One day all children will attain an excellent education.
This is Teach For India’s vision. Now, it is mine.
I grew up in Mumbai but left home to study in the United States at the tender age of fourteen. I attended Smith College where I studied Comparative Literature and then went on to work at a think tank called the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. I returned home after nine years away, nervous and slightly unsure of what I might do next. In a hurry to start working, I joined Ernst and Young as an analyst in their Technology, Communications and Media division but I quickly realised the corporate world was not for me. In 2013, I applied to Teach for India. My life has not been the same since.
Teach For India has provided me with a new understanding of what it means to commit to a cause. The two-year fellowship places recently graduated students or working professionals in classrooms around the country. We teach. That is our life. While it is possibly the most challenging job I have ever done, it is also the most fulfilling. Everyday, I am rewarded by my students and their achievements in the classroom. Everyday, I face new obstacles, but the TFI community is tight-knit so I find support in my colleagues all the time. Every day, I go home from school at 6:00 PM, wondering who the real teacher is: me, or my brilliant, funny and determined students? Their stories are special; one boy in particular has a very unique tale.
This little boy runs. He squeals. He jumps and falls and giggles and screams. He personifies mischief. Sometimes he punches and kicks and smacks. Sometimes, other children land up sobbing in a corner, angry and plotting their vengeance.
Armaan is notoriously naughty. His bald, little head invariably gets scratched and bruised because he finds himself in some sort of battle-to-the-death during every recess. Often, he just laughs – water off a duck’s back, it would seem. Other times, he comes to me crying and complaining, explaining how deeply he has been wronged.
This little boy has carved out a very special place in my heart. His propensity for fighting and mischief-making has never altered my unflinching belief that Armaan will soar one day. His wit and humour is uncanny. His ability to feel joy, even for the smallest reason, is truly beautiful. He is only eight years old. Only a child. Innocent despite the outbursts of violence. When I reprimand him for hitting another student, he seems to understand my reasons for scolding him; he genuinely apologises. He always promises to “never ever do it again” and yet, he does; every day.
I often wonder what actions I can take to change his behaviour. As his teacher, I hold myself responsible for not being able to temper his aggression. In order to combat the violence I have faced in my classroom, I have tried to inculcate certain values in my students, especially in Armaan. We often discuss what respect means. How do we show respect to our peers and to our elders? What are respectful actions? What are not? While this value may seem particularly nuanced for a third grader, I strongly believe Armaan understands what I am teaching him. He understands it but decides to disobey me, nonetheless. This is what frustrates me and makes me wonder how I might alter my messaging and my teaching style; I have not yet found a viable solution.
Recently, Armaan went to the hospital because he got brutally beaten by another student. I was devastated when I heard about this from his mother. She dropped her son to school one morning simply in order to speak with me (he usually takes a government-sponsored van to school). She explained what had happened the previous day, how Armaan has provoked a fight that he could not sustain. She asked me to keep Armaan away from the other children in school. She told me that her son’s violent disposition and tendency to attract negative attention is simply a reaction to his father’s passing. She described how it was his father who prevented Armaan from getting involved with other trouble-makers and drug addicts in their neighborhood; she, however, had never been able to control him.
After her husband’s death, her lack of control over her son’s actions only increased because she works to put food on the table and hardly has time to see him. Furthermore, her husband’s family does not appreciate their presence in the house since the man of their little family no longer lives. The extended family has been trying to evict Armaan and mother in order to seize control of the land. In the midst of all this, Armaan finds himself gallivanting around Mumbai with the sons of mafia dons and drug lords. No wonder he has developed some bad habits, I thought to myself.
While Armaan’s story certainly distresses me, I refuse to lose hope for my student. This little boy has his whole life ahead of him, one that can be improved with the help of dedicated and unafraid mentors; I am determined to be one such mentor to him. I know that Armaan’s disobedient streak will prove challenging. I also understand that I have no control over his life at home. Still, I remain hopeful about my ability to effect change. This hope emerges from the fact that I know how much Armaan loves learning, and how much he respects me as his teacher. This hope comes from the fact that Armaan laughs often; asks me intelligent and probing questions during class; jumps at every opportunity to explore a new subject; finds ways of impressing me by picking up rubbish from the floor or shutting the windows at the end of the day. This hope also finds its roots in my own self-confidence; I know I that may not be able to change the lives of all my 35 students, but I can certainly find ways of truly helping a few.
The applications for the 2014 Teach For India Fellowship close on 5 February 2014.