Standing at the front of a class, we as teachers often forget that those who sit before us have lives, energies, and interests far beyond the subjects that we insist are important. Yes, we have all done our reading of child psychology and our knowledge of children’s back stories is complete, and we are all sure that we must be approachable and students must feel free to come and tell us their problems. We also know that counsellors and parents and the principal must responsibly involve themselves in reassuring unsteady children and helping them stay on track.
But these so-called necessary steps are not always necessary and not the only steps that are necessary.
Without minimizing cases of disturbed children and their possibly disturbed homes, there are those times when we, as adults, are the ones who create heavy weather.
I remember myself at 13 or 14 urgently seeking a perfect parent in one of my teachers who was about 32, and, a parent of two very young children. I decided she had to (always) be intelligent, calm, understanding, beautiful, dignified, sensitive, pleasant…. It was not her fault that she was as fallible as any other human being, but as a teenager like so many others, I felt I could will what I wanted. I made it my mission to know every little detail about her. She became the focus of my thinking, my conversation, and almost my entire existence. My efforts to impress her were exaggerated and foolish and she must have found in me the tiresome and attention seeking child she would rather avoid. In exasperation, she once told me that my behaviour was causing her great embarrassment in the school. To my mind (both then and now), she made the choice of simply not tackling the matter, so her fan mail from me turned to confused, acrimonious attacks and then bitter ranting.
Things changed when I was not so keen on a perfect parent and when I learnt to accept that we would all be imperfect people and we would always live in an imperfect world.
Yes, I was growing up.
At 17, my need became more cerebral and I knew I was searching for intellectual stimulation. I was subconsciously looking for the friendship of an adult who knew more than I did, not a parent this time, but someone who could help me explore the scope and depth of my own interests in books, music, films, and whatever else I was curious about. I suspect that I was also looking for someone who could direct and divert my adolescent confusions away from self-absorption.
One of our new teachers in high school was possibly in her mid-twenties. She was warm, bright, dynamic, and definitely not perfect. The sweep of her reading was staggering and her overall unconventionality was what made her score full marks on my report card, (though I was nowhere near the top on hers). I didn’t feel the need to draw her attention or to try and impress her. There was also a lightness and a humour about her that made correction – whether behavioural or academic – easier to take. (Instead of being ticked off for bad handwriting, we were told to submit legibly written answers as her sight was bad enough already). In short, she was the uncomplicated friend I needed and she introduced me to some of the best authors I had and have ever read. When I trotted into her house for those bi-weekly conversations, I learned more about a very large world beyond myself.
Eventually, my interests expanded to include authors, poets, artists, musicians, and eminent personalities of the Performing Arts. Not that my teacher led me to all of them and neither could I aspire to the breadth of her intellectual energy. I could and would never be interested in the science of the world or about the way governments worked. I learned that I could be mildly interested in ecology – which she could expound on for hours, not at all interested in sports, and unlike her, I would never have an opinion on every event in every corner of the world. But, using her position responsibly and intelligently, my teacher gave me direction and a compass, validation, and a voice. There was no heavy handedness or attempt to “problem solve” a situation.
In my own years of teaching, I have found myself assigned roles beyond what I may have decided for myself. Some students from entirely steady homes have sought only opinions or guidance in academic areas. Some have just wanted to be friends with an adult and to find out who a teacher can be outside syllabuses and beyond mark registers. Others have had more emotional needs. They have usually been teenagers from homes where at least one parent was unable to function in the way that was expected. This parent may have been overbearing, violent, preoccupied, ill – or absent.
I have learnt that for all one’s best intentions and earnest endeavours, there are situations that one simply can do nothing about. I have also realized that after “the weariness, the fever, and the fret,” of tuitions and tests and peer pressure, and then unsteadiness at home, teenagers do not always want analysis or perspective. They may not even want matters to be addressed because they know (whether the teacher wants to accept it or not) that some matters cannot be solved.
Perhaps when such teenagers approach teachers it is only to share a quieter world – and a larger world – to take an out from “the busy world of care,” – reading a poem together or listening to a piece of music, solving a crossword puzzle, or even help in clearing out a classroom cupboard. In other words, just being there.
The author is an educationist and children’s writer based in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.