Working in a Bombay School

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 7, 2005 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

Short of dishwashing, no job of mine was as fruitless as teaching in a Bombay school. The chaos of Bombay was problematic enough. But like K. of Kafka's Castle I was offering my vague abilities to an entity so colossal that I probably needn't have bothered. "You can leave India," a friend told me. "But India won't leave you." But did I leave anything in India?

I never really saw my job description. I knew that I was to teach three classes with Indian teachers, which, in a sense, I did. Everything else I did was for my own amusement, and only incidentally affected anybody else. I became less an educator than an anthropologist. To change the system I needed to understand it. But every day it offered bewildering new lessons.

I also came to love my students. Every educator makes this mistake. An educator who loves his students will brood over whether he is doing them harm or good. This was especially so in India because the educational goals originated from the Maharashtra State Board of Education. And the goals were as irrelevant as they were boring.

So teaching became something of a chore. The only delight came from the students themselves, who failed to see why they should care about Charlie Chaplin, Thor Hyerdahl, logarithm tables, polynomial multiplication, or the manual construction of parallelograms. But I applaud their willingness to play along.

Americans were a great mystery. They had visited the school before but only on typically American whirlwind tours. The Indians repeated their names carefully and nostalgically, but in fact the Americans had accomplished little.

Though I was no more promising, I was brought from classroom to classroom and introduced like a movie star. Sporting blue pinstriped uniforms and braided hair, the students would stand up and shout, "Good MORning, teacher," according to protocol. One class asked me and my colleague about our hobbies. He said that he liked to sing. "Sing, sing," they goaded. So he and I performed a horrible rendition of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star", and when we left the room the girls giggled riotously.

These impromptu performances became commonplace. One day I was brought before a class and told to talk with them. So we talked about American schools, Hindi movies, cricket, my marriage plans, their college plans, their religion, my irreligion, belief in ghosts, Gandhi and Nehru, America's average temperatures and its mysterious "snow", pollution, prime ministers, and the parliamentary system. They sang the Indian national anthem. Written in Sanskrit, the anthem extols Indian unity despite diversity and ends with a rousing shout of Jaya Hind!, or "Hail India!" They asked me to sing the American national anthem but I was too embarrassed to complete it.

These early encounters were auspicious. Having taught only American students, I viewed adolescents as somewhat hostile, world-weary, sluggish; the Indians were the opposite. Even the large classes seemed at first to have good aspects. One day I visited a Hindi class. The teacher was clearly in the driver's seat, but the students were surprisingly engaged. Their hands shooting up, they shouted, "Miss! Miss! Miss!" They read with astonishing precision and confidence, their voices drowning out the street noise.

But when I sat through an entire day of 5th standard classes, my optimism was diminished. The day was almost unendurable. Teachers entered and left the class randomly. Only violence could quell the strident noise: teachers slammed erasers against tables and struck students' hands with pencils. No lesson was continuous enough to have a substantial effect. Constantly appearing at the door were students, teachers, peons -- with ledgers, reminders, tea. And the classes lasted only 30 minutes. I quickly remembered how stultifying school can be. In one class students copied verbatim their teacher's words. She posed questions like, "Dash is the number of teeths [sic]." "Dash" meant a blank to be filled in. "Dash controls all the activities of the body." The class could have been called "anatomical trivia". In another class the teacher asked, "What is social change?" My mind went slack, but the students offered various answers. The teacher refused them. Finally one student recited, "Social change implies the creation of a new society on the basis of justice and freedom."

Deprivation was a problem. One day a teacher tried to explain Microsoft Windows without using a computer. Presumably his sixty students had seen a computer, but I doubt the lesson was very helpful. Perhaps aware of this, the teacher wrote "PAINTBRUSH" on the board, scanned the room, and sighed.

I had been forewarned about these constraints. But sensitivity was hard sometimes. One day during the monsoons all the lights and fans went off. "These," said a British school supervisor, "are an example of not the constraints, not the problems, but the challenges we must face." I preferred the word "problem".

But my first class, English, went splendidly. Bored by the greeting "Good morning teacher", I persuaded the students to replace "good" with a new adjective each day. Soon they were saying things like, "Stupendous morning, teacher!" Later they read, in thick Indian accents, from A Raisin in the Sun: "You look ready to go out and pick some cotton sure enough!" I had trouble explaining Scarlett O' Hara and slavery to them. Later a teacher told me that caste would have been a good analogy.

Within a few weeks I was losing steam. My ideas were impracticable. Teaching the students in groups would have required worksheets, which involved sending a peon to a distant photocopy shop; it would have required a daily, Herculean redistribution of desks. When teachers attended one of my lessons, their approval was guarded. The lesson lacked an "objective," they said. But my primary objective was to make my students self-reliant.

