Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially post 40, is no doubt stressful. But sometimes, going beyond boundaries, as my experience with Teach For India taught me, can bring mind-broadening revelations
“What’s your name,” the little girl asked me, even as the group behind her gathered closer, both curious and eager to hear me speak. I hadn’t attracted such concentrated attention from anybody in a while, and it overwhelmed me a bit, so many children crowding around, so interested in knowing my story. But let me start at the beginning.
When I walked into this school, the BMC school closest to my home, and yet a good 45 minutes away, more, in peak traffic, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Up until now I had been determined to be part of this programme, and had followed that path doggedly, despite all else being against this course of action.
I was already immersed in a life outwardly full. I was a full time author (and yes, a journalist) by profession. I had a child and a dog and all sorts of commitments that involved a fine balancing act – including running a home, ferrying various car pools of children on designated days to all manner of sporting activities after school (me being the sort of person that believes hands-on trumps outsourcing), a fair amount of travel and meeting writing deadlines in all that.
But for a while now, I felt my life, satisfyingly chaotic as it was, lacked for something. Even in my most frenzied moments, as in the quiet reflective ones I sensed this, a haunting unease, like of an unqualified absence. I was missing oddly, what I didn’t possess yet, channelling the je ne sais quoi rhythm of the future, determined to allow it in, if only I found it.
Serendipity led me to the website, net surfing one day. But misgivings soured the sudden inexplicable elation I felt at its discovery. Could I really manage that minimal one and a half hourly time commitment twice or thrice a week this programme’s website requested of volunteers? I wanted to, I really did.
“You know the Teach For India programme looks for younger fellows,” a well-meaning friend cautioned me. “The reasoning being, to grow the programme, i.e. even when the younger fellows leave and pursue jobs, in say the corporate sector, this experience would have taught them social responsibility, which they would then introduce in their offices… twenty to thirty year olds are the age group they’re possibly looking for… ”
Wonderful as this reasoning sounded, it didn’t help me at all. Not only was I strapped for time, I was definitely out of the required age bracket. And the more obstacles presented themselves, the more out of reach this well-meaning undertaking appeared.
Lesson One: ‘You are what your deep driving desire is. As is your will, so is your deed…’ The Upanishads underline a fundamental truth. In that time space, in that moment – my deep driving desire was to volunteer for Teach for India. No matter all obstacles.
‘When you want to help at something,’ that same friend had also added, as encouragement, to balance her cautionary tone, ‘Say so. Speak up. You never know, it does happen…’
Serendipity once more, led me to the extraordinary Shaheen Mistri, Teach For India is her baby. I explained in a brief email, how much I wanted this and my misgivings, being out of the age bracket.
Lesson Two: Never cease to try. Sometimes the goodness in people can surprise you.
I was expecting discouragement, red tape at the very least, given all my baggage. What I was unprepared for was warmth and goodwill, unchecked and absolute, so you felt it, even in basic, formal exchanges. It doesn’t matter your age, or how little time you can carve out. It matters that you’re willing to help. I think Shaheen sensed that. Her indefatigable dynamism opened up my world, in a trice, just like that. She allowed me access to the programme, a small gesture for her going a significant distance for me.
Lesson Three: if you really want something, the universe really does conspire to give it to you. Obstacles notwithstanding.
So here I was now finally, at a Teach For India earmarked BMC school, as volunteer, but would I be able to help at all? Would I be able to make any manner of difference to any of the underprivileged children in attendance?
The teacher in the TFI classroom assigned to me was all of 22. But her confidence and control of the class (sometimes numbering 48 at full strength) was absolute. And the children − where to begin, though already, I have?
Curious as all children are, yet these children were also bolder than my daughter and her friends, all still, the same age. Bolder and unashamed to ask any manner of questions to a stranger, as I was initially. This was the point I started this narrative of epiphany and from here, it grew to fill my world.
It wasn’t all easy. Many a times I had to rely on ingenuity for simple things.
Lesson Four: When in a dilemma, imagination can be a great ally
“What’s your religion?” came the question, straight after the one asking my name, sign of our times, both scary and saddening. I had read up on the majority demographic being taught here, but it escaped me, why should any child be so conscious of another’s religion in a classroom situation? Just one of the many differences between the haves and have-nots in this great land that opened my eyes to our nation’s ground realities, perhaps even in ways all my years as a journalist had not. I knew already, children in more privileged scenarios never asked that question with such searing intensity, never initially as introduction either.
