more interest than 7 year olds tend to have in that sort of thing.
Just wipe that grin of your face. It didn’t happen.
Most days I was running from bench to bench, teaching along kids at different levels as a snowstorm of notebooks chazed after me.
‘Didi I’ve completed!’
Completed what, you ask?
No, not brilliant Stephan Hawking theorems. Not paper on Dickensian literature, as per my expectations.
It was counting 1- 100, writing them alphabet; the basics. For the first time, I understood why they scrubbed a kid for five years in school before getting to the hot stuff in 6th Grade. It was strange to see them struggle over the letters people thoughtlessly scribbled off every day.
Sometimes I felt like a triumphant scientist — sculpting humans from mammals. It was amazing how quickly they evolved. But I saw that what I had shown them was only a drop in the ocean of education. I hoped that even after I left, they would set out in search of water.
I realised that the worst part, the biggest deprivation about living in poverty, was ignorance. You looked at the world through a keyhole.
It was surprising how many of them loved Maths. Simple addition, subtraction, used their minds in ways my pet pal English couldn’t hope to yet.
Meanwhile, my father had a good laugh as I sweated over the classic Hindi vocabulary he’d learnt in his boyhood days. ‘Jod’ was addition; ‘Ghata’ meant subtraction. The Math ‘Pahare’ tables they recited, completely flew over my head sometimes.
Teaching was a fall of vanity.
I had to confront that everything I’d hoped for couldn’t possibly be understood. There were times, with the pandemonium of a full noisy class bursting upon me —
I’d walk home feeling like sawdust has been poured down my throat.
For the first time I truly felt like I stood in the shoes of my harder teachers. The ones we’d hated most. The livid, frosty nosed ones, who couldn’t get in class without yelling. They had no joy about teaching, because it seemed like they had to deal with the morons we were all the time.
It’s the easy thing to do as a teacher. It’s weak to drop into the humdrum routine of yelling, danda — mar and repeat when you hit your nose against the grindstone.
You stop asking yourself questions. You stop seeing any potential or worth in children.
It crushes them. I’d experienced it firsthand.
They looked up at me because they wanted my love and appreciation. They wanted to be applauded, and they would give their best to subjects and spellings they were still to small to care about.
Simply put, they did it for me. I knew that. From my students, I learnt a life long lesson about the human heart.
To truly connect with, to inspire people — you have to see the greatness they don’t they don’t see in themselves. You have to believe in them.
3. Wonder and Magic
‘It just won’t work,’ I told my mother one evening. ‘They’re learning letters and all, but that’s not real education is it? They’re never going to learn important things.’
‘I guess so.’
‘Then teach them in a way you love,’ she said wisely. ‘Stories might work.’
And that was how some of the most fun times came about in my class. I made them sit on the grass and with picture books in my hands, I invented all kinds of stories. Slowly they began to relish them. They started to look at me like a magician with a hat, pulling out rabbits.
The stories were about cleanliness, morals, being good, gentle, being brave.
There were moments of pin-drop silence sometimes when I knew I had succeeded in carrying them into the world I was so captivated by. The world of stories. A feeling of magic, real connection ran through everybody there.
They surprised me too. When I came the next day, the tattered clothes were gone. All the girls had washed, combed hair and the boys wore fresh shirts. Dirt free, blunt nails. They all looked cleaner, shined up.
But all the while I was trying to about the facts — I still believe they saw something in the world I didn’t. They had a connection with the trees, the flowers and the sun, a friend like familiarity.
Once I taught a group of shrill little girls listened about how a butterfly slips out of her cocoon.
The next I saw them, they ran towards me by the roadside. I’ve never managed once it once in my life, but here they’d done it.
‘We spent an hour finding her!’
They had a tiny blue butterfly trapped in their hands.
4. Power Plays
Prejudice runs deepest at grass root level. I found that there were standards and mindsets these kids had already built up. Realities of their crude life had been impresed upon them.
