It’s been a long two years and I thought the months would never end. In June 2017, I entered what would become my second home, although I didn’t know it then. The paint was peeling off the walls, chipped cement lined the dingy staircase, the staff restroom looked like a chemistry lab gone wrong and I left my first-world upbringing staring quietly at the gate. Good move that, because over the next few weeks I realised that I wasn’t teaching children; I was teasing little, vicious demons.
Instead of Good Mornings, I heard Motherfucker, lunch breaks were littered with outbreaks of violence, I barely had space to actually teach, and when I did get actual teaching time, I was teaching 4th graders their ABCs and basic math operations because they were at least 2 years behind. Did they want to learn that? No. Did I have to teach them? Also no, I could have just run away.
Since I was an elementary teacher, of course I also had to be taken less seriously, because how much damage can 9 year olds do really? A lot, apparently. I persisted, they resisted. I persisted more, they didn’t spare me two damned hoots from the ass. I threatened to call their parents, they said go right ahead. So I did, and I saw and I heard and I learned. The one-room shanties, the teenagers doing drugs, the alcoholic beating his wife, the girls that failed to be birthed as boys, the poverty-stricken kitchens, the grime and the dirt, and their oppressed caste and class locations. The demons I taught in class, the demons that made a victim of me every day, were victims themselves of demons far beyond my imagination.
These may seem as epiphanies but really, they were gradual revelations of the most ordinary kind. To be able to tell you how our lives changed- theirs and mine- with each passing day at school would be to sit down with a cup of coffee, some warm cookies and a lot of time to converse. Both my students and I outgrew our childish efforts of reconciliation and instead, approached each other with our bare souls. They did so in innocence, I did so out of choice. Many arguments, fights, shouting matches, and tears later, here we are. My fellowship is coming to an end and I remind them of this everyday. I remind them so that they’ll take my departure less hurtfully, and in doing so I remind myself that these children were never mine to begin with, although it nearly seemed like it these two years.
No, the academic progress doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. They are only a reporting mechanism, and KPIs define the least important of our successes. It’s the little successes that I want to tell you about. The violence is still there, but the kids break fights up themselves now. I still hear Motherfucker every morning, but it’s followed by a quick apology. Lunch break is still a berserk 30 minutes, but because everyone’s so excited for downtime with their teachers. The team still struggles, but we’re closer today than ever, amidst the roughest few months of our time together. It’s the little successes I’ll remember.
I don’t know if life will take such a devastatingly beautiful turn again. My students made me a part of their lives and I never saw the signs. Now I do. Of all the lives I’ve left behind in the past few years, this one is turning out to be the toughest to let go.