The eighth graders of a modest government school were shocked, as they looked on with gaping mouths and widened eyes. It was their “free period”, and it was being sabotaged. No kid liked to “learn and interact” during that class. “Substitute teachers”, as they were called, had the ominous task of engaging the students, and in fact go one step further and make them learn something. But Sasikala, a middle aged woman with a massive nose and a thin frame, wasn’t the usual. She had been divorced, and she had nothing to lose when she had taken up teaching. She didn’t have kids, but she proudly told her colleagues that she had thought of her students as her kids. People who knew her would know that she wasn’t just saying, and that she meant it. She had a lucrative job in a private school which she said to have quit. But in all fairness, she was fired. Corporal punishment wasn’t actually a good deed. But the rich brats in private schools did need some regularly. A 6th grader in her class told her to go “fuck herself” when she asked him about his homework. He also added a valid point that his driver collected more money than her. Naturally, the kid went home with one tooth less and Sasikala went home jobless.
Sasikala had had enough. She didn’t want to spoil rich brats, she didn’t want to make intelligent kids score a few marks more, and she didn’t want to move higher up in the school system’s hierarchy which was fast growing into a corporate scum. She joined a government school in the most notorious of areas. The fishermen community in North Chennai aren’t the most welcoming people. But Sasikala thought of it as challenge. She didn’t have any problems getting in, as most of the teachers were looking to get out. A few days after first round of meeting with the school principal, and there she was, standing in front of the class, thinking of her next move.
Classes always reminded Sasikala of a Jungle. We had the deers, herds in which each and every deer merged with one another and you couldn’t tell the difference between them. They moved in unison, spoke in unison, and nodded their heads in unison. They didn’t want any trouble, and that sometimes can be a problem. They agreed too much with life. And then we had the doers, the active people in the class. The lionesses, the tigresses that would be up for the hunt. They wanted every question to be hurled at them; they wanted to be the centre of the attention. And finally we had the hyenas, those cunning scavengers who preyed on the weak, the ones who held on to weak deers and caught them by the scruff of the neck. They liked to bully, and they laughed like hyenas too. Sasikala looked at the entire Jungle; she had to take care of each one of them, in a different way though.
“So let’s do something creative!” announced Sasikala. A moment later, a Basketball zoomed past her. The kids from these parts of the city weren’t too different from the rich brats. However, the situations in which the kids grew up were different. The latter were spoilt by parents, the former by their hardships and society.
Madan, a tall and lanky kid, walked up to Sasikala. “I need to go out”, said Madan.
“You know you can’t play now. You want me to get into trouble?” said Sasikala.
“That’s your problem.” His words stung like a bee.
One of the kids stood up and interrupted. “He puts every ball in the basket. He’s very good”
Sasikala stood there, a normal teacher would show authority, but Sasikala didn’t. Authority would be futile if it doesn’t serve any purpose. She thought maybe Madan would be better off in the court, rather than in the class.
“OK.” Said Sasikala. She didn’t to have to tell the kid anything else. Advice was something no kid would like, let alone Madan. He left with a contented look.
Sasikala had to get on with it. “So what do you guys like”, the question caused mayhem in the class. Most of the kids spoke of movies, cricket and their favourite cricket stars. The tigers and lions jumped on the question, while they answered in flair; the deers looked on with a confused look. They weren’t used to expressing themselves. They did what was supposed to be done. Assignments, exams, marks were their fodder, speaking their minds wasn’t.
“O.K. This is not Math, Science or any other class. I want each one of you to come up with something creative. It can be a poem, a painting or anything”. As Sasikala finished, there was a buzz among the students. The “tigers and lions” seemed confident; the “herd of deers” were in chaos. They looked rattled, and were moving around the class in panic. At one moment they wanted to write a poem, and in another they wanted to paint. One of the deers, a girl, stood up and asked “ Ma’am, I’ve stitched something. It has some of my designs. Can I bring it?” Even before Sasikala could answer, one of the hyenas struck.
“Ask your whore mother to bring it”, and the pack started laughing hysterically. The word shocked Sasikala. How could 14 year olds be so hostile? How could they know such things? But what was more shocking was the truth. The girl’s mother was indeed a whore. In fact, many of the kids did not get to grow up in ideal situations. Girls woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of their mothers being sexually harassed and pimps abusing them can be traumatic. Fathers were bootleggers and smugglers who asked their sons to pitch in for work. This was the reality. The girl didn’t look as humiliated, maybe it was just another day for her after all.
“So does anyone write poems?”, asked Sasikala to break the ice. She was in some discomfort seeing the student behaviour. The hyenas started hooting and howling. The problem with bullies was that you could never engage the good students too. Their influence on the entire class was tremendous. Sasikala knew there were problems deep enough, and one hour wouldn’t be sufficient. She was coming to terms with the situation. She realized that she wasn’t going to progress much on that day.
The bell rang, giving the students much to cheer about. Papers started flying, lunch boxes were getting snatched, and the mayhem and cacophony reminded her of the fish market few paces away from the school. Sasikala was standing amidst the chaos, looking at the future.. She needed the deers to question everything, disagree with views and oppose them. She needed the tigers and the lions to have a vision and a focus. Talent had to be nurtured, and the education system can sometimes destroy that. And finally, the hyenas needed to be brought down to earth. Every bully has a past and history. She needed to find out, and find out soon. The jungle looked wild and ominous, and Sasikala knew that only the strongest would survive.