Class of thirty

Monideepa Sahu

On a chilly January morning, I entered a large room with my heart thumping like kettledrums. Rows upon teenagers sized up every wrinkle on my sari, watching… waiting for me to make one false move that would drown me in a flood of ridicule. Why? Why had I let myself into this? It was only a month-long leave vacancy, they said. It was a decent college if not the best, with well-behaved students from middle-class families. The lectures needed to be simple,targeting Kannada medium BA and B Com students for whom clearing the mandatory papers in English was a side-issue. I needed no further convincing and now here I was, like the proverbial lamb waiting to be slaughtered.

I had to start these youngsters on ‘Hamlet’. Getting them under the skin of my favourite Shakespearian tragic hero, should be a challenge. Thirty pairs of eyes continued to stare, some at the floor, some into space and the rest gaped at me with boredom writ large on their faces. Others glanced at each other quizzically. This class no longer looked like it was going to be fun, but simply a challenge. Remembering the way things were done in my college in Delhi, I first gave a brief introduction about Shakespearean tragedies. I then asked for volunteers to read out roles from the first scene of the play.

Mr Class Heartthrob slouched in his seat, his jean-clad legs stretching well into the aisle. “We don’t want to hear stories, Ma’am. Exams are nearing. Please dictate important questions with answers and notes, which we can read and pass.” He looked around to nods of approval from his peers.

“I’ll give you notes, but why not first go through the actual play once? It won’t take more than a few periods if you read out the roles by turns. It will not only be fun, it will be simpler for you to remember the details for your exams.” I could see several faces light up with interest.

“Ma’am, please explain in Kannada.” That was Ms Smarty, clearly angling for some action. “We find English difficult.” My name and looks loudly proclaimed my origins to be from the other side of the Vindhyas, so I guessed they expected me to fumble and provide some comic relief.

“If we stick to English in our classes, you’ll get that much more experience in using the language,” I said. “I’ll explain in Kannada, if you can’t understand me.”

“Can you really speak Kannada?” Incredulous stares and gasps rose from the class.

“I’m learning. I can’t speak too well but passably,” I said in limping Kannada. Mr Class Heartthrob pulled himself upright, gave a thumbs up and grinned. Others brightened up too. “So let’s make these lessons a two-way street,” I continued. “I correct your English, and you help me improve my Kannada.”

That broke the ice and the teacher had passed the first test. My class of thirty teens turned out to be a bright and inquisitive lot, firing me with questions not to be found in any textbook. Best of all, they began debating their answers among themselves.

‘Why did they need to learn English?’
“To open windows to the rest of the country and the world, to know more…” Their list went on.
‘Why study a five centuries old play?’ “Because this great classic showed deep insight into human nature and made us ponder the eternal, complexities of life. And oh, one could even use some of these insights in dealing with people at today’s workplace.”

My teachers had guided me to read widely, seek answers and think for myself. I found my students taking the same path. Mugging important questions and answers no longer remained their sole priority.

When it was time for me to leave, Mr. Shy Guy made his maiden speech. I praised his newfound command over spoken English. “Your Kannada has improved too, Ma’am,” the class responded in unison.

The writer is the author of the fantasy-adventure novel for young people, ‘Riddle of the Seventh Stone’ (Young Zubaan). She also blogs at www.monideepa.blogspot.com. She can be reached at [email protected].

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