About A Girl – Day One in a Classroom
Generic wind-chimes and rooster crowing sounds woke her up, and she reached out to turn off the alarm on her father’s cell phone. It took a couple of attempts to get the increasingly annoying “Early Morning Jungle Sounds” alarm tone to stop, and she was wide awake by the end of it. She ran to the sink, grabbed a tooth brush and hurriedly brushed and gargled before heading to the kitchen. Today would be the first day of school after the two-month-long summer vacation, and she was both thrilled and nervous to be going back. Her uniform was pressed and waiting in a hanger; it was a little worn-out, but her parents could buy only one of the kids a new set this year and she agreed to let her youngest sister be the privileged one – finances were tight at home and she’d been upset because she was denied a Barbie doll that she’d fallen in love with, so maybe the uniform would make up for that a little.
She moved around the kitchen swiftly, gathering the ingredients she would need, and set them all on the counter while a million thoughts flew across her mind. She would be meeting her friends after such a long time in the village and she wished the clock would move faster. The books she’d spent most of last evening wrapping in brown paper were almost screaming at her to fill them up with all the new phrases and words she was so excited to learn. Why were the corners always so difficult? The milkman had only kept 1 liter of milk at the doorstep that morning; she would have to remember to bring back more on her way home from school. She would miss her ‘didi’ at school; why did they have to get a new one every two years? But then she loved and trusted those people from Teach for India; she would never have gotten this far without them! And the culture of calling them ‘didi’ or ‘bhaiya’ made it seem like they were her family, which at some point they all managed to become. Oh, look at the time! She had to get the bath water ready for her father, brother and three younger sisters before they all woke up. There was a fourth hole in their plastic roof that needed fixing, and they were running out of buckets in which to catch the constant dripping.
She spent the next hour cooking a hearty breakfast of the traditional Maharashtrian Misal-Pav for her little siblings, hoping to make their new year at school to start as well as it possibly could. A lot of people hated the thought of the dish, but they’d never eaten HER delicious version of it; made with sprouted moong, boiled potatoes, her secret mixture of spices in just the right proportions and a whole lot of love. When it was finally done, she quickly turned off the stove, covered the food with a plate and ran to the only bedroom in the house to wake up the rest of her happy, cramped little household.
The air was cool and she shuddered as it sped past her, threatening to mess up the neat braids she had secured with those required drab, black ribbons earlier that morning. Her father had woken up, wolfed down his breakfast and headed off to work with a nod of thanks in her direction, she’d managed to get her siblings fed, dressed and out of the house with her just in time for the local bus, and now she could finally sit back and enjoy the journey to school. She looked around to make sure her siblings were all seated and holding on, and then settled back down in her seat at the window. The trees whizzed past and and the little white divider lines all blurred into one bold streak traveling alongside the bus, as though challenging the driver to a race till school. She sat back and let her thoughts wander. This year was going to be a big one for her. A whole bunch of new students always joined her school in the 8th grade, since hers was one of the few schools that catered to higher English-medium classes in the state. There would be a lot of competition in class and a whole lot of new people to talk to, and the very thought of both those things made her queasy. She knew she was a hard-worker and she was happy with the few friends she had. She had never been able to hold a good first conversation with a new person, and now she had to deal with thirty? AND a new didi? And then there was the academic side of it all. She was the first in her family to make it past middle school without having to drop out and take up a job to support the family. Her mother worked all day and night to make sure her daughters got an education despite the social stigma in her community, and the pressure of carrying that through was a burden that only got heavier with every success. She loved studying and going to school; she just wished she didn’t have do it to prove a point.
The voice of the conductor snapped her out of her trance, and she swiftly rounded up her siblings and got them all off the bus and on to the pathway right in front of their school. One glance at the place and all her worries were so distant that she wondered how they’d loomed so large just seconds ago. The four kids ran off to the rocky little playground and she watched as they pushed and shoved their way on to the colorful swings; a tiny contribution that had managed to actually make its way into school this year instead of into some rich, greedy inspector’s pocket. She spotted a group of her classmates nearby and headed over to them as they noticed her and excitedly motioned for her to join them. Events of the summer were shared over giggles and gasps, and the little group then moved on to discussing the new year and the prospects it brought.
Soon, the school was buzzing with activity as more and more students turned up; there must have been at least 200 new enrollments in all this year. The ground seemed smaller and the classrooms that had once been comfortable spaces were now cramped and almost illegally small. Suddenly, she heard one of her friends say “Look! It’s three new people! Are they our teachers?” She turned toward the gate and saw two short-haired women and a bespectacled man walking in. They went in to the office, only to emerge five minutes later, with blue and green attendance registers in hand. So these WERE the new teachers. She wondered which one would be her didi or bhaiya for the next two years. She hoped it wasn’t that frown-y, confused looking one. Her stomach full of butterflies, she trailed at the back of the group of girls as they approached the three newcomers and bombarded them with a bunch of opening questions – “What is your name?” “Where are you from, didi?” “Oh, bhaiya are you married?” “Didi, I like your earrings!” “Didi what will you teach us?”, – and she giggled nervously when an older boy came nearby and approached the didis with a cheeky “Dil me mere hain dard-e-disco!”
