Monday, 29 September 2014

With Love from a Teacher to His Students- A Poem

I have loved you as my own children,
Oh to see that look in you eyes, a bit of
What I might have been as a child of
Your age! You might argue all you want,
But never mind, you are like my own!

Thus would I tolerate your pranks
And arguments, reminding myself
That I too, was like you, myself
As a child of your age -you might want
All my attention and of the whole class!

But its O.K. for to see the glint of excitement,
Once, would be a reward I’d scarce leave,
That moment of inspiration. to leave
Alone would deny the learner and learned
The thrill of discovery and its excitement!

And to share in the excitement of discovery,
Will I ignore your tantrums and noise, for
To share in that magical moment of inspiration
Would offset all that would offend one. For magic
True, would I look for in teaching all of you!

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Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Girl from Pehowa - A Poem

She  had arrived in town, the girl from Pehowa
Danglers hanging from ears, anklets tinkling as she walked,
Kohl rendering the eyes as deep as those of a doe,
The delight of all those who saw her- the girl from Pehowa!

Her hips swayed with random grace, as she walked past,
She had lips that were coloured red with betel juice. With a dance
That hypnotised all that saw  her - the girl from Pehowa.
Left behind  scents of Cinnamon, and cardamom as she walked past.

All the old men did warn the young  not to fall to her ruse,
But to no avail was all that, for many  did fall prey to her infectious smiles,
For who could resist her, old and young as they fell left and right,
She was the girl from Pehowa, and little cared she for their views!

So did they did bet to see who’d finally ensnare a spirit so free,
And hard they tried, young and old, one and all, to see who’d tame a
Bird so wild, but so free was she, the girl from Pehowa, ‘a wrecker’
They said of one who’d not be trapped for prayer, price or fee!

When the years did pass and the chimes of the anklets did still,
The girl from Pehowa did settle for a  lesser deal, a village yokel that did
Scratch his head for the instructions that were simply asked.
A simple life did she settle  down for, with all  the kids she bore at will!

Thus did the girl from Pehowa settle for a domestic life shorn of all
Accoutrements that would her set aside, the ‘wrecker’ who did bear
A clutch of kids that were the menace of the town - for once, they’d be
Stilled not by sway of hips, chime of anklets, nor timbre of laugh at all!

Thus, was the girl from Pehowa reined in by travails of domesticity,
With babble of babies that bawled, a chore that mighty minds could still!
For once, had wedded matrimony arrested those hips that had swayed so free,
Thus breaking so many hearts, young and old, left and right, finally!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Aunt Jenifer’s Tigers –a critical analysis of one of the Lessons from the CBSE that inspire a following

The poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, a poem a set of three quatrains in three stanzas describes the difficulties and problems of matrimony from the woman’s point of view. The poem itself has a rather sad tone, and is filled with a sense of helplessness, and the poignancy of a woman crying out for help but not getting any and then finally succumbing to the ravages of matrimony. The two characters in the poem, Aunt Jennifer and Uncle are two distinct characters diametrically opposed to each other in terms of character traits, and accepted stereotyped roles. While Aunt Jennifer is the typical example of the married woman who is wedded to the chores of Matrimony, while Uncle is the typical married man who takes his woman for granted, and yes, he doesn’t bother really much about how his wife feels about matrimony. Do they love each other? I guess not as far as Uncle is concerned because, perhaps we don’t see very much of him in the poem, although the very physical absence of Uncle in the poem, beyond a rather shadowy presence, highlights his lack of interest in Aunt Jennifer and Matrimony. Throughout the poem however one doesn’t find a direct criticism of Uncle by Aunt Jennifer as a harsh or cruel man, all that she accuses is an Institution of matrimony that is based on unequal relations between husband and wife, where the wife is expected to do all the household duties and everything else besides, no matter if she is in the process overwhelmed by the chores and the responsibilities that she has taken up!Yes, the poem does deal with feminism and the social implications of a marriage that is not "healthy!" Though Adrienne Rich does not mention Domestic Violence openly, the hints are there when she states in the first stanza, "They do not fear the men beneath the tree;" assuming that in the real world "men" are hunters! Domestic Violence is not limited to physical abuse, in fact it could also include mental and emotional abuse. The lines, "Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needly hard to pull," a hyperbole suggests that Aunt Jennifer is exhausted, shattered and close to a total physical and emotional breakdown! That this story was really experienced  or conveyed to Adrienne Rich needs to be researched. One can also surmise that the extreme views, this morbidity and dark thoughts might be the result of an active imagination of a young girl of say twelve or thirteen who lends her voice to the poem.
Is there a sense of fear in the poem towards Uncle? The third line in the first stanza reads, ‘They do not fear the men beneath the tree’, where ‘They’ refers to the two prancing tigers, and the ‘men’ represent men that are definitely not like Uncle! The very use of the word,’fear’ suggests that in this marriage, Aunt Jennifer has always lived in ‘fear’ of her husband and moreover the first stanza is an expression of a desire for a world  where the tigers ‘do not fear men’ where the tigers are the symbolical representations of what Aunt Jennifer wished to have been if there had been more freedom and equality in marriage. The prancing tigers on the screen are a cry of help by Aunt Jennifer for a married life devoid of fear, a more carefree and pleasant, she wants to be like the tigers who are prancing without any fear, she wants to be like the tigers that,’pace in sleek chivalric certainty.’ It is only when you live in a state of fearlessness that you can display chivalry, and confidence.
How can the demands of matrimony crush the spirit? The second Stanza shows how the duties, chores, and responsibilities of matrimony have crushed the spirit of Aunt Jennifer, literally and symbolically. Aunt Jennifer is so overwhelmed and crushed by the demands of matrimony that she has become a nervous wreck – she finds it difficult to pull the knitting needles through the wool while knitting. In this stanza, the poet refers to the ‘wedding band’ that ‘Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand’ suggesting that matrimony has proved to be rather overwhelming and burdensome for her. The wedding band, a symbol of  the bond of togetherness in matrimony, has become  for Aunt Jennifer, more of a symbol of subservience and service, an endless life of duties, and chores and responsibilities a symbol of exclusion, exploitation and inequality between two partners in marriage.
Does death bring liberation from the ordeals and responsibilities of marriage? The last stanza ends describes how even after death, poor Aunt Jennifer will continue to be haunted by the ordeals of marriage. Even in death, she will be ‘Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.’ Has marriage been good to Aunt Jennifer? I would dare to say, that it hasn’t been kind to her at all. As a contrast, however we are told how, the last two lines, ‘The tigers’ that she had created, ‘Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.’ Perhaps then, there is some hope for Aunt Jennifer in that her tigers will go on prancing and proud. If it is to set a contrast between what Aunt Jennifer wished and what she got in the end, the gulf that exists between what we wish for in life and what we get ultimately, then I would surely state that the last two lines of the poem which describe the prancing tigers add insult to injury and make the poem all the more depressing a comment about the worst that could happen in marriage; but then, if you look at the prancing tigers as a voice of triumph, triumph of creation, a voice of freedom pride and fearlessness, then I would suggest that the poem ends with a sense of hope, a note of victory, that at least Aunt Jennifer could express her feelings about marriage, and that she was able to create a voice of fearlessness which would go on echoing long after her death. The tigers thus are very strong symbols of the kind of woman that Aunt Jennifer wanted to be, fearless, confident, and carefree!
It was after a few years that someone who had been teaching English to grade twelve came up with the information that Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers was based on actual autobiographical elements in the life of the writer, Adrienne Rich. I was surprised about this because I had never really though about going deep into the background of the poet’s life, although my interpretation of the poem had been accurate enough even without knowing about the poet. Now whether it was an actual Aunt that Adrienne Rich was referring to or her own case, is immaterial since the poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers has a clear theme and is easily understood. She has clearly written about a social problem that existed in her times as well as ours, the unending conflict, the debate regarding gender inequality in marriage. While it is true there are some marriages  that are very successful examples of partnership, where the wedding band symbolizes not the shackles of inequality, but rather the bonds of togetherness; there are other marriages which are examples of brutality, dehumanization, victimisation, and pain and suffering. Marriages that are based on fear and inequality will always have an Aunt Jennifer, that terrified and devastated woman who will continue to be frightened even in death!
The voice according to some of my fellow teachers is that of a girl, probably in her early teens who is very close to Aunt Jennifer. In all probability, the girl has morbid and a somewhat active imagination who thinks ahead of time and wonders if the stress and burden of marriage will not lead to Aunt Jennifer's troubled death. One might blame the disturbing and rather disquieting images of death and imprisonment as being the result of what a young girl sees in her aunt and how she views matrimony. Here, I would like to add that this is a poem with a very clear theme and message, one does not need to do extensive reseach into Adrienne Rich's reasons for writing such a poem!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Should Wizard hit Mommy - John Updike What are the moral issues in the lesson?

