Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sticky Moments

Today we don’t have to stop to ask twenty-seven assorted tuk-tuk drivers and newspaper-sellers for directions, so we get to school on time, just before nine o’clock. Monu’s been once, and like a boy, has logged the co-ordinates of Mankhurd Akanksha School, into his Mumbai Knowledge. I still have to be virtually in the shadow of our building, Verona, before I know where we are. To be fair, it casts quite a long shadow. I have patch pockets of The Knowledge, little snatches of awareness – like where my favourite street barber has his pavement stall, opposite the flyover, or where the closed-until-the-sun-comes-back lighting shop is, on the road out of Powai, or where the scrawny calves live, in the alleyway between the no-lakh hutment and the chai-seller, at the junction – I just don’t know how they all fit together, into anything coherent. It’s a kaleidoscopic world, mine. Unsurprisingly, I miss my own house, sometimes, sailing past the end of our drive, and we’ve lived there since 1996.
“Good morning, didi!” the early-birds chorus, even before I have kicked off my crocs at the door. Bhavika has them spaced to the last quarter-inch, on the mats, where she wants them. If they fidget, she invites them to entertain the whole class with a dance. I’m very aware of changing position every two minutes, myself – marble’s very unforgiving – so I resolve to practise my lotus on the floor, at home. I seem unable to sit cross-legged, without one knee being higher than the other, yet, when I do a surreptitious scout-round, no-one else’s padma’s asymmetrical. Reluctant joints creaking, I put it on my To Do list, and make a conscious effort to be still, in case didi asks me to dance...
Akash arrives. He slithers out of his chappals at the door, and curls round the jamb, balancing on one foot, until Bhavika notices him. “Didi, may I come in?” I’m felled by such charm - in the hurly-burly of school corridors, back home, it’s every man for himself – but no-one else in Room 112 bats an eyelid. Two minutes later, he goes out again, to liberate a spider with academic aspirations. He returns it carefully to the wild, then hovers on the threshold again, waiting for permission to come back in.
By way of starter, a prayer:

O god, give us strength.
O god, give us peace.
Make us good.
Make us strong.
Make us good and strong.

Eyes open. “Good morning, didis!”
Bhavika writes “Values” on the board, underneath the date, and we revise being happy, for a bit. Kajal wins the laurels with “It makes me happy, when I read a book!” – laudable, if visibly propagandist, given the context. You can’t have happiness without sharing, so the next logical step is paying a compliment. Didi – bold as brass – asks for compliments. “Eating a banana,” volunteers Anand. “No!” says didi firmly, “we are done with being happy!” A bit drastic, for seven year olds, I reckon, but she’s only thinking of our Values lesson, not Life In General. “Now give didi a compliment!”
Didi’s dress is clean!” says Rajul. To her credit, didi manages not to look crestfallen, evidently believing in taking compliments gratefully, as and where she finds them. Anyway, battling through drifts of slurry, to get to school, with her frock unscathed, deserves special mention. “Who can give Caroline-didi a compliment?” She chooses Khaja, with the cheeky eyes. “Caroline-didi’s hair,“ - I hold my breath – “is very nice.” I smile at Khaja, and feel like my birthday and Diwali have come all at once.
In my group this morning, I have Swapnil, who’s cute enough for me to overlook the small matter of a runny nose (seriously cute, then...), solemn Mehul, who takes some winning over, Ashish, who likes to work on his knee, where I can’t see it, rather than flat in front of him, on the floor, where I can, and Sultana, who strokes my earrings and needs to sharpen her pencil – already as pointy as a syringe – several times, before settling down to write. Once she starts rubbing things out, they’re all clamouring for the eraser, so I have to confiscate it, gloating with power. This is what teaching’s about, being in charge of the rubber.
We make sentences, using “a,” “an,” “am,” “and,” and “after.” Ashish tries the scatter-gun, two-birds-one-stone approach, and says, “I am an elephant.” I’m not convinced he’s completely GOT this.
When we do the Days of the Week, all my hard-won classroom skills are really put to the test. Bhavika has a sheet for everyone, with the days scrambled out of order, so it’s time – deep joy – for a bit of Cutting and Sticking. What’s more, we can’t drop bits on the floor, because we’re already on the floor. With only one pair of scissors for every three or four children, progress is slow – particularly with Swapnil’s key-hole surgery approach to cutting-out. However, Bhavika-didi doesn’t know that Caroline-didi can slice up worksheets, sitting in the dark, at the bottom of a swimming-pool, with one hand tied behind her back. AND I have a secret weapon. Don’t tell anyone: I wipe a stripe of glue down the middle of the page before we start, which saves anyone from sticking Sunday to their own knee, by accident. It also means that I have to be a bit nifty, intervening, if anyone slaps down Tuesday in front of Monday, for example, but on the plus side, I am the only one with sticky fingers, at the end. I don’t wish to blow our own trumpet, here, or anything, but MY GROUP FINISHES FIRST!!! Yes, alright, alright, I know it’s not a race, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be the winners, does it?
By way of plenary – you guessed – a prayer. These children have waded here, through unspeakable flotsam and jetsam, yet they still have the innocent grace, to give thanks for the world being so sweet. The breath sticks in my throat, for a moment, then Khaja cheers me up, with a high-five, on his way out. “Bye, didi!”