The bell rang and everyone rushed to form their lines in assembly, sing the prayer, belt out the national anthem within the prescribed 52 seconds and add a clause of *most* Indians are my brothers and sisters to the pledge. Soon, the classrooms were all filled to capacity and more, where places were fought over with the kind of passion that is only seen in the cinemas, and books were lazily fished out of bags in preparation for the day. Slowly, the students settled down, and she noticed a woman standing at the front of the class, register and red pen in hand, patiently waiting to begin the first day of school. As the didi wished the class and introduced herself, she realised that Didi could not be very old. A slight quiver in her voice betrayed a case of nerves, and the warm smile on her face gave away all pretense of being strict.
Didi suggested they play a memory game with their names as an activity to begin the day and make new friends, and she hoped she would be the first. Remember forty students’ names in one go? Impossible. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Didi had decided to make things ‘fun’ by adding a twist to the game. Each student had to add an adjective before their name; one that they felt described them the best. What in God’s name was an adjective? Of course, Murphy’s Law made sure the game began at the other end of the class, and she knew that by the time it came around to her bench, she’d be so confused that she wouldn’t remember her own name. As her turn came closer, her throat closed up and her hands went cold. What if she failed in front of the entire class? What if she got everyone mixed up? She would never make new friends now! Her benchmate stumbled and tripped through the long list of adjective-names, and finished the game with most of her dignity intact. It was her turn. She slowly stood up, adjusted her skirt, cracked a knuckle or two and nervously fidgeted with her pencil box. Her glance moved to her Didi, and it was met by a warm, encouraging smile. She hurriedly rattled off all the names and adjectives as much in order as she could remember.
“Well done, that was perfect!” She beamed in pride at having so successfully overcome her first obstacle this year.
“And now, would you tell us your name and an adjective to go with it?”
“Didi, my name is Nandini and I am Brave.”
“Well, I am going to be your Didi for the next two years and I am Inspired. By all of you.”
The rest of the day had gone smoothly – Nandini managed to make friends with two of the new girls. She had filled her math book with the practice sums for squares and square roots. Her head was full of ideas she was assigned to list down in her notebook for a short story. She’d learned a little bit about matter, atoms and molecules, been amused at a skit Didi had performed to teach them about the Indian farmers before independence and was introduced to Didi’s strange ritual of high-fives at the end of the day. She was enamored by the lively, creative and confident Didi of hers and hoped there were more such wonderful, strange new things to come.
As the final bell rang, Nandini packed her bag and ran to the junior block to pick up her siblings, two of whom were covered in dirt and crying loudly – something about a puddle of mud and a fight over chocolate. She sent them to wait at the gate and collected their belongings from the classroom. As she left the class, she bumped into her Didi and received one of the most heartfelt apologies she’d ever heard. After assuring her Didi that it was no problem and that she’d seen worse, she turned to hurry away from her, confused at the respect she’d just received from a grown-up; a stranger who probably didn’t even remember her name. As she walked, she turned back and saw her Didi, who smiled and said “I’ll see you tomorrow, Brave Nandini!”
With those words of farewell wrapping themselves warmly around her heart, she reached the gate and boarded the bus, and thought of her Didi the entire ride home. How was someone so young able to talk to so many new students and remember their names and teach them so many subjects AND not have a nervous meltdown? How did she handle so many new and difficult tasks and still make it so fun? She must be so confident about herself and the things she does. It’s amazing. I want to be like her.
What Nandini didn’t hear would have surprised her.
Didi entered the staff room to meet the other teachers, and before anyone could get a word out, she vented out her entire day without pause. “Wow, that was a difficult first day. I was so nervous! There are FORTY kids in that class. And this one kid managed to remember all their names and adjectives and everything! She was incredible in class, and at the end of the day, I saw her pick up her four little screaming siblings! I spoke to her for a while in lunch which, by the way, she made. Because she COOKS for her family before she comes to school! She’s practically playing the role of the mother in her house and still managing to do so well at school! I remember being worried about which boy I had a crush on, and what TV show was the most interesting at her age. I wish I was like her!”
And though they went their separate ways with a little more than a few words that afternoon, a special bond was created between the two girls. Each as far out of her own comfort zone as the other, and each equally inspired by the other. And in the next few months they would learn that the roles of teacher and student are frequently reversed, and that you can never really be one without the other.