24th September, 2014 – 10:30am – Its a normal day so far. After the morning assembly, the students have been busy working on an art project when suddenly a small girl darts inside my classroom, stops right in front of me, and stares at me blankly. For a few moments she doesn’t say anything, she continues to catch her breath and then says, “Tabassum khatam ho gayi” or Tabassum is no more.
Tabassum Khan was a 9 year old sparky eyed child in my classroom and also one of my biggest fans. She just loved everything I did. My days were incomplete without her hugs and thank you notes. She was struggling with a couple of subjects here and there, putting in a lot of effort to improve but fate had something else planned for her.
It took me some time to comprehend the situation and when it hit me I had no idea what to do. My teacher training taught me how to deal with naughty kids and disinvested parents and principals and all the other stakeholders but very slyly missed death. And I wasn’t prepared. I guess no one is ever prepared to face death and more so of a 9 year old. I immediately left for the funeral. I wanted to see her one last time and trust me I had never wanted to see someone so badly in my life till date. But before I could reach, the funeral was over; I met her father on my way to the graveyard. He looked wrecked, I could only imagine his situation and all I could offer him was a hug. He insisted I come home but I insisted on visiting the grave.
The guard at the graveyard pointed me to the direction of the grave. It was covered with rose petals and a small stone with Tabassum written in Hindi. This was my first time at the graveyard. I could not hold back my tears. The feeling of knowing the person who now lay a few feet under the ground covered in mud is extremely claustrophobic feeling and more so when you have known them closely. I was crying and questioning every belief that I held dear to me. I must have sat there for more than 2 hours when the guard came and requested me to leave, they were closing the place.
I chose to start with this story because Tabassum’s death was a huge reality check for me, my reality was very different from the reality that my students lived in, while I was equipped with mosquito bands and oils and all sorts of fancy repellants as soon as I knew of dengue spreading in Delhi, Tabassum’s family lived next to a garbage dump with minimum protection from mosquitos and her parents kept treating her with cold pads even after her fever did not subside for more than 3 days and took her to the hospital when everything was already lost. I was trying to feed them the dreams and aspirations of my reality without realising that these dreams and aspirations wouldn’t stand the moment they stepped outside my classroom. I understood that the task at hand is bigger than what I had imagined and it would take many more of us to even start making a significant dent. I am extremely happy to stand here today because I can see a bunch of people who are ready to be ignited, who are ready to take that leap of faith and step out of their comfort zone and do something which is larger than themself.
I was 21 when I realised that the knots behind my back that kept me from sleeping well at night were remains of wings that I did not use, yes I was meant to fly long before I was 21. So, I decided to take that leap of faith and a poet, trained to be an engineer walked into the classroom. I am not a believer but when I saw my students smile I knew that you did not have to die to go to heaven. And today I work with teachers and help them unclasp the beautiful wings tucked neatly under the heavy school bags our children carry – day in and day out
A teacher helps students find their purpose and realise their potential. And that’s all that we know and often believe. But my experience with teaching has been very different. We often forget to look at the other side. And today I am going to share with you my learning as a teacher and why I strongly recommend teaching as a tool to find yourself.
At the end of the day our BIG purpose in life is to find happiness and peace. The definitions of happiness and peace can be different for different people and that is alright. But we are all seeking happiness and peace.
There is no one move, action or thing that will bring happiness and peace in our lives but a constant pursuit to understand our own self and then working through these understandings that will help us be happy and peaceful. In life you don’t look for solutions but look at deepening your understanding of the elements in hand. Understanding what makes you happy, sad, angry and everything in between and beyond.
So how do you do this – how do you understand yourself – there are multiple ways you can do this – what worked for me was teaching
For me being a teacher was that space which helped me accelerate the process of understanding myself. Like Shri Jiddu Krisnamurthy says, “To bring the perfect teacher into being you have to understand yourself.”
As a teacher I live many lives through the stories that my children write, through their tiffin boxes, through the heart to heart conversations, through the pictures they draw, through the chocolates they love and through all the small things that they do and chose not to do. And all these experiences with my children have taught me more than what I have taught them. This is perhaps the most clichéd line but that does not take away from how true it is. Being a teacher has been the most powerful experience in my life, it has helped me understand myself better and even today I walk out of classrooms knowing a little more about myself than when I walked in.
So, Khushboo was this shy kid in my classroom. She had a very small group of friends and would play, eat, study and do everything with them. She would never look me into the eye. She worked very hard but I was constantly struggling to teach her, simple things like letter sounds and mathematical operations. I tried everything from extra lessons to involving her mother to help me to fancy manipulatives, but nothing was working. I was struggling to break it down for her. I reached out to my coach, my peers and lot of other people to find out what to do. But nothing seemed to work. And then this happened.
On one regular Saturday we were doing our weekly 30 minute math assessments. I used to give Khushboo and a couple of my students extra 15 minutes to work on their assessments. But on this day I took Khushboo’s paper from her after 30 minutes and moved to collect the other papers. I had collected all the papers and I was putting them in my folder when Fiza another student of mine came up to me and asked me a very simple question, “Bhaiyya, why did you not give Khushboo her extra 15 minutes today?”, I said, “I know she won’t be able to do it.” and at that very moment I knew that I had lost faith in Khushboo, I had stopped believing in her. It wasn’t the best space to be in as a teacher. I was running away from facing this fact because deep down I did not want this to be true. But here I was facing my truth thanks to one simple question asked extremely innocently.
Students are like mirrors. They don’t judge they just bring you face to face with yourself. And that is pretty intense. You can’t lie to yourself, it’s impossible. You see yourself the way you are and then you can see yourself as you improve and grow, and students accept you as you are and give you space for to make yourself a better person, something that is hard to find these days. And it is this space that deepens your understanding of yourself.
So basically classrooms are like dance studios but only here you are trying to fine tune and clean the steps that you take in life. Pretty awesome right? How many of you thought of teaching like this?
And that’s why the clichéd, “my students have taught me more than what I have taught them”, is the absolute truth.
In the process of unclasping their wings you dust the remains of your own wings and somehow muster the courage to take that leap and find your purpose – one that will empower you and help you free yourself of all your baggage. Help you become a better person.
The world needs people who care, people who see beyond what the eyes see, people who give second chances, and people who love unconditionally. The world needs people who understand themselves deeply, people who are aware of their strengths, weaknesses, biases, and most importantly the consequences of their actions.
Teaching is one magical experience that helps you come closer to being this person. And I can vouch for that, I have seen this happen over and over again with so many people. I have seen it during my time at Teach For India or I see it now in my work with Simple Education Foundation. I have seen teaching create some magical transformations.
But let me tell you that teaching is tough but that’s a very small price to pay for all the returns that you get. So I urge you to go ahead and find that classroom which needs you or rather the classroom you need. Go and try moulding better human beings and become a better human being in return. Go teach if you haven’t already.