Be(com)ing a Teacher

In the monsoon of 2009, I had just begun my final year of BTech at NIT Calicut. After countless hours and days and weeks of idling about without any purpose in life, the reality slowly dawned on me that I needed to find something to do after that year. The four years that I had bought myself was about to end and with it my sojourn in the attic of comfort that I had inherited with it. I would be thrown into the world out there, whether I liked it or not. I needed to decide what was it that I was going to do, or whether I was going to do anything. I had almost a year left, but I had to start looking.

I had to look because I had obstinately decided within that I would not follow the two common paths that engineering graduates normally choose- get a job or go for further studies. That much was clear to me. The world was on a head on collision course with catastrophe. We humans had become hopelessly dependent on a crude oil that was past its peak production, pollution and disease were increasing while today’s children had hardly any idea where the food on their plates came from, the world’s poor were getting more helpless by the day, and worst of all no one around me seemed to care, or even to know.

There was no way I was going to be a passive cog in the wheel and put my shoulder also to the wheels of the machinery that was speeding the world on the path to destruction. That had been the result of almost four years of an obsession with reading about the dire state of our world through articles and books written by environmentalists, activists, philosophers, “alternative living” pioneers etc. I had no idea what I would do if I didn’t take up a job or go for higher studies, but then my philosophy was, “if you are not sure what to do, do nothing.”

Though I describe two obvious options available to me, they actually comprised a wide range of options which can be categorized into two umbrellas. There are several kinds of jobs which electronics and communication engineering graduates normally opt for. The most highly coveted and difficult to get is in chip design/signal processing which is described as a “core job” in engineering college lingo (‘core’ because the job is supposed to be related to the core courses you undergo in college). The next kind is a software job in the countess companies that now operate a variety of services. The third is a job in public sector companies like ISRO, BARC, DRDO etc.

These distinctions were irrelevant because I wasn’t motivated to take up work that any of these organisations did. Besides, I had decided as far back as twelfth standard that I will not live in a city. One smart way to be living in a place away from cities seemed to be to become a professor. Most institutions of higher education seemed to be located in beautiful places. Which brings me to the second umbrella of options.

To do a masters. But in what? The easy option would be to do an MTech, for which one had to clear the entrance exam called GATE. But my interest in my BTech courses had been sporadic at best. The other option would be to do an MS abroad. Which would be more glamorous and flexible. You needn’t stick to what you did in BTech. But what else could I do? I hadn’t developed any serious interest in any particular field by then.

I didn’t want to do any of these. I wanted to do something different. Not for the sake of doing something different, but because it seemed like doing any of these would essentially mean saying to myself, “Well, the world is what it is, and there’s nothing much you can do about it, so stop cribbing and move on”. I did masquerade under the guise of preparing for GATE, but deep within I knew I was going to do something different.

And my reading slowly shifted from reading about the problems of the world, to people and organisations who were actually doing something in real life to explore a different way of living. Thanks to the internet, stories of dozens of such people are only a click away. Without this wealth of information I would never have gathered the courage, without knowing that there are so many people who are living a saner life.

There were so many fascinating stories of people who had set out on their own paths in life. I was often bursting to talk about them with someone. I used to do that with a few of my friends who were sympathetic to my concerns, but were intensely sceptical about my intentions to do something in real life, given my extreme passivity and reputation as a sleep maniac. At every opportunity they took a jab at me, calling me a future greenpeace activist or even a Himalayan monk!

Though they were just friendly jabs, they brought home to me the fact that I had taken virtually no concrete steps to fulfill my ambition of finding a different path for myself. It was all empty thought and talk. And the months were passing by.

Meanwhile I had taken an initiative to search out people nearby, who had done something different in life. I visited a man named Roy Jacob, who had left his job in the US to do farming in Wayanad. I visited another man named KB Jinan, who had revived the traditional pottery in Nilambur. I had read about both of them on the internet. It was great to meet them in person, and talk to them about my urge to find my own path in life, and hear from them about their own journeys in life. At the end of it I was inspired but still without any concrete idea of what to do.

That was when I came across the Krishnamurti Foundation schools and other alternative schools in India. I had been concerned with the problems with education along with everything else, and had been reading and thinking about it quite a bit. Also it was one thing which I had a lot of first hand experience, having been on its receiving end as a student for much of my life so far.

