Sharing spaces equally

Vivek Vellanki

A recent article in The Hindu (October 21) titled, ‘A teacher speaks her mind’, by Indira Padmanabhan, an esteemed teacher, raised some pressing concerns faced by the teaching fraternity. However, in doing so she seemed to be advocating greater freedom for the teacher to ‘discipline’ the student. The article and various comments that echoed her views made me write a response, part fiction, that presents the perspective of the student. The imagining of a different situation has to be preceded by considering the teacher and the student as facing similar circumstances within the school.

To read the full article in The Hindu please follow this link: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-teacher-speaks-her-mind/article4017272.ece

Dear teacher,

As a humble student who has been in a classroom for the last 20 years and continues to be in one, I am happy to read your article. Just like you said, you have spoken your mind and it is the first time a teacher has done that with me. Now, let me present my case. I apologise that I won’t be able to speak my mind. My teacher always told me that I had none, so let us have a heart-to-heart conversation.

I have always felt that the classroom space was something that we shared. Owned by neither of us but lived in by both of us. I always wished to see us working in this space as equals but that rarely occurred. I am not blaming you; we are both burdened within the space of the school that disregards the teacher and the student. You and me. You work under the burden of having to teach me all the math, english, science and social studies within a year. And if I don’t learn it, somehow, questions are raised against you. In such a situation, it is obvious that you would call me lazy if I don’t want to do my worksheet, even though I might not understand it,I might have a headache or simply not want to do it now. But now, I have started believing that I am lazy. Yes, if you called me that, it must be true. You are, my teacher after all and I am the student. Am I really lazy?

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not picking on words and trying to play to them. While these words might be said by you on the spur of the moment, they do mean the world to me. Yes, just as you saw your teacher as your role model, so did I. But here she was chiding me and silencing me while I yearned to talk to you. I really must be a noisy creature. I must calm down, I must. I did that and sat in a quiet little corner. In your article you said, “As I grew stronger and proved my academic excellence, days became more memorable in school.” The exact opposite happened with me, I slumped in my academics and the days in school got more and more miserable. It was a pain to sit through a class where I couldn’t answer the questions, clear the tests or write long essays. I had to talk to someone, but who would that be? My mother was too busy at work, my father always compared my grades with my neighbours.

I am glad that you realized that I no longer want to surrender myself to you. Please don’t confuse my unwillingness to be subservient with disrespect, it is the opposite. But think what would happen if I submitted myself to you; accepted everything that you said and not questioned it? I am certain that would not make me think, deliberate or ask questions. I would be a mere passive absorber of knowledge. I am quite certain that you would not want that for me. I have read that Ambedkar, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Savitribai Phule never took the answers as given. I might be wrong, but not one of them, asked people to be subservient, rather asked them to raise questions.

School has taught me a lot of things in life and you mentioned some of them. But I also want to draw your attention to some others. My worth is determined by how many marks I can get in my test; if I stay silent and don’t ask questions I am a ‘good student’; wearing a tie and talking in English makes me ‘better’ than the others; I am a boy and I can lift the benches but a girl can’t. I believed these things for a long time but, I don’t believe them anymore. How did that happen? Because of someone just like you! A teacher. She made me curious, question, think, criticize and ask.

I am not blaming you. On the contrary, I feel that both of us, teacher and the student, have been let down by the school system. This space seems to be constructed in a manner to make both of us feel the angst and silence our voices. Doesn’t it seem so to you? No longer do we speak to each other. The ‘management’ tells you not to talk to me (the student) directly. They tell you not to shout, not to walk, not to speak. And in turn you tell us not to be loud, not to go out, not to sing, and not to run. Why is everyone telling us what to do? Why are they not listening to us? Why are we not talking to each other? Where is our voice?

My appeal is not to blame the teacher and laud the student. My appeal is to draw your attention to the troubles we face, you and I, within the school. The cases against you and the caning I receive, the suspensions you face and the test scores I get. We are not pitted against each other but must work together to reclaim the space of the classroom. The space that truly belongs to us and not to the management, parents, or anybody else. Our space would mean that it echoes, not with the silence of the cane but with our voices. That you listen to what I have to say, what I am thinking and what I want to do. I will promise to do the same. But even after that if you still catch me playing with cards in the class, call me and not my father. Like you already know, he doesn’t have the answer. Alas, he went to a school too! But maybe I might have a valid answer and even if I don’t, who knows, the music of your reason might make me drop my ipod and my pack of cards.

Sincerely,
A student

The author is currently with the Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education, Delhi University. He can be reached at vivek.vellanki@gmail.com.