Blades and Books
I could hear my own heart beating very fast. My mind was forcing me to keep breathing. I could see the two faces smiling at me; the sound of their laughter silenced by my brain. My eyes refused to believe what they saw. 61 kids jumping in their places, chasing each other across the benches, calling names, teasing each other and two of them stood right in front of me. Their messed up hair, stained school uniform, unbuttoned shirts and slippers seemed to mock my very existence. Their shirt sleeves were pulled up displaying their arms that were slit from elbow to wrist. “Usne blade se mera haath kaat diya, to maine bhi uska haath kaat diya. Ghar pe mat bolna, samjhe kya?” (He slit my arm with a blade, so I slit his. Don’t tell my parents, do you understand?) “Where is the blade?” I could partially recognise my own voice. “Fek diya”, one of them answered.
I did not understand them. Socio-economic conditions could change the value system of people, but to what extent? How could I survive as a class teacher when I saw all these in my first year of teaching? First things first.
I had to take them to the doctor and give them injections to prevent Tetanus. I knew their parents would not be bothered with such trivia. Through gritted teeth, I eventually ended the day and took them to the local hospital. “Hum logon ko ye sab nahi chahiye, hume kuch nahi hota hai” (We don’t need any of these, nothing happens to us) they kept telling me over and over again. “It can happen to everyone. The bacteria does not care”, I wanted to shout but couldn’t. It would be another wasted bit of information for them. They had hurt each other yet both of them were smiling. Perhaps they were smiling at my misery, I thought to myself. “Come with me. I care about you.” I told them. It didn’t matter.
The next day I was back at school like nothing had happened. The kids came with the marks still prominent on their forearms. “I don’t want to see any more blades in my class”, I told them firmly. “I find blades with anyone and you are done.” I opened my plan for the day and asked them to take out their books. Five minutes into the class several angry voices sounded, “Hindi mein baat karo, hum samajhtey nahi hain!” (Speak in Hindi else we don’t understand) Nothing I said or did registered in their minds. I felt like an alien in class. I did not understand their jokes, they did not understand mine. Before the class ended, a boy screamed out,“Didi, aap ne mana kiya tha blade lane ko, dekho wo sharpener se blade nikal raha hai!” (Didi you had asked us to not bring blades, he is opening the blade off the sharpener) I did not understand their violence, they did not understand peace.
Yet I tried. I had come for a cause and I could not let it be a lost cause. “Peace”, I tried to explain, “is a value which can change the world for the better.” I heard kids laughing at the back.
“Kya peace peace karte rehte hain aap? Hamare ghar ke bahar kal log chaku leke fight kar rahe the, unko samjhao jake” (What’s the deal with you and peace? There were people fighting with knives outside our house. Go teach them!) The whole class started laughing. I held on to my words. I ended the class somehow. Sometimes I felt like crying. Our worlds were too different for anyone to understand each other.
“Hum aapki baat nahi sunenge jab tak aap hume nahi maroge” they told me one day.
I stared at the kid, straight into his eyes. “This is my challenge to you. I will not hit and you can still change.” He laughed. The other teacher came with a stick and silence fell in the whole class. I stood at the door almost breatheless to see what would happen next. None of the kids moved from their seats. The teacher walked around with the stick but hit no one. Just the option of being beaten was enough.
I was seating at the teacher’s table during the break time, my head buried in the attendance register when I heard a voice from the back that made my feet go cold. “Ay Muslim, bahar mil, teri laash milegi”. I turned back as a reflex action and I saw six young boys standing behind me, giving each other cold looks. I asked them a lot of times, but none of them confessed. “Ye sab chalta rehta hain. Bahar ke bachhelog bulake marte rehte hain sab” (These things are quite common. Kids from outside come and beat us up) a few boys told me nonchalantly. “Aap kahan se aye ho ki aapko ye sab nahi pata?” (From where have you come that you are unfamiliar to these things?)
A part of me wanted to quit. I used to come back and cry every single night. Wondering how to change their mind-set, how to bridge the educational gap that existed. On some days, I woke up at 3 am and got ready for school. As my heartbeat increased, my eyes convinced my brain that it’s okay to sleep for a couple more hours.
Constant fear raged my brain, “Am I capable enough?” Amid a thousand voices which screamed a loud “No”, a tiny, feeble voice said, “Yes” and I chose to listen to that voice.
The kids used to kick each other, hit each other and create such a violent atmosphere in class that I used to be taken aback. I could not accept them kicking in the chest wearing shoes or choking the other person as he was turning blue. I used to pull them apart using my limited strength, I used to call the other kids to help me. They used to laugh, but help me anyway. One day, after school break, a kid ran up to me. “Why are you still at school?” I enquired. He looked a little rattled. (I am translating) “Can you do me a favour?” he asked, “By not breaking the fights inside the classroom? The incomplete fights are completed outside, more violent than before. Bigger boys from the community join in and it goes to a whole new level.” I stood there unable to reply. “Come here”, he guided me to the corridor from where I could see the kids standing outside on the porch. “Do you see those guys in a circle?” I did see a circle, they were my kids. They were flexing their muscles and twisting their necks. “They are waiting for me to get down and that is just the beginning.” Another boy joined us to see what was going on. “He’s right”, the second boy added. “There’s a room I can take you too. It still has blood stains on it. That’s my blood.”