Both students and teachers had difficulty understanding me: part of the problem was linguistic, part pedagogical. "I am not understanding," the students would say. They got nervous when I discussed things instead of "covering" the material. Other teachers would ask their classes, "All have understood?" And the students would all groan, "Yes, miss." This, it seemed, was understanding.

The schedule added to the confusion. I taught some classes only once a week. Add India's several religious holidays, and two weeks sometimes elapsed between classes. Continuity became impossible.

Control was another issue. Having taught only in independent schools, I was accustomed to working alone. But in India practically everything is done collectively. Seemingly the entire school would do something that required only one person. Once I watched three students trying to make a cardboard crown. In their pushing and pulling the crown was completely destroyed. This would become emblematic.

So I formed a drama club. It was outside of the syllabus and I allowed only one teacher to co-direct. The club would be as democratic as possible. The students chose its name -- the Dramatic Wonders Group -- by vote; and they voted to put on a play by Shakespeare. Shakespeare? I asked them. Shakespeare, they said.

But the club had its own challenges. Full attendance at the daily one-hour practices was rare, and those attending were hard to contain. Space was a problem. Almost every day we were shifted from one room to another, sometimes to the basement. We had no budget; we paid for everything.

The students' enthusiasm also varied. Some were better than others about punctuality and memorizing their lines. Every day students asked me, "We have the drama today, sir?" Sometimes they didn't like my answer. They were hungry; their heads were "paining"; they had religious commitments.

The fourteen actresses could be as aggravating as a class of sixty. They learned how to read my temper: "We can tell when you are angry, sir. You turn red." Most of them had no self-control. So I began to change for the worse. I became impatient, loud. I resorted to archaic punishments, like having students stand for the duration of a class.

One day I snapped at my co-director, "No teacher has any idea what I'm going through!" In the presence of other teachers, the students were docile, but with me they were unmanageable because I refused to be as stern as the other teachers, who could not know this because the students acted like angels whenever they were around.

My co-director was offended by my comment, but it did spur a discussion about freedom and responsibility. She was realizing that freedom and anarchy are closely related. And I began to wonder about the consequences of granting Indians freedoms for which they might be unprepared.

In an article in India Today, V.S. Naipaul wrote that India has endured one conqueror after another and that the majority of Indians had never known freedom. With India's independence from Britain, this enormous pressure from above was removed. The result was an explosion of instability -- communal violence, unscrupulous demagogues -- giving the powerful a pretext for repression. And the teachers were to the classroom what the rulers were to India.

When I summarized the American educational system to some teachers in Hyderabad, they reacted with wonder and horror. "So much of freedom," said one in a trembling voice. When I told an Indian colleague that curricula were basically decided at the local level, she asked, "But how do you guarantee that the students know what they need to know?" That an individual or a community could decide this was a foreign and slightly frightening notion.

One day I openly complained that no one was trying to abolish the state syllabus or the exam system. My co-director again contradicted me. "People are doing something about it," she said. "But it will take time": five to ten years. (This was in 1997.) The school had succeeded in implementing progressive education in the lower standards. But examinations following the 10th standard blocked progress at the higher levels. And frequently I was told that my school was exceptional. Compared to other Indian schools, it was dizzyingly free.

Had I stayed longer in India I might have undertaken political action myself. But there seemed to be as much resistance to change within the school as without it. So to act would have been to impose. Instead I just cultivated the tiny garden of freedom I had created in the drama club.

The students and I reached an implicit compromise. Because I tolerated more noise than any other teacher, the students liked me, so they did not go too far. Other teachers were puzzled by this. One even entered my classroom and ordered the children to be quiet. She looked scared.

The actresses and I grew very close. As the performance approached, we extended our practices and met on Saturdays. During idle time in school they would practice their lines: in effect, reciting Shakespeare. They became curious about their costumes. They called each other by their stage names: Hermia, Lysander, Snug, Snout. And they even incorporated a line from the play into their banter: "Bless you, Bottom! Bless you!"

We learned that we would be performing at Anjuman-e-Islam, an enormous and ornate school across from Bombay's Victoria Terminus. When I told the British supervisor, she blinked and said, "How did you do that?" My co-director had done it; it was a small coup. The students were both inspired and alarmed. But they began to practice taking their bows.

At last they performed an abbreviated (but not dumbed-down) version of A Midsummer Night's Dream before an audience of hundreds. Of course they hardly knew what they were saying. And of course nobody in the Hindi-speaking audience knew what they were saying. But my co-director was exultant. "It's like a dream come true," she said. We had proven that her students could do Shakespeare as well as any American contemporaries. Their confidence seemed to soar.

But the play was practically my only success in India. To paraphrase Hamlet, the play was the thing.

- The End -