Back To School

I started teaching an undergraduate course at a college that is allied with the one from where I graduated. I have taken exams in this very building. I’ve also represented another alma mater years later in a college festival and performed on the stage of this one. Now, I take the same road, stop at its gates and identify myself as faculty before entering. There are so many memories. I’m also going back to work for the first time since the pandemic and addressing an audience after years. Teaching is a kind of performance and all performance is reinterpreting who you are, through the filter of the role that you are playing. This is why teaching is also a form of learning.

Among all my personal firsts is the realisation of other people’s firsts. Teaching after all, also is being a space for other people’s journeys. This is a batch of brand new adults whose transition from adolescence has been deprived of that wild mixed bag that is a campus experience. Schools have farewell days, which I think are also lessons in the fact that our journeys eventually diverge. Colleges give us a fresh playing ground to test our new personalities and freedoms before we’re chucked into the rigors of adulthood. This generation has not had that. Zoom lessons & Whatsapp groups cannot capture the personal journeys tracked on attendance sheets, crowding noticeboards, bursting out of classrooms in a fit of hunger & excitement, having a favorite spot in the canteen, sitting on staircases to gab about projects and crushes in the same breath. It is anyone’s guess how they will adapt and shape the world they’re going into.

And in this view of other people’s journeys, I find myself wondering who I am and who I want to be. Life has given me another chance to consider this by placing me back at the site of my most transformative period, this time with more agency & power. It is giving me fresh insight into how other people navigated these the last time I was here. The insecurities of the cool kids, the hidden traumas of the weird ones (my tribe), the anxieties of the overachievers, even the tragedy of the ones that laughed with wild abandon. Now looking back, for how many of them was that the last time they were happy? I know now what comes after (or at least some of the possibilities). With my generation, it was a millennial economy we were not equipped to handle, social media (the demon child of the internet), three recessions, careers & relationships that we were groomed for going defunct the minute we became adults. I know a little something about being the first generation of new adults to be hit by a world changing event.

I think of my old teachers & in figuring out my place, I emulate them. They were so diverse so I have a wide range of roles to choose from. I ‘understand’ the rules that felt oppressive to me back then just as I understand why students lie, bunk and whisper in class. I try to emulate the best teachers I’ve had. One of them was a certified genius, about whom I’ve written in other posts. He also gave me a failing grade. That is the only time I’ve failed in mathematics. It is (not to put too fine a point on it) a statistical impossibility for me to fail this subject, having been a top student my whole life before and then using it with love & success later. I know that he failed me because I had low attendance in his subject. There is just no other way I’d get 0. I’ve struggled with this realisation for over two decades. It was a crushing disappointment that had longterm implications on my family dynamics, my future academic & career path and thus my personality. I’ve thought of this action as ‘necessary kick to my behind’. But now, standing in a similar position, I find myself shocked by its brutality. I know was harsh on anyone he perceived as being disrespectful to mathematics. It was a blatant show of power, justified as ‘you deserve it for not respecting the subject I love like I do’. But unexpected cruelty is never powerful, only petty. An examination paper only tests proficiency in that subject, not in morality or personality. Disrespecting a person has got nothing to do with disrespecting their beliefs or subjects of their interest. I can only conclude that he was a sad, bitter man, his superior intellect greatly diminished into pettiness by whatever life had dealt him. Taking out your personal bad feelings about yourself on other people, especially young people who (with their teenage bad behaviour) still look up to you with trust – that is not a good teacher but a bad one. It makes me quite sad to realise this. And it’s a sobering realisation of my own falliability. How enticing is the smallest hint of power that it can make great strength succumb to such lows!

This also made me think about the things that upset us. How many of those upsets are about ego-identifications? Are we really reduced if someone disagrees with us? Are we that much less if other people don’t display the same love we feel to people, objects & subjects? Are we shrunk when other people’s languages of love & life differ from ours? I don’t think so. Love does not diminish. It makes us vulnerable. But it’s placing our personal sense of importance in what we love, that diminishes us. Being the only one to find something cool does not make me a lesser person (though it may be the reason other people bully me). Enjoying things that are not fashionable or behaving in ways that people aren’t used to – these don’t make me any less who I am. If anything, they define even more clearly the truth of my being. Human beings act badly out of a sense of hurt & disconnection from other people. But that isn’t a price I’m willing to pay, if I can help it. My love cannot be an excuse to be a worse person. And this will always be my quest – to be the best human being I can possibly be, every love, every action, every thought, every sentiment, every chance an opportunity to further that goal.

I cannot become a better teacher by being just like the ones who taught me anymore than I can have a great life by copying the people who came before me. I am also teaching a subject that has very few past references, a fact that has intimidated me before this. Now I’m realising, this is my salvation. Life is always fresh & new. And it’s up to us to break free of the mistakes of those who came before us (including the ego-traps of their successes) and create our own stories. I’m so excited.

* Featured Image courtesy Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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