The boys walked away as I stood in silence, unable to move. I could take the boy home for a day, two, a week or a month but here, all the people were unsafe. All of them – the whole lot. English, Maths, Social Studies took a back seat. I started focusing on and taking activities of peace, religious tolerance and love in class. Deep inside my heart used to sink every minute but I kept trying. Every day, every single day with simple English, easy words and rhyme. They would tell it every day, in between classes, after classes and the whole class came together for a couple of poems.
“Am I a Hindu? Am I a Muslim?
No, I am a human being.
Am I fat? Am I thin?
No, I am a human being.
Am I dark? Am I fair?
My friends, I don‟t care.
I care about one thing,
Am I a human being?”
I would hear the kids and try to make sure each kid was saying it.
“If some day, my friend hits me,
I‟ll smile and say, „Namestey Ji’”
This went on for months. Did I get my class under control? They used to give me proof otherwise. One day at the end of school, as all the kids were packing their bags, a boy kicked a girl hard in the stomach. She turned blue crying. I rushed her to her house, informed her parents and took her to the emergency room at the hospital for an internal bleeding check. I was standing beside her bed during her USG, holding her hand. Mentally I was telling myself that if all goes well, I will stick to my Fellowship, no matter what. To my relief, the reports were normal. Six months later, the girl stopped coming to school. Her father had abandoned the family. She called me once from a random number and I heard her voice, “I am sorry Didi, I will miss you.” That number never worked after that. I don’t know where she is right now. I hope she is safe.
Parents used to come and scream at me for not being able to control the class. “Aapki galti hain. Aap nahi marenge to nahi sudhrenge bache”. I used to tell them repeatedly that fear works only to a point, but who would listen to me!
Nothing could stop the poems. I made sure, whatever happened, they had to go on. I had cut myself off every social media. Nothing made sense to me as the task athand was so tough. I had forgotten what my life used to be. I used to be there at school hours after school ended. I used to spend time with them. I would go to their houses, meet their parents and shed as much love as I could on each of my children. However they were, they were my students and at the age of 12, a lot of that they did wasn’t their fault.
One day I came inside the class to collect some information on the minority scholarship exams. I hated to ask, but as the Government scheme, I bit my lips and asked the question in class. “How many of you are either Muslim or Christian….” A boy cut me short.
“I am a human being”, he replied. I stood silently. My ears refusing to believe what they had just heard. He was the one of the guys who would lead fights and abuses in class.
“What did you say?” my voice shook.
“I am a human being” He looked straight into my eyes and stood up. Suddenly there was a buzz in the class. “No Hindu, No Muslim. I am a human being.”
63 kids stood up and chanted the lines, not like a robot, but with conviction. As if suddenly they understood the meaning. I remember submitting the form later to the Principal, my head too full, eyes watery.
That night I slept in peace.
My kids are changing, slowly but steadily. Yes, they fight but rarely. They are trying to change and that’s what matters. I taught them theatre as a way in which they could express. We identified a problem that we were facing and practised for hours. The same set of kids stood up for a cause. They performed a play on domestic violence and made a room full of adults cry. “It’s so real that it’s painful” a mother whispered, “I wish more people would come and watch it.”
As they huddled up together at the end of the play as sang in unison, my lips bent into a smile.
“I found a reason for me,
To change who I used to be
A reason to start over new…”
We gave each other a chance. I entered their world, they entered mine. We got our worlds a little closer to each other. We spent hours together – rehearsals, academics, values, talking to people and listening to each other.
I am glad I stayed. My kids dropped blades and picked up pens and that made all the difference.
19 months of our togetherness. They fight with their parents to come to me on the days where their parents ask them to stay back at home. A few months of peace. The kids think twice before raising his/her hands. We started looking at books as something to learn from, not something to throw away. I became theirs, somehow through a lot of resistance, they became mine.
I hope, they raise their kids more peacefully than they were raised. I hope they practise values in their lives so that they look at human beings as human beings, not discriminate between them based on religion, caste or creed. With all the hopes and dreams as I step into the classroom every day, I try to spread a little more love and joy.
The barriers broke.
“Koi humpe bharosa nahi karta hai. Taane marte hain log. Bolte hain hum se kuch nahi ho payega”
“But you know there’s always one person who believes in you, right?”
“Yes”, they smile. I could do anything for that smile. Kids are kids. It’s the work of a grown up to change their destiny. I am playing my part. Will you?