There was a girl called Payal in our class. She had a strange chutzpah for hitting every boy in class. They couldn’t hit her back, and most boys went home with a black eye. Then one day, a brawl broke out before I’d arrived in class.
One of the boys had pushed her off.
Before I knew what was happening — frizzy haired Payal had fled home and called her mother. A brash lady in a wrinkled sari had come and thwacked the poor boy right before my eyes. She let a stream of colorful Bengali curses. I stood dumbfounded. Then the dear lady turned towards me, and meekly asked how my day was going.
I was often surprised by the first impression all of them held for me. The children were shy and scared of me the first few days.
I think they were expecting a stick swinging, curt taskmaster, and then it pained me a little to realize then, that really must me how most teachers were in the sprawling, unchecked parts of our country.
There were more incidents I saw too.
Among the children, superiority reigned.
Girls and boys who had grey school bags, who attended government schools, were told to stay away from the ‘dirty cussing children’ who came from the other side of the road, to the class. They couldn’t sit with them, or share their pencils or sharpeners.
There was a time I saw my whole class unite against a crop of new children who visited our class one day. They were black, stick thin. They were like a walking talking litter, with their stained clothes, white smiles.
And my whole class shifted to make them sit separately, almost as if they knew these children had seen days even worse than them.
And they, just like the people above them, were scared of that poverty.
5. Defeat and Ruin
Then there were the things I couldn’t escape. My girls and boys weren’t much different from normal children. But poverty shadowed its footprints in the way they talked, the way they thought.
Here are a few experiences.
‘Is that your husband Didi?’ Kunal, a little boy asked me one day.
I turned around to see my 19 year old brother getting into the car with his golf set.
Another time, it was Kunal again who gave me insight. His older brother Aryan, a plump 10 year old with a competitive streak — was rumored to be wandering around with older boys. Buying gutka, and smoking away the late hours of the evening.
‘You have to talk to him.’
‘What?’ Kunal peeked at me.
‘If your brother’s in trouble, it’s your duty isn’t it? You love him. And he’s smart — he helps you and Bunty with your homework. What will happen to him if he gets addicted?’
‘Yes.’ He nodded gloomily. ‘It’ll rot his brain.’
‘And if he keeps spending — your family may lose money…’
I repeated that a few times. He was silent.
Then Kunal finally burst out. ‘But it’s not our money, Didi. He’s my uncle’s boy.’
‘So? Isn’t he your brother?’
Once, a prickly headed little boy, Kanhaiya –gawked at me. It was the end of summer, and I’d worn black Reebok shorts which stopped at my knees.
‘Hey what?’ I rumpled his hair.
Kanhaiya looked down, embarrassed.
‘I’ve got the same old two legs as you. Why can’t I wear shorts like you?’
He was quiet and then nodded after a while.
‘Yes — you have the same skin as me Didi.’
But out of all, the most surreal experience was one afternoon, when I was taking two boys for the free education program at the school behind my house, Suncity International. The teacher there is a kind lady who takes classes.
I was walking along. There were but a few days left in August 2016, and we would leave for Chandigarh.
I was taking the only two out -of -school kids in my class, to enroll. Their mother was with me.
She looked no more than 25 years old. Her youthful face was riddled with weariness, there was an expression in her eyes, that told me life had already aged her.
‘I just don’t know what to do, Didi,’ she said quietly.
‘Are you alright?’ I looked at her.
‘It’s the boys’ father. I don’t know what to do with him. I break my back working for my children all day. And he goes to the brewery and drinks his brains out every night.
I mumbled nervously. ‘‘You could ask him to think about his boys, about the kind of example he was setting.’
‘I do, Didi. When it’ll get to him, only God knows.’
She looked at me.
‘What about you? Do you plan to marry?’
‘But I’m fourteen.’
‘Oh you are?’ She smiled. ‘By God — you’re already so smart for a little girl. You’ll become an officer or something, Didi.’
