A rivulet of sweat trickled down my back, only diverted by the now soaked elastic waistband of my floor-length skirt. Fans whirred overhead, positioned so closely together that I wondered if their blades might collide, their sound a drone-like backdrop to the raucous street noise from the opened windows. Sixty high school students and 8 teachers, 3-times the number of students I had ever taught in one class, filled the space. Narrow desks with benches were lined up in 3 columns, only a thin aisle between. Days before I had realized my inability to tune out the chaotic symphony of background noise to focus on teachers and student responses. Now, I panicked. How would I answer student questions, if I couldn't hear them? I couldn't even move closer to students because the aisles were blocked, stacked high with backpacks.
A stream of sweat charged down the side of my face, stinging my eye as it headed South. I wiped it away with the scarf that helped cover my shoulders. My full face of makeup now marred the blue and white pattern of the scarf. I fingered the black eyeliner smudges on the tassels. I should have planned better for the heat. Oh, the heat!
I had been asked weeks before by my host teacher, Rita, to teach a creative writing class to upper school students at Carmel High School in Kolkata, India. I could choose the topic of my choice. I had prepared 6 different lessons and, standing before the class, was still unsure which one to teach. Character Development in Short Fiction? Rising and Falling Action? Flash Fiction? Prose Poetry? Writing Your Truth in Creative Non-fiction? None seemed quite right.
Can anyone say, "Intimidated?"
The students had filed in silently. I never thought that was possible and was a bit thrown off by their orderliness. I finally got a grip and began, only to be interrupted in the middle of introducing myself. A shy student presented me with a microphone. "You are not used to speaking loudly. We thought you might need this," she said.
I was not only deaf, melting, indecisive and stunned, but now I was tethered on a short cord with 3-foot radius. Could my day get worse? At least the mic didn't squeal when I introduced myself again and dove in to my class on Setting as Character in Short Fiction. Where did that come from?
The hour flew by.
I have never experienced students with such rapt attention. Every eye was on me, each pencil poised to scribble down my every word. Not one student fell asleep. Heck, they didn't even slouch. Even the teachers, seated so far away from me on the back row, I wondered if they were a mirage, sat perfectly engaged, jotting notes and nodding in agreement as I spoke. Then, I freaked them out. I told a personal story. A beautiful young girl on the front row wiped a tear from her eye. I'm not kidding! She shed tears in my class! What had I done or said that deserved such an emotional response?
They were also visibly and momentarily taken aback when I asked them to write a short paragraph using the techniques I had described. But their pause lasted only seconds. Pencils then flew across their pages, heads bowed in concentration. When I called time and asked for someone to share, 60 hands flew into the air.
Now, it was I who freaked out. This had never happened to me before.
I strained to hear the few we had time to hear, even calling a couple up to the microphone so we could all appreciate their efforts. They vaulted the backpack mountains with great dexterity. Their writing was lovely, expressive, emotional, much more polished than any writing exercise I had ever done. And their reading was eloquent. Their poise and elocution far beyond their years.
I ended class with a simple, "Thank you so much for inviting me into your class and sharing your beautiful writing."
They responded by standing and chiming in unison, "Thank you, Miss."
I turned to gather my things and put down the infernal microphone and realized after a couple of beats that...
No one had moved. No one had said a word or began packing up. They were still standing with perfect posture, waiting for something.
The tearful girl on the front row whispered, "You must dismiss us, Miss."
I did, but still, not one student left. Instead, they swarmed me, bare palms extended for an autograph. An autograph, of all things! "Why would you want my autograph," I asked.
"We will take pictures of it so we can keep it forever and share it on Instagram," one girl responded.
"Please tell me more about your writing process," another asked. " Do you write daily?"
"Is it difficult to come up with plots?"
"Do you have ideas about how to find writing time with a busy schedule?"
The other teachers, who had remained distant until now, approached. I'm saved, I thought. But no, they had questions of their own. No more autographs, but plenty of questions.
So ended...or rather began, a most joy-filled week of teaching. I still have no idea what I did that held their attention that day, or the following days when I taught. I presume the students had anticipated our arrival for so long, been excited about teachers from the US visiting their school, that we seemed very special to them in some ways.
I learned so much from the Carmel High teachers and students. In spite of their strict schedule, their hefty test regime, their uncomfortable surroundings, they love teaching and learning. They squeeze every ounce out of every day, only to return the next day to do it all again. They are disciplined and mannerly, determined and inquisitive, humble, gracious and spiritually centered. I miss them all already, Carmel High School, surely, but India itself. There is a spirit there, life lived in full color, that I've never experienced before, and a calmness that resonates through the chaos, leaving a simple and endearing peace.
I arrived home yesterday after almost a month away, first in India for 3 weeks and then in France and England with my daughter for a week. I had planned to write blog posts more frequently, but sluggish Internet connections prevented me from keeping up with that plan. It is probably for the best; it will take me years probably to process all that I have experienced on this incredible adventure. I'm sure I will blogging about it for years to come.
My immediate thoughts are that the world is a wondrous place populated by people who are, for the most part, doing their very best to survive and make the best of their life. The people of India, as well as the government, are challenged by the sheer number of people there. In Delhi and its surrounding areas alone, over 40 million people work to carve out their place in it all. 40 MILLION!! How does one city manage that many people? There are not enough resources, enough jobs, enough food, enough SPACE! I've learned that the education system has made it a priority to educate every child through grade 8, every child will receive an education, one way or another. And these children, the ones in school today, are the first generation to be educated. Can we in the US even imagine? The parents of this first generation of learners are not educated, so think of the challenges they face to help their children succeed, when they have not had that privilege. In some Indian states, ministers of education have given every child a bicycle to help them be able to get to and from school more quickly, since most children must rush home to help their family make enough money to survive. The states are also providing uniforms and monetary assistance to encourage parents to allow their children to attend school. It seems that the government recognizes that the only way for its people to have a future is to educate the children NOW.
In Delhi, the Minister of Education has also put into practice in all schools The Happiness Curriculum. This program, initiated first by the Dali Lama, focuses children on not only developing their mind, but also their body and spirit to help them understand what true happiness is and how to achieve it. (Not focusing solely on monetary success or selfish desires.) Every student learns and practices yoga daily in school, they spend time in silent reflection and learn to control their bodies and emotions through meditation. The benefits of the Happiness Curriculum has been discussed recently on many news channels and on social media. After seeing it in action, I wonder how our US students could benefit from such a holistic approach. The Indian students seem to be thriving and are very focused and calm.
I will continue to ponder what I've learned and I appreciate any comments or ideas you'd like to share. This experience has certainly deepened my understanding of the world and made me more mindful and grateful. It has altered the way I look at my responsibility as an educator and infused me with a new sense of determination to open the world up to my students.
Thanks for listening. Julia