I thought that becoming responsible for 300 some rambunctious and inquisitive children would bate my maternal instincts. In fact, my mothering tendencies have reduced iota, if at all. I still play peek-a-boo with every stranger’s kid I meet. I deem it my responsibility to make even the most reserved child smile. I listen patiently to the complaints of pen stealing and name calling, and only laugh internally when the same microscopic scratch returns three times for a Band-Aid.
Certainly there have been moments when I crave peace and quiet, but these yearnings are just as few and far between as the quiet moments themselves. My absence of writing for the past month has not been for lack of stories but truly just a restriction of time. It’s hard to believe that I cannot carve out five minutes a day to read, nonetheless write, but when each day starts at 6am and ends at 11pm I still require more time. From proctoring study halls in the morning to teaching classes and meeting with the administration throughout the day, from conducting yoga classes in the afternoon to reading a bed time story to the pre school children at night, there’s not a moment I would be willing to give up.
The last few weeks have been marked by a decrease in volunteers and an increase in job description. With the end of summer, our pool of overly energetic college interns dwindled to three postgraduate wanderers (including myself) and an eager European gap year kid. The perk of minimal teachers was that I finally got back in the classroom full force. Ascribing a week long project on Much Ado About Nothing to my 12th grade students, analyzing hard new poems with the 11th grade, and continuing to push my 10th grade kids to discover why grammar is fun wholly reminded me why I do what I do: children inspire me to empower them.
Simply working at Shanti Bhavan fills my days with “proud mother” moments. I got a taste of this feeling a few months ago when the 10th grade pulled on our lessons from three years ago about WWII and The Diary of Anne Frank as they debated the 9th grade on “inaction in the face of injustice.” I began to understand why waving goodbye at the airport is always so hard for my parents as I double and triple checked that Yeshwini, our student moving to Japan on a full-ride scholarship to start in an International Baccalaureate high school, had her passport, her boarding pass, her friends’ letters, her pickles in case she couldn’t stand the food, and the list goes on. I could barely real in my overzealous reaction to a few of the leadership club girls stating “I am a feminist.”
Teaching again has only intensified these emotions. I watched with delight as three of my 12th grade boys – who had been wanting help throughout the entire project – presented a unique interpretation of a new passage representing the recurring symbol of beards in Much Ado. My laughter nearly brought me to tears as their classmates represented the symbol of “savage bull” in a bull fight and acted out many other modern interpretations of the play. Following that class, my heart swelled with each beautifully written additional verse to “Five Ways to Kill a Man.” My 11th graders, showing through sardonic writing that they comprehend the inhumane horrors of war, forced me to reflect upon everything from reasons for suicide to the tribulations of Gaza. With each passing day I get a deeper glimpse in to the minds of my students, discover how I can push them further, and fall a little more in love with my job.
Despite the breakthroughs I see from class to class, Shanti Bhavan students still are kids. They do not always want to study, they are not passionate about all subjects, and failure is inevitable every once in a while. I am learning that high standards and high stakes are necessary for motivating children, but it is hard not to feel personally lambasted when my students get in trouble for poor performance. After each term exam, every class is paraded in to the principal’s office to go over their scores (and ultimately the rank of each student among their classmates) with Dr. George in front of their teachers and peers. I vividly remember the shame that I felt in my first of these meetings three years ago: if only I had reviewed a little better, if only I didn’t take off that point for poor handwriting, if only I could speak up for the student who really is improving even if it doesn’t show, if only if only if only.
This time around, despite understanding the purpose of these meetings better and feeling more amenable to Dr. George’s decisions, something still did not sit right. The 6th grade class needed a wake-up call, I could agree with that. They were getting low marks in all subjects and were perpetually disrespectful in class: laying their heads down on the desks, talking back to teachers, not following directions etc. They needed to take discipline a little more seriously and return to the basics in some of their subjects. Thankfully, Dr. George addressed the teachers on ways to prevent letting a class get to this unruly point, but the matter still remained in the hands of the children. They were given a week’s worth of ragi-ball punishment (an incredibly healthy, tasteless, sticks-to-your-bones-texture, ball of ragi, wheat, and rice for three meals a day) and “grammar boot-camp” rather than the actual art camp that happened this week. Although I knew the punishment would prove effective – they’d be better behaved for at least the time being and remember how to write proper sentences – my motherly instincts were acting up again.
I finally isolated the reason for such a distaste for this style of punishments. It has nothing to do with the punishments themselves, but rather the lacking ability to help students process what they’re learning through the punishment. I grew up in an environment where bringing home a 98% resulted in the question “Where’d you screw up?” from my father. This tactic worked because he knew that I knew he was kidding, and I knew that he knew I was trying. That simple, and usually expected, phrase pushed me to try harder and instilled in me a sense of self-motivation. But, it also worked because my parents were my role-models. I patterned the way I studied, interacted with people, and lived my life, after them.
Here, the children have a simultaneous excess of mentors and nominal amount of role-models. They grow up witnessing and displaying exquisite morals, care deeply and compassionately for one another and act with integrity. But at the end of the day, they are still living and learning in the same environment for fourteen years. There’s only so much that impeccable teachers, loving aunties, and global volunteers can do to provide a space with necessary structure, a support system, and diversity of thought. Perhaps this is just my liberal arts mind and four years of “life chats” over early morning breakfast dates coming in to play, but these kids need a way to process. They’re still twelve-year-olds. Their take-away will be never wanting to look at ragi again, not that they need to shift their behavior in order to become more motivated and life-long learners. The immediate outcome might be what we want – a better disciplined class – but I cannot expect anything more than that. Ultimately, I cannot expect them to permanently stop misbehaving and start buckling down.
My other most feared father phrase as an adolescent went something along the lines of: “Well Meg, that was a great learning experience,” or even worse “what a good life lesson.” I still cringe thinking about the conversations that ended so resolutely. Therein lies my point: these conversations, regardless of how painful or intimidating, served as my ballast. I had to come home – to a separate space with my constant people – and explain what had happened. My reiteration of events ultimately led to my own discovery of (and therefore my hatred of my dad reminding me) why it was a life lesson. I had to process with parents who held me accountable. By the time any one of these kids could turn to someone and complain about their “unfair punishment,” the entire school already knows, has accepted it, and moved on. Who is left to make them grimace and learn?
I have accepted that as the disciplinarian, I sadly cannot also always serve the role of mother. As much as I would like to channel my dad and ask these kids the questions they don’t want to hear, I know that realistically I wouldn’t get the chance to do that with all of them based on both numbers and our inherent student-administrator relationship. Still, I strongly believe that every action I take, every decision I make, is to foment every single one of my students. So, how do I take the beautiful interactions that I see happening every day in every classroom and empower these children to apply such values to their own education?