And it was just this world view — that proved how many different shades life came in to me. There were little boys spraying water with pipes on construction sites, picking up boulders while I came home to biscuits and Sherlock episodes every day after school. There was this lady, who had spent her girlhood among pots & burning stoves. She didn’t forget to smile.
6. Like a Do Gooder
Kindness makes people feel the high. It makes them happy.
In the long string of months, I didn’t feel like a snowy angel throughout. But I did figure out something.
It gave me the deeper, truer meaning of kindness.
Real kindness looks through the eyes of empathy. It’s not quite just an act of goodwill. It’s because you can’t bear it. You can’t let things be the way they are.
Kindness is watching people soar and succeed because of you. That is what I found with the kids I taught. It wasn’t quite a great, earth shattering shift — but the little changes which slowly made them better before my eyes.
Dark and bashful little Bunty, was a special child. He walked with a slight limp and never really spoke except when he was angry — unleashing a selection of dazzling Bihari curses.
As we made him walk surefooted, he began to run and jump with the other kids. His voice cleared.
Bitty and Ajay, the twins ran in with dirty clothes and hair infested with fleas — were suddenly the sleekest and sharpest looking.
Kusum spent her day in housekeeping tasks and mothering her own little brother. When she came with us, I saw her laugh and wheeze like the child she was supposed to be.
I had never thought about it.
It was only in writing this story, that I saw how much had actually changed.
In the view of education, my contribution is but meager sums and ABC’s.
But that wasn’t it. I realised that every smile and laugh they had given in classes was a gift too.
7. To Feel The World’s Eyes on You
There were a few interesting reactions to what I did in the neighbourhood.
‘OMG! Girl, you teach? Cool. Lemme help you out.’
It was a rare two times this happened. It was nice of them, but the girls disappeared again as school and social life called after them.
‘That girl of Col Sharma’s , next door — such a good girl that one,’ uncles and aunties would say soberly.
There was even a friend of my elder brother’s who was quirky and sweet enough, to make puns once in a while.
‘I’m skipping college, dude. Just — tell your little sister to crank up tuitions for me too. Heck, we gotta learn English from her.’
Some way or the other, they impressed all their opinions upon me. It was like a fog being wiped from the mirror before me, because I found the common denominator. I saw truly, how poor people were perceived.
They were just one, big faceless sea of misfortune, chucked away in a corner.
People kept their distance, afraid to come too close. To see too much. Too much of their roofless houses, their dry cracked walls. These children with dust and destruction clinging on them.
When I came closer, I saw how wrong we all had been. These children were as bright and unique as any, personality molded. Much more endearing, in my opinion.
It took courage to start, that was the biggest thing I realized.
To see people living 50 yards away, trapped in lives 50 years in the past. To allow yourself to feel their pain, their desperaton. To cut yourself from the pack, and try to help them up. To be brave enough to realize that one person can change things.
I hope my experiences inspire you to find the same courage within yourself. You have potential you have to change lives in a way you never imagined. Everyone does.
You can see those situations, those people you ignore everyday — and realize life has given you the opportunity to help. To grow and see things no one else could, to meet amazing people, to have experiences
All it takes is one leap of faith.
This is one of those stories that have defined and catapulted my writing life. When two years ago, I first published this journey I’d been on since I was a young child, I was lucky enough to recieve a huge response from family & friends. As a shaky 15 year old, I even got to share this story to the adults’ roomful of applause — up with a mic on an official story night. We’re existing far away from the kids now, but the time we shared lives within me always. The gifts they gave me are priceless.
If you’d like to, follow Lift You please. I really worry I’d lose your dope presence forever in the chaos of the web once this tab closes. I’m also sorta hoping that you enjoyed this enough to heart it & recommend it to your peeps! Your ideas, experiences and thoughts are always cherished, welcome and awaited with baited breath down below.
Finally, a grateful hug from me to you for the slice of your day’s time you carved out to read this. Yes you — curled up reading there with the screen’s white glow on your face. Thank you for being here.