Churning of the Ocean of Thoughts

The sun disappeared behind the distant hills, in what could have been a scene taken right out of a painting, and I got up to head back. Walking alongside the Bhima, I couldn’t help turning my attention to a largish bird which was performing fantastic aerial stunts above the water. I’ll ask Prabhat to find out which bird that was.

As I reached the path that would take me back up the hill to the school, my thoughts again went back to hovering around the reality of my being here- in this place, at this moment. I suddenly noticed a dark piece of rock lying on the ground, and for no reason tipped it over with my foot. It revealed a fascinating shiny crystal formation on the other side. You find so many such crystals lying around here. These hills are believed to have been formed in massive volcanic eruptions around 60-70 million years ago.

I’m fascinated by the mere fact of my being here, of having spent almost a year here, so far away from home. On second thoughts, what is home? Where do I really belong to? Isn’t the whole world my home? Well, this place definitely feels like home.

The new path has made the walk down to the river and back up an easy affair. In a few minutes I’ll be back in school, in time for my evening prep supervision. Prep is a good space to sit quietly and observe the children. In class, so many things happen at the same time and you yourself are fully engaged in the moment, so there is no opportunity whatsoever to step back and observe the events from a distance.

Today they are doing their work silently. Only last week they were extremely noisy and boisterous, and had to be spoken to sternly. What exactly is my relationship with them, as a teacher of Chemistry, as an adult? What is it that I have to help them with? To prepare for exams, to keenly observe the world they live in, to have confidence in themselves?

They are already thinking, aware human beings. Many of them come from urban settings, and this place has made a difference in their lives. Many of them do grow up to be sensitive, sensible individuals. That’s not to say that that doesn’t happen in other places, but I do feel this place provides a good atmosphere for children to grow up. They are already adept at expressing and articulating their ideas and opinions, many of them more so than I am.

They won’t accept most things unquestioningly, but they do listen to reason. I’ve realised that it is important to be very clear in my head about “why do it?” when I ask something of them. This engagement with them on a level playing field, treating each other as equals, has been a huge learning experience for me. But they can also be extremely irritating and trying at times, with their tendency to slip into lousiness, and give in to impulses. It does seem like they need to be held together actively at all times, and that perhaps is one of the jobs of a teacher living with children.

I’m so lucky to be able to do work that I enjoy. It is a pleasure to be able to help children learn about the world we live in, learn new skills… But I’ve also encountered situations in the classroom where the whole exercise seems pointless, when I’ve asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve sometimes felt that I’m doing the same things to my students that I despised some of my teachers doing to me.

When I started teaching, I was desperate to perceive myself as a “good teacher”, to convince myself that I had taken up the right thing, having decided to deviate from the trodden path. As a result, for some time, I couldn’t accept the fact that I had problems with the work I’m doing. Today, I no longer feel uncomfortable confronting these questions, sharing them with other people. Being able to be honest with myself has been liberating, and has enabled me to begin to tackle some of these issues.

And it’s a boon, to have people around you who are at the same wavelength. It is absolutely wonderful to be in a place where you are valued for who you are- not something easy to find in this world. And the space to pursue all your interests and exercise all your faculties- without having to work around any narrow definition of your role. I’ve surprisingly found a continuity with who I was before I joined college, before I became excessively pessimistic and cynical!

After dinner, I go for a stroll in the cool breeze. The sky is clear, and I can see countless stars. Only last week I had my first glimpse of the milky way, when I went to the library roof with Prof. Mahajan early in the morning and had my first stargazing session. I’m going to spend some time learning about the objects in our night sky and observing them. It evokes a certain kind of wonder, which must be the same wonder our early ancestors had, which gave rise to science and religion.

But being in a place like this, there is a danger of becoming too preoccupied with oneself. It’s important to keep asking the question, “What is my relationship with the larger world?” I’m tempted to say “the world out there”, but I know I’m also part of that world. The world of corruption, powerful and greedy politicians and corporations, millions of homeless people, but also organisations which are making a difference in small ways, often unheard of in the mainstream media. Closer to home, what is my relationship with the dadas and didis (the support staff) from the villages down below, whose silent work keeps the school running? What is the children’s relationship with this world they are living in? Isn’t it a question of crucial importance for a teacher? Not just for oneself, but on behalf of the children too.

On a related but different (and more abstract and philosophical!) note, I have often felt that different parts of me come alive and active when I’m doing different things, when I’m relating with different people. It’s as if I’m a messed up assortment of unrelated fragments. Can I have a single scheme of things where each of these has a place? Not that I want to relate to each person or each activity in the same way, but I want to be the same person when I’m relating to different people or activities.

The children go home tomorrow. The school will become quiet and devoid of life for two and a half months now. I’m looking forward to spending some time here on my own when it’s quiet. That should be an entirely different experience.

