The buildings were the same. So were some of the faces. The nagalingam tree with its deliciously fragrant flowers, the majestic banyan tree and the large neem tree guarding the slide near junior school were all reassuring memories. It seemed as if things had not changed much, that this was the same place where I had grown up more than a decade ago.
The calm stillness was soon shattered as I was sent on my first assignment as a teacher at The School. I was to start with the LKG class. “How difficult can that be?” I thought to myself, rather pleased at having been given an easy start. I fancied myself as a person quite adept at handling little children and, surely, all that I required to do was to organize a few creative activities and the children would take care of themselves. Carrying images of innocent children bursting with irresistible curiosity and a desire to learn all they could from me, I strode confidently into the kindergarten. What followed was a lesson in humility.
There were twenty children in the classroom busy making chappatis in clay, cutting paper, running around, throwing mud, singing songs and painting (mostly themselves). I was asked to mingle and make friends with them. Soon I found myself being scrutinized harder than I have ever been. If the children did not want to be friends with me, they were not particularly polite in making that known. I also realized that handling one child at a time is entirely different from handling twenty of them simultaneously. Suddenly, I felt lost, ensure of what to do. Singing, painting and folding paper are not really my strengths, and I crept into a little shell, feeling like an outsider. All I could do was be patient and hope that time and familiarity would ease the awkwardness; and it did in the most unexpected of ways.
Two days after I started my new job Deepak approached me in all earnestness. There was a serious look on his face, which indicated that he was bursting with a question. He screwed up his face and cocked his head in puzzlement as he blurted out, “Are you really a Boy Miss?” My reply—“I am an Anna”—was met with a dismissive shrug of disbelief that an entity called ‘Anna’ could exist.
I realized the novelty of being a Boy Miss was my passport to being accepted by the children. As I sat outside the classroom for a breather, three girls from junior school ran up to me to ask, “Whose father are you?” Another child thought I was the husband of a colleague. Even after a month, Krishnan calls me ‘uncle’.
Each child has its own little game that it likes to repeat. Preeti-the-Popeye offers me her empty spinach can, after devouring its contents, “Here, crazy boy, eat the garbage can.” Vidhi-the-Bugs-Bunny is quick to join Preeti with Sharmila and Aruna not far behind. Soon there is a high-pitched chorus, “Crazy Boy! Crazy Boy! Eat the garbage can!” The only recourse left to me is to retreat quietly into some corner where a parent would not see us.
It has become a ritual for Prerna to snatch my pen from my kurta pocket. One day I left the pen in my bag and Prerna quickly complained, “Ma’am, aap aaj pen kyon nahin laye?” (Ma’am, why did you not bring your pen today?). So now I always carry the pen—sometimes in my kurta and at other times in my trousers—and wait for Prerna to search all my pockets. There was once a brief spark of greed—can I make this simple ritual into a learning experience? Luckily, the thought disappeared as quickly as it came. Surely, one of the perks of working with four year olds is simply to be with them—not to ‘teach’ but just to share a game, a prank, a joke, a laugh or a rare quiet moment.
The parents also made for an interesting study. Some were curious, others cautious; but all seemed slightly amused to see a 25 year old male in the traditional domain of an experienced mother. Sharmila’s mother narrated to me an enlightening conversation with her daughter. After the first week, Sharmila had told her mother there was a man in her class who came along daily to chat and play with her. When her mother asked if this man was a new teacher, Sharmila quipped, “Well, I don’t know about that; I think he is just bored at home.”
The best compliment I earned during those tentative first days was from a colleague. She said, “I had always believed that working with small children was something beyond men, but today I know it is a myth. I have seen living proof that it is possible for men to be just as gentle and patient.” I am not so certain that I have challenged the gender bias sufficiently to earn such high praise, but the generous remark makes me feel that I am on the right track.
As I look back on the past couple of months many questions arise in my mind about the nature of child-rearing and teaching young children. Soon into my job I was caught up in a conflict between being liked as a friend and being able to demand‘obedience’ from the students. As the days have gone by, it has become clear that I am not here for a popularity contest and ‘to be liked’ is actually quite a flaky desire. I now see that many children ‘like’ teachers who are not necessarily ‘friendly’ with them (to the point of being casual) but who show their care through their patient, diligent work and attention. ‘Firm affection’ does not sound an oxymoron anymore.
When I first entered the kindergarten, I felt that if I could catch the children’s interest I would be easily ‘listened to’. I was rudely shocked when I found many of the children were actually far more cunning and able to manipulate me to meet their own ends. What ensued was a power struggle between me and the child—who would outwit whom? Soon I found myself raising my voice, resorting to comparisons, being stern, coaxing, cajoling and stopping just short of begging. I wondered what I was doing as a teacher in a Krishnamurti school. Now I feel myself coming back full circle— it is indeed the times when I can catch the child’s interest that discipline becomes a non-issue. However, I would add this humble caveat: that it is not always easy to do this with twenty children, each demanding individual attention.
In the midst of all these questions which cloud my mind, one issue is clear: the way parents rear their children in the first few formative years is absolutely critical. There is no exaggeration in the cliché that parents are the first teachers. The ensuing struggle by teachers against the conditioning of a child is equally an effort to address the vision parents have for their child’s life. One can see why Krishnamurti exhorted that it is us, the parents, and teachers, who truly need to be educated.
Yet, when asked about my experiences in the kindergarten, all I can say is that I cannot think of a better way to start my day than to be a Boy Miss.
Their little language the children Have,
on the knee as they sit;
And only those who love them
Can find the key to it.
[Francis Turner Palgrave]