Though I had been a “good student” and had done well in school, during the last few years I had become quite fed up with it and had begun to realize that it had done little more than prepare me for taking exams. It all seemed to be pretty pointless. I also felt that the numbing of the mind due to the education we get is one of the reasons why we fail to look beyond our own narrow lives and respond intelligently to the situation our world is in. In short, it makes us incapable to do anything but follow the rat race.

So here at last I had something that I felt some connection to, something that could be a serious option to consider after college. I had several questions in mind, of course. Most of these schools, even though they had an unconventional outlook and philosophy and offered a different environment for children to grow in, they still had structured classes and subjects and their students did take exams conducted by some board or the other. Was this option a path that was fundamentally different? Wouldn’t I be serving the same machinery, only a different part of it?

Being a teacher in one of these schools seemed like an attractive option nevertheless, because these schools were all located in rural settings, “close to nature”. Anyway, I would need a job to support myself and what more could I hope for than the opportunity to work with people with a similar outlook of life and education.

My biggest doubts were over my own ability to assume the role of a teacher, young as I was, with virtually no experience of working with children or handling a classroom or planning a lesson. It was definitely going to be a challenge, especially given my virtual isolation from everything around me for the last four years or so. I would be putting myself in a situation in which I would be forced to connect with the people and activities around me. But I believed that was the way to go.

Thus I set out looking for a job as a teacher in a residential school run by the KFI, 70 km from Pune, on the top of a hill on the Bhima river. I eventually joined the school and am half way into my second year as a teacher there.

If I’m asked to name one significant challenge I’ve faced so far, I would say it’s been how to relate with the role of being a teacher and all that it entails, in the context of the questions and the discontent that brought me here in the first place. Without that connection, it’s a floating, aimless existence. It’s been a struggle, and I’m still in the midst of the struggle. That’s as far as I can say at this point in time.

One can only look back later and say in retrospect, “Ah, this is what this experience did to me!”

10 thoughts on “Be(com)ing a Teacher

  1. Appu, the one thing thats awesomely inspiring from Steve Job’s Stanford speech is this part

    for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

    I really wonder whether this is a true statement because almost all human beings would like to believe that their last day is infinitely far away – but if Jobs indeed had this conviction while asking that question, then I admire him for that. The reason I brought this up is because I know that a lot of people (like your friends you mentioned or relatives etc..) would have termed your decisions to be unwise and impractical when all the other glamorous options are all right there at your finger tips. I would say that those who claim to know with certainty the way-of-life most probably havent asked the question that Jobs asked himself, or they just dont want to ask that.

    At any rate, your own life experiences and philosophies have made you choose the non-glamorous path, and personally I find it admirable that you have found / making an effort to find happiness in something other than “driving to work, typing some stuff, drinking some coffee, eating some food, watching some movie, planned-socialising etc.. ” – of course people will be ready to swear that those are the primary constituents of life :-).

    Meanwhile, about your comment

    “while today’s children had hardly any idea where the food on their plates came from, the world’s poor were getting more helpless by the day, and worst of all no one around me seemed to care, or even to know.”

    Why just children ? As one of the most educated adults around, I had no clue about this myself. I recently picked up a book named “stuffed and starved” and that really was a shocking eye opener.

    Love,
    Gopu.

  2. Dear Appu,

    Today I want to address you as Appu because I want to go back to those days when you were slightly more than a toddler. In those days I remember your greatest passion was ‘trains’. Toy trains of any design and variety used to fascinate you, and you had a good collection of them. Without feigning to be a psychoanalyst I would like to believe that your childhood dreams were dominated by something that can carry a lot of people and have the power and sense of direction to take them somewhere. I would like to believe that some part of the forces that prompted you to break away from conventional routes is also related to this urge.

    There is only relevant thing you could extract from all the stories of the great pioneers you read about. It is the firm conviction to be ‘an artificer’ in a admittedly ‘artificial world’. Dont’ waste your time trying to align with conservationists. The crude oil supplies may dry up. So what? Hundred years back we were living without it and may be a hundred years hence we would have walked out of our dependency on that. Isn’t it more fascinating to get excited by the pioneering search for the new dispensation.

    The inexorability of change is to be accepted if one has to make a start. And once one accepts change as inevitable conservation per se ceases to be a value that can guide.

    At what point one can come out of the cocoon of conventional path and beome an artificer who creates and modifies the world he lives in?…Till one grows his wings and has learned to fly. The point is different for Steve Jobs, for Mahatma Gandhi, for Krishnamurthy, for Arundhati Roy….and for you… The important thing is that till that point comes you have to remain within that cocoon. How I wish I could persuade you to intensely pursue your higher studies so that you can become the teacher of teachers…so that you can own and drive around your own train !!!