The First Term at Sahyadri

I’m into the last week of my first term here at Sahyadri. The last couple of weeks have been reasonably quiet, with few classes as the exams had started for 9th and 10th. I have been bogged down by a lot of correction and report writing work. Now it’s going to be a sudden jerk back into top gear, as the seniors finish their exams and start working for the Mela on the 13th.

It’s been a good time to reflect, and try to make sense of what I’ve been doing here for the past four months. At many points during the term I have asked myself what on earth am I doing here! What brought me here? And what keeps me here? Well, to tackle this question satisfactorily I would need to elaborate more on my experiences and thoughts over the last 5-6 years and I wouldn’t attempt it at this point. Someday I may.

If you look at it in a certain way, Sahyadri is no different from the mainstream conventional schools. It too is very conventional in the sense that children have to sit through 7 periods from morning to afternoon, subject after subject. The tenth standards have to write the ICSE board exams. As in any residential school, the children’s days are planned for them from waking up to bedtime and there is very little deviation from this routine.

I’m happy that I came here with a mind open to possibilities and consciously held back from being judgemental. I was not under any romantic illusions that I was walking into an ideal perfect school. That has probably helped me to be able to wholeheartedly appreciate the subtle factors in the people here, the activities of the school and the relationship between students and teachers that make it a wonderful place to be.

At times I have felt that if only there were no classes and timetables I could have done something worthwhile, but now I think it is also worthwhile to explore how far we can stretch the limits and construct a fruitful experience for the students in a realistic environment with realistic constraints. Getting the opportunity to interact and engage with children in spaces outside the classroom, like the theatre workshop or playing games has shown me a different aspect of their personalities. That’s one of the beauties of a residential school like this.

It’s been a wonderful learning experience for me so far. It’s been a term with lots of ups and downs. At times I’ve felt as if I was floating without knowing where I’m heading, and others when I have been absolutely at peace with the world, with myself and everyone around me. That state of mind when you really stop worrying about your destination- in fact, even forget about having a destination and savour the journey to the fullest. Also it’s a blessing to have people around who are at the same wavelength as you are, with whom you can discuss these issues freely.

Well, this term is almost over, and I’m looking forward to the vacation. Of course, the Mela is still there and I’m especially looking forward to the theatre production, where we string together different themes from the improvisations over the course of the term and come up with a production. But I’m also looking forward to going home, getting some time off after what has been a full term and reflecting more fully on my experiences.

I’m also looking forward to the start of the next term. This term has been one of settling in, growing into the basic aspects of my work here, becoming comfortable with myself as a teacher, as an adult with responsibilities. Now that the nuts and bolts issues have started falling in place, I’m looking forward to the terms ahead…

Teachers’ Day!

Since this year Teachers’ Day was on a Sunday, we had the celebrations on Saturday, 4th September. The class 10 students officiated as teachers for the day. The day started early in the morning with knocking on my door by a couple of 10th std boys, who were officiating as the house parents of Indrayani dorm, where I live. I opened the door cautiously, expecting to get drenched or some other prank to be played on me, but was pleasantly surprised to see that they had brought me a cup of morning tea!

There was a long morning assembly, where the 10thies recited poems/songs(guldasta) about each teacher, and when the audience guessed the teacher, she or he would go to the stage and receive flowers and chocolates. I was given the honour of being the first teacher on the list!

After the assembly we teachers were divided into three groups, and we were to sit in two periods as students. One class was on poisons, and the other on Hollywood. We did all sorts of pranks which the children normally play on us, but we were reasonably good students overall! Each group had also been given a topic and asked to prepare a theatre improvisation for the evening’s cultural programme.

After the classes, we started working on our improvisation and the rest of the morning was spent in this manner. After lunch, some of us had to rehearse another skit based on a poem “The Hare and the Tortoise” from Beastly Tales by Vikram Seth. It’s a hilarious poem based on the good old parable, but with several layers of complexity, satire and humour added. (I played one of the tortoise’s three grandsons.)

Then at 3 pm there was a folk dance session with the teachers and the 10th std students. I had never done any dancing before and it was real fun to try and dance with the kids. It was extremely difficult and exhausting but we all had a great time!

Then we had tea and assembled again for the cultural eve. Most of the performances were by the teachers. Again I was given the honour to begin the programme with my flute recital. I attempted to play the Hamsadhwani varnam, but couldn’t do justice to it- I was really out of breath towards the end. But then I played decently and everyone liked it. Then we had other music performances by students and teachers, and then the plays. The improvisations were all full of humour, and the children really enjoyed seeing us teachers on stage! If I hadn’t been part of it, I couldn’t have imagined a group of adults being so light hearted!

As the last performance of the night, we had a sitar and tabla jugalbandhi, by Girish sir, the sitar teacher and Lakshman sir, the Hindi teacher who also teaches the tabla here. They played the rag Bhairavi- it was in a different class of its own, and many children were deeply touched by the performance.