“I’m Indian,” I had said cooly then, my first day, and already wisening to the pressures of my charges. “Aren’t we all Indian together?” The children gathered around me had laughed, nodding in acquiescence, angelic, their too-astute-for-their age expressions melting in now age-appropriate mirth.
No doubt their circumstances and life experiences involved a different manner of relating, thus such responses. And yet, despite the occasional jarring shrewdness so mismatched to their babyhood, what stood out was their eagerness to learn all they could, not just about me but about everything around them.
An eagerness that I believe comes from real striving, overcoming strife even just to acquire basics in life. An eagerness that left me wonderstruck because I hadn’t known it would be so, that it would still exist even amidst towering pressures.
Hunger for knowledge is a wonderful thing and when you see it first hand, learn of individual stories, of the effort taken to get here – it cannot fail to move you. A little boy of 10 gets to attend afternoon school only once he sits with his father at his kiraya store all morning, obediently taking the chastisement for being late to school and then revealing why − his father insists on his being at the store. A little girl describes a less than ideal home situation that no little girl should have to go through, when explaining the deeper meaning of a word in an English class lesson. And on and on.
The teacher, Neha Gujjar, Neha didi they called her, dealt with all this, with both the calm professionalism of a person imparting required knowledge as outlined by a syllabus and the fierce, protective love of an exceptionally intuitive mentor. The latter quality cannot be taught, it is inborn − it either exists, or it doesn’t. I realised then (and this sense deepened over time), that serendipity had brought me not just a whole new world but some truly exceptional, crazy-driven people working to better it.
It undid me at some deep, inexplicable level, to be in the presence of such people, so ordinary seeming, going about their work on a suffocatingly hot day, in a classroom that reeked of the toilet just outside, teaching students who had made a sometimes overreaching effort just to be here, wanting this despite cracked benches and broken desks and the unceasing struggle against so much.
Lesson Five: Sometimes one finds nobility, valiant hearts, mercilessly defiant to despair in the most extraordinary places.
And I learned something else − to be on-my-knees grateful for all I had, starting with just the desks in my own child’s school.
I had volunteered for three months, but three became six, and six became nine and so on. I couldn’t stop going, I couldn’t stop wanting to be here, amidst such love, such striving. There is heroism in the pursuit of that which does not come easy, I saw it daily, in the struggles of both Neha and her charges. And little by little they came to take my presence forgranted, a fact that touched me, though in my own surroundings it would’ve irritated me. I was now – accepted, a part of their environment, like their desks or tools or teacher.
Oddly I never spoke much of attending TFI, not to my immediate circle, never to my friends. Like all things closest to my heart, I kept it hidden, a precious if extraordinary secret. But I realised later – the more I speak of TFI, the more perhaps it will attract those who want to help, even if by initial unknowing, like my own effort. So this narrative, my first step.
Lesson Six: Speak your truth: Loud and Proud
“Your name is Gauri, like Shah Rukh Khan’s wife!” the children had chortled gleefully when I replied to their initial question on the first day. They never failed to bring this up again, when in hyperactive, attention seeking mode, How to tell them, so many months after that first day, that in the course of my profession I had met SRK, and I found time spent with the TFI children as, or if I were really honest, more fulfilling? Would they even believe me, to say I valued being in their company equally or more than being with their idol?
Did I make the difference I so wanted to make at the beginning of my journey? I cannot be the one to answer that. But I found some part of what I was seeking recently, when many of the students, sobbing openly because Neha was leaving to grow further at TFI asked of me, plaintive intense: “You’ll be here next year, na, didi?” I had become, naturally over time – theirs.
I began by telling of how little ones were interested in knowing my story. But really, it is their story, not mine, and it is ongoing, a work in progress. Young, dynamic, driven teachers and mentors, led by a visionary founder-CEO, paying forward that which is important and precious, giving of time and their skills, hoping to change our collective future, by impacting the present. Because no matter how cynical life tends to make us (and especially so in a profession like journalism!), any effort, however little, is better than none at all.
Also because who knows how far even a small gesture might go, something I learned first-hand when my world opened up to such unbelievable love, both humbled and uplifted me all at once. Did I manage to fill the absence I had sensed in my life? To say yes would be much too pat, I suspect all writers are continually pushing past these and similar demons. But I do think at times − Maybe I found so much more…
Lesson Seven: Making the place we are part of, better? It starts with us, even if a day at a time. We are the world.