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.