At the end of the programme, many of the 10th std children were in tears as the realization began to set in that this was their last year here. When I went back to my dorm, I was surprised to see that the 4th and 5th boys were also crying. When I asked them, I realized that they thought the 10thies were about to leave school! They needed a lot of reassurance and comforting before they were convinced that the 10thies weren’t going to leave the next day. (I wonder what the farewell is going to be like…)

Despite the melancholy end to the day, it was a truly eventful and memorable day for me- my first Teachers’ Day as a teacher! In fact, when I got into bed and reflected on the day I had had, I couldn’t believe that I had woken up to receive a cup of tea from my students only that morning. It seemed so long long ago. So much had happened since then…

A Day at Sahyadri

Here is how I spent my previous day.

6.50-7.30      Zero Period for 9th std. (Chem)
8.15-8.45      School Assembly
8.50-14.30    Had classes in 4 out of 7 periods + 1 period Science Faculty meeting
14.30-16.00  Working on crazy idea with kids, for the Mela- making a Rube Goldberg Machine
16.15-17.30  Weekly Staff meeting
17.30-18.30  Remedial class with some kids
18.30-18.50  Working on crazy idea with kids, for the Mela- making a Geodesic Dome
18.50-19.50  Prep Duty with 8th std
21.00-22.00  Practice with other teachers for Teachers’ Day skit

And to be pleasantly exhausted at the end of it, and to be looking forward to the next day eagerly- I guess I’m really lucky to be in a place like this…

Learning through Teaching

Three months have passed since I’ve started teaching here at Sahyadri School. I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I would have liked. It’s not that I don’t get any time, but there are so many things to be done, that I just don’t feel like sitting down and writing. But as my good friend Moulik put it, I should keep writing regularly- otherwise I would forget my observations, and also new experiences come in and replace the older ones, and I wouldn’t get to see their evolution. I hope I’ll start writing more regularly now.

This Saturday is the Teachers’ Day celebration. I’m really looking forward to it, as it is going to be my first Teachers’ Day as a teacher! On that day, the 10th std students take up the role of teachers. The teachers even have to sit in the 10th std classes and listen to them 🙂

I think being with kids is forcing me to be a bit more witty and talkative. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the amount of talking I have to do. It’s not something I’m used to, but I’m enjoying it because I see that I’m learning a lot about myself when I place myself in a situation in which I have to talk, I have to take charge.

I’m also learning that teaching in the classroom is not a straightforward, simple task. It’s not enough to know something, you have to really design how you will reveal that piece of information in a striking manner. And there are so many details which you have to keep in mind while teaching, like what and how you are writing on the board, how to steer a discussion in a particular direction, how to get everyone involved.

I’m badly lacking in many of these areas, but I’m very lucky that I have senior colleagues here who would visit my classes occasionally and without being judgemental, point out something which I had totally overlooked. I’ve also occasionally got some enlightening feedback from my students. I’m slowly learning how to teach more effectively. I really don’t know whether teaching is going to be my long term occupation, but what keeps me engaged right now is that this whole process is gradually revealing to me a part of myself which had never been given the chance to surface.

The First Days at Sahyadri

Time flies, and before I know it, I’m into my third week at Sahyadri School. I’ve started teaching Chemistry for class 10, and am awaiting the return of the children in the other classes, who come tomorrow. It’s wonderful being in a place like this, with beautiful hills all around. The school itself is situated on the top of a hill in the catchment area of the Chas Kaman dam on the river Bhima.

The first few days here have been really wonderful. The people here are so warm and friendly that I started feeling at home on the very first day. And it’s not been dull at all. I’ve been doing so many things, especially once the class 10 children got back. I’ve been teaching Chemistry, playing badminton and football, going for long walks and treks, learning to observe and identify birds from bird-watching enthusiasts(both children and adults), getting to know people who come from diverse backgrounds and have very interesting experiences to recount… It’s been simply great so far!

The classes have been pretty good so far. Std 10 is having special classes right now, until the rest of the school joins them on June 11th. I’m in the process of trying to discover my “way” of teaching, and trying to identify its aspects that aid or hinder the learning process, so as to keep refining it. Both the divisions of 10th std have their classes together till tomorrow (and that too in a lab whose arrangement is not suited for classroom teaching), so occasionally I find myself having to shout a bit to retain the children’s attention. I’m waiting for normal classes to resume so that I’ll have a smaller class and a proper classroom to work with.

One of the highlights of these two weeks was the trek from Bhimashankar to Bhorgiri, with the class 10 children and some other teachers. It was simply awesome. A two hour walk from the source of the river Bhima, down through forests and sloping dry grasslands, to a village at the foot of the hills. We even sighted the giant squirrel twice, and also a group of langurs.

What a journey it has been from being a frustrated engineering student to becoming a teacher at an alternative school(perhaps “alternative” is too strong a word, but still the school does do many things differently so I’ll stick with it)! And it’s only the beginning. I’m really looking forward to going as far as I can in this personal quest to try and find out what Life is all about, and what it means to be human.