It was a rather dusty-looking school building by the main road. Inside, in a small, beat-up classroom, some thirty kids were sitting on benches arranged in two modest rows, attentively looking at the board before them. In the upper right corner of the board was written ‘Class VIII’ in chalk. In the centre of the board, it said ‘Subject: Maths.’
There was a person in front of the board, a middle-aged lady, talking at the students in broken English about quadrilaterals. She uttered a few lines, turned and wrote a couple of words on the board (beneath the ones she had written a few seconds back), and spoke a few things at the students again. The lady was a teacher. There was no response from the kids, they had been instructed just to look towards the board and be still.
At the back of the room, three more teachers were sitting at a bench, some papers spread in front of them. Two of them were looking at the action going on; the third was clicking photos of the situation on her mobile phone. She tried to cover all angles – students from the back and teacher at the board, students from the back and teacher facing the students, students from the front looking at the teacher who, from that angle, is at the margin of the frame.
After four to five minutes, the teacher with the mobile called the lady at the board and told her it was enough; she stopped whatever she was saying and walked up to the back. Apart from the four in the room, a number of other teachers were waiting just outside the room, standing in the narrow balcony and watching kids in the small dust-ground down below. As the discharged teacher exited the room, one of them went in; she walked up to the board, cleaned it, and wrote ‘Subject: English’, and then ‘Topic: The Road Not Taken’ under it. Then she wiped off ‘VIII’ from the ‘Class VIII’ in the corner and replaced it with ‘IX’. Then she turned to the class and started to talk.
‘You have seen roads. Roads are like what? – There are roads in city, and roads in country. Roads in city are like what?’ – here she drew two curved parallel lines on the board with a third, dotted line along the middle (it was supposed to be a road) – ‘Roads in city are like what? You have many things beside the road. Buildings. And, roads in the country are like what?’ – she drew another road, this one without the dotted line – ‘There are many, many things, trees (she drew a tree by the road) – in the road in city, are there trees?’ Some of the kids responded with a murmur of ‘Yes.’ She carried on – ‘Yes, in the city road there are trees but, very less. But in country, you have many, many trees beside the road.’ – At this point, the teacher with the mobile signalled her that it was enough. She said ‘thank you children’ and walked out of the class. Another teacher went in. This time, geography.
The teacher started writing on the board. ‘Subject – Geography, Topic – Industry. Sub-topic – Types of Industry.’ It took her about two minutes. Then she turned and said, ‘Good morning children.’ The children were sitting quietly (naturally; there were a dozen teachers around their classroom.) Now they said, ‘Good morning ma’am.’
‘Everyone knows industry. What is industry? Industry is the–?’ – the teacher smiled with a goading pause, like teachers have been doing in Indian classrooms for, it seems, thousands and thousands of tired years. ‘—Industry is the place where—? all things are–?–mostly–?—manufactured.’ – she finished. Then she said, ‘Industry is of four types,’ and proceeded to write the four types on the board in the form of a list. By the time she was done, enough photos had been taken. Next.
I was outside. Two teachers were talking to each other. ‘These childrun are still polite. In that school toh they don’t listun only.’ ‘Haan they will just keep doing aisehi.’ ‘This genreshun only is like this. They don’t have anny manners.’
I don’t join in when adult people talk among themselves, it cloys up my mind. Moreover, these people were all practically strangers. I didn’t even eavesdrop on what they were saying, to tell the truth. The space was so small you caught everything anyone said anyway. I just kept listening and kept silent.
I went in after some time. Now, a ‘competition’ was going on. The board said, ‘Shloka Competition.’ A smiling teacher was saying, ‘You know shloka? Who will come and recite a nice shloka, come.’ Then clicks, angles, all that. The kids were made to stand up and one teacher walked up to the board. ‘Everyone hold your hands in front and open your palms like this,’ – she held her palms in a book-reading posture – ‘and now repeat after me.’ She recited a Sanskrit shloka then, pausing after each line as the children repeated after her in a chorus. It was one they had been taught before, they knew how to say it. It took about two minutes. Then they sat down.
A teacher went up to the board and erased ‘Shloka’ and wrote ‘Handwriting.’
A teacher at the back said, ‘Children, you rearrange your positions quickly.’ The kids got up, shuffled around a bit, and took their new places. ‘Handwriting Competition.’ At the back two teachers were discussing: ‘What to make them write?’ ‘No need, it is ok they will just hold their notebook and pen like they are writing.’ – A book and a page was named, and the kids were asked to turn to the page, and write the first paragraph. They started. Hands, sheets, pens were in order. Clicks.
Someone called from down below. We needed to go down and meet the principal and take photos. The Handwriting thing had just started, and the kids were not even into the third sentence of their paragraph. The blackboard was now saying ‘Singing Competition.’ We were told that we will come back up later, the principal will be leaving soon and we needed the photos with her now. We went down.
There was handing of bouquets and handing of gifts. There was a short speech. Words like ‘you are all kids only to me’, ‘noble profession,’ ‘we make doctors, we make engineers’, ‘many years later also they remember you.’ A few watery-sweet observations that drew a few collective ‘Aww’s from the gathered teachers. Then it was done.
We went back up, of course. Had to do the ‘Singing Competition.’
But honestly, the children in that classroom were well-behaved throughout. They did not act without manners or without a sense of ethics or a sense of what should be done and what should not. They were not like the other children of their genreshun.