    Have you read “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pauch? Google for the live lecture on youtube.

    Balammama

    1. Balammama,

      I don’t think I’ve written anything amounting conservationism. My point was that while I was growing up, it seemed absurd the way we human beings are dependent on oil and how we don’t even acknowledge it. I agree completely with you about the inexorability of change.

      As for remaining within the cocoon, I beg to differ. I don’t know if the cocoon metaphor applies, but let me try to put it in its terms. The cocoon has nurtured me as much as it can, but it’s a very limited form of nurturing and if I remain within it more, it may nurture me more, but to fly within a certain kind of world.

      To know all the worlds I need to break out of the cocoon. I may not be ready to fly, in fact I know I’m not, and I’m searching for the very nurturing which the cocoon cannot give. I may never fly, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m getting to know more worlds than I ever could living the cocoon getting ready to fly in a certain world.

      I am pursuing my “higher studies”, only it’s in a realm that no university course can touch upon, in understanding yourself and your relationship with the world. Doing higher studies in a university has its own merits, I agree, but is useless without this other kind of learning, I feel. One can undergo both kinds of learning any time and even simultaneously. But for me, I desperately needed to break out of the cocoon to pursue the former.

      I felt that the former was more important to me, and so I’m pursuing it. If at some point I feel the urge to do some learning in a university to further my learning about life, I can always do it, and I’ll have a better ground to do it from, rather than blindly undergo “higher studies” without knowing why I’m doing it.

      I hope I don’t sound disrespectful. I feel I’m not saying anything different from what you are saying, only the way I look at higher studies differs.

  3. My dear Kishore,

    Have no worries about being disrespectful. This is a totally subjective domain. As long as you feel fulfilled and happy any path chosen is OK. But then I was a lttle worried about the remarks you made about the present systems… (‘Though I had been a good student………..rat race.). The moment we start from the position of a messiah perspective get distorted. Because in the ultimate analysis anything that presumes that we are something special doesn’t really make lasting sense. That is what makes your comments about a meaningful higher education suspect.

    Balammama

  4. The post was written from the point of view of a college student setting out to find one’s own path in life, with all the rebellion and insecurity and incompleteness associated with it. It is not a final analysis of any achievement.

    As for my comment about higher education, i did not mean to ridicule it but just say that in my case what i feel it could give me is very limited, at least at this point in my life when i feel the need to understand myself better and establish a meaningful relationship with the world.

    1. Girish,

      The thing is, I need to be asking myself why I want to be doing something? Is that something going to help me do what I really want to do through it?

      In a way I am doing that with what I am doing right now, and I’ve realised that there are no simple answers, but you can discover it layer by layer.

      So I can’t say that one day I’ll definitely know that this is what I want to be doing and this is why, but sometimes you see that you’re not going anywhere with what you are doing and gather a conviction to do something else, or to go further with what you are doing.

      I feel that I’m not at that point right now.

  5. What harm could there be in trying this option? Do it as long as you enjoy it.

    Some thoughts,
    The society is odd in that it gives plenty of options(for some people) on how to make a living, but never on how to live your life. Which ever path you take, the satisfaction/happiness, you might derive mostly depends on you, your desires,
    ambitions and your attitude towards life. Problems and mental conflicts arise when we try to judge our decisions through the eyes of other people. One we are grown up, there are no better judge than ourselves , on our life – hardly anyone cherishes it more…

    Its not just about being different, but its about making use of the fuzziness on the choices available.

  6. In present-day Germany no one is any longer free to give his children a noble education: our “higher schools” are all set up for the most ambiguous mediocrity, with their teachers, curricula, and teaching aims. And everywhere an indecent haste prevails, as if something would be lost if the young man of twenty-three were not yet “finished,” or if he did not yet know the answer to the “main question”: which calling? A higher kind of human being, if I may say so, does not like “callings,” precisely because he knows himself to be called. He has time, he takes time, he does not even think of “finishing”: at thirty one is, in the sense of high culture, a beginner, a child. Our overcrowded secondary schools, our overworked, stupefied secondary-school teachers, are a scandal: for one to defend such conditions, as the professors at Heidelberg did recently, there may perhaps be causes–reasons there are none.

    — Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols).

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