I’ve always wanted to teach. In school, I remember teaching the walls to learn for tests and exams. Sometimes, it would get to Amma and she would scold me.
“Can you stop playing and sit and learn?”
“But you only said that the more we teach, the more you learn”
“Ah! but what you’re doing is playing, not teaching anyone.”
I would ignore her. And quieten my voice, like listless days in between seasons.
When anyone asked, “What do you want to be, when you become big?” I went around saying, “I want to be a sister teacher”.
In sixth standard, I decided I had too many sinful thoughts to become a nun. I decided that the pressure of sistering and “being a good roll modal” to two younger ones, “who are looking and learning from you” was “sister” enough.
As the years passed, I found that the question of being someone became very gajja-bujji like. I also discovered sisterhood in girl friends – who would take a piece of my heart to Germany, Kannur and Delhi. Some of them stayed and kept them home in Bangalore, when I went to study in Hyderabad. (But later, about sisterhood and feminism)
Now, I will write for the emptiness in my heart. Like the scribbled mess of the “gajja-bujji”, (a metaphor I’ve borrowed from this piece on the Open Dosa) this young teacher is lost among classes and reading, corridors and Covid, screens and writing. This is hopefully going to be a series of collected thoughts and moments – hidden in the chaos of the gajja bujji.
I never thought I would be worthy of this job. A job I always wanted. A job I dreamily walked the past year. Not believing that I was really working – as a teacher. A job that is more who I am, than who I wanted to be.
I think I shall start at the very beginning of this journey.
In school, every year, I would sit at the edge of the wooden bench when they called out the names of the teachers who would teach the subjects. Every name broke my heart. Some were happy heartbreaks, some sad. When they walked in, I would take mental notes. How they spoke to students – friendly, or strict, or the right balance like rice and dal in kichdi. How they conducted classes – reading from books, or creating worlds you could jump into. How they gave tests – did it help, or did it sadden school going faces?
And how they loved.
“Students – you are like my children!”
“Students – you may think of me as a friend. But know your limits.”
Sometimes, these were complimented by sharp knocks on the palm or knuckle. Afterwards they became a slow humiliation as everyone turned their heads and watched you from the first benches. As I overgrew my black Bata shoes, I learnt how to avoid confrontation. I became the teacher’s pet (it helped that Amma was close to the nuns who ran the school). I learnt to teach myself more, to be humble and put my head down. To guard my crush from everyone except Sathu and Neha. To never speak up, to never offer suggestions, to be a good catholic child. Until I totally missed teenage rebellion and jumping hormones.
In Joseph’s I realised I could not talk to most of my peers without being bullied. For the weird ways in which I retorted. For the way I pointed to my throat when I said “Stomach”. For not being able to hold my opinion. For not knowing when people “were just messing with me.” For being too sensitive. Vj Ma’am was the first person to smile at me. The first moment that college, felt like home. Then there was the chapel – the morning light creeping through the cream curtains. The bougainvilleas quietly swaying outside.
The prayer group circles visited only during lunch. Mornings were silent. Except for the occasional student who came in to play his violin. And some who came in and completed assignments. Sometimes, teachers hurried in, smeared holy water on their foreheads, and bowed down, watched the excess water drip from the watered cross to the tiles, and left. I sat there and collected my thoughts. Fell in love with light and shadow.
As the English classes passed from one year to another, I had my portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman moments in this light and brown chapel, and the BMTC bus. Slowly, the dream to become a physics teacher drowned in the rain. I wanted to read, to write, to teach English. When C’chacha kept prodding me to join EJP, instead of PEM, I said,
“But Physics is about matter, and English is about the mind. And I choose matter over mind.”
He might have laughed. But he didn’t show it.
I had borrowed this from some “mind over matter” quote in the paper. And fancy-fied it.
My English teachers never said “Students, you are like my friends” or “Students, you are like my children.” They were just kind. Vj Ma’am would smile. She would speak about Shakespeare disdainfully. J Ma’am, my English teacher from school would be shocked, if she knew.
Vj Ma’am, was steady in her classes on feminism. She was curious when she taught personal writing. She was funny when boys said stupid things. She used Freud and that shut them up. In the department, she would move her wild hair around and be lost in reading, or speaking to students – teasing them, laughing with them, drinking tea with them, smelling coffee or stroking her wildlife poster. She just was. And when she said something, you wanted to write it down and remember it always, because you never heard it said like that before.
Vj, CA, AM and AB had these ways of being. Their love and acceptance came by doing, not by saying.
Early this year, it was Meta season again. This February I was in Bangalore. By day, I would silently suffer the sari, enjoy my classes, gather all the lessons and smiles, bitterness and boredom, change into a kurti at 2pm and go off to SJC. On one of those days, I was part of a panel on Surviving Academic Writing. The idea came about at twilight, a few weeks earlier, at Champaca Bookstore. I’d gone there to listen to AM on Bangalore. I said something about using various versions of “thus” and “also”( therefore, additionally, moreover, however, hence, nevertheless) in academic papers in order to sound polished and fill the word limits. Vj Ma’am had laughed and said, let’s have a Panel on this at Meta.
The tingling sensation of cold after rains – a happiness and anxiety forming a gajja bujji, filled my heart. At the panel, I was now a teacher. It felt weird to sit in Loyola Hall at a panel and be called, “Prof. Anna”. The last time, I was a student whose voice wavered and hand shivered as she held the mic. While speaking to Malsawmi Jacob on Zorami. This time, my hands were somewhat steady. My voice sailed by. My heart beat like a bird wet in a storm. But I knew the women in the panel. I knew we would reassure each other. And so it turned out okay.
Later, AM Sir read from a fat copy of one of Perumal Murugan’s novel. He would read the Tamil writing and then translate it into English. He was describing a teacher’s interaction with a student. Now, the names have faded in my memory. But this Instagram story reminds me of the most important thing, I took away that day.
“The avarna work ethic simply seeks a locus of sharing a moment that is human. It does not care about where you came from or who you are. It is a space of love, where people are accepted.”
This was my teachers. This was everything I wanted to be as a teacher. The words formed a ball of hot food and traveled down my throat. It lodged itself somewhere between heart and gut. Locked in experienced memories.
“Perumal Murugan is telling you that teaching is an act of love. And if universities and institutions don’t understand this, they should just shut down and sell Coca-Cola.”
I was full of a bursting pimply joy for all the teachers I’ve loved. Weirdly enough, far beyond my love for the boy with the sad eyes. Maybe, this was agape.
Now, I seek kindness. It is not easily found. Not in compulsory dress codes, not in ratings and scrutiny and mails that pile up like joint pains in winter. Not in rules and regulations. It is in messages that ask after your health. In tiffin boxes shared in between classes. In conversations in classes – tears over grandparents’ deaths, coming out as queer, telling one side of the class that “you’ll see only merit, you’ll not see how the child cannot afford tuition, how he does not have the money to pay for the electricity bill, how his mother has studied only till Fourth Standard, how he doesn’t have any “english speaking” friends or family.” In students who send you thank you notes. In the mad rush during fests, when the students work with you – excited, nervous, hopeful of success. In the dreamy fog as you walk from one classroom to another, one screen to another, hoping, wanting, to just be in that moment of learning, of conversation.
There is a lot of love in me. But I am afraid of what will come to be. How like the seasons, you change from warm to cold. How suddenly, things become a race to be the best, or to run the fastest. It’s scary because love is never about being the best.
I don’t know what it is. I only know how it looks and feels like, for the lessons my teachers have left me. And this is me trying to understand this love, my gajja bujji heart and my journey as a teacher.