The lesson, Should Wizard hit Mommy addresses important moral issues through a story that a father tells his daughter. The story is supposed to deliver a specific message to the daughter, namely that parents know what is best for their children because parents love their children the most. One should not look for instant solutions to the problems in life, one should wait patiently for acceptance from friends, and just because friends run away from you initially because you stink does not mean that  you change your essential character because after some time they will  get used to the way you are. Acceptance or the lack of it from friends should not mean that you change the way Nature has intended you to be. If Roger Skunk smelled of roses, he would no longer be a skunk, he would gain a few friends but lose his entire family. In this story, John Updike addresses common issues found in most families, issues related to generation gap, learning to respect each other, parents not accepting the fact that their children are growing up and that they have individual identities, children  not appreciating  the fact that their parents love them and often know what is best for them. Children don't respect their parents' wisdom while parents don't appreciate their children's point of view. both children and parents need to learn to be inclusive, appreciating diversity and creativity, and not imposing ideas on each other and building up a culture of mutual respect, and tolerance.
This doesn't mean in any case that Jack is free from blame. One of the important moral issues in the lesson stems from the fact that while Jo is not able to appreciate Jack's point of view, so also is Jack, her father. He needs to appreciate the fact that his daughter is growing up and that she is bound to have her own  individual ideas, and thus he shouldn't impose his world view on her. A lot happens during the story that makes Jo feel terrified; this happens when she sees the story taking up a turn in the wrong direction (for her at least). She interrupts Jack frequently and he scolds her with words like, "Now, Jo. Daddy's telling the story. Do you want to tell Daddy the story?" Jack apparently "didn't like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on to his words." It is easy to blame Jack for not being tolerant enough towards his daughter. His irritation and curt attitude towards his daughter is an important moral issue. So, how then do you treat a little girl of four who seems to be a rebel and doesn't accept  her father's version of the story?  Is growing up and  thinking differently a crime? Was it perhaps that her father was treating her (paradoxically) as a grown up not realizing that her level of maturity did not allow her to understand his side of the story? Could  he have told the story in a different way? Was he being forceful in making her accept his point of view?
It is clear from the questions in the above paragraph that perhaps the moral issues need to be addressed by developing a better understanding of children who are growing up, and then treating them accordingly, appreciating their points of view and then gently explaining what the deficiencies might be. It could also be about parents becoming like children themselves while conversing with their children, sharing their children's perspective, looking through their eyes, and appreciating and encouraging divergent thinking in them.
The main conflict of ideas stems from Joanne's belief that it is all right  for the Wizard to change the smell of Roger Skunk to that of roses while Jack  believes that changing the skunk's smell to that of roses was not right, it was not the right solution. He wants to tell her how greatly parents love their children, and how they know what is best for their children! Roger Skunk's mother knew that with the passing of time, Roger Skunk's friends would accept him as he was, thus doing away with the need to go to the wizard. It was not right for Roger Skunk to smell of roses, because that was not how nature wanted him to be he would lose the identity that he had as a skunk, his mother would not recognize him as her own son, and of course his friends wouldn't be with him all the time.  What mattered most was to have friends and at the same time retain the love and affection of his mother (without losing the identity that nature had given him).
The moral issues that are raised in this story are linked to the man versus nature debate which has a number of questions regarding whether it is right for the Wizard to play God and change the essential characteristic of a skunk. Do we have the right to interfere with nature? A similar question of the moral ethics of scientific research is raised in the novel Invisible Man where the very process turning cats and human beings invisible is put under the lens. The message in both cases is that you can’t and should not play with nature. The lesson, The Tiger King raises similar issues related to man playing with nature leading to Divine Retribution – you simply cannot go on shooting tigers and yet not expect any kind of consequence at all. In all these lessons the common message is that you cannot and should not play with nature!
Although Joanna wants  Jack to tell her a story which justifies altering the way Nature has made roger Skunk  to be, Jack reminds her how, even after Roger Skunk continued to smell awful, the other children became used to it and became his friends, and Roger’s mother told him that he “smelled like her little baby skunk again and she loved him very much.” A happy ending according to Jack, but a not so happy ending for Joanne. What Jack wanted his daughter to understand was that, “the little skunk loved his mommy more than he loved all the other little animals and she knew what was right.” He wants to tell her that it is not right for the Wizard to hit Mommy, it is not right to play with Nature, it is not morally right to look for instant coffee solutions for our problems in life and that often magical solutions are not the best solutions that one can look for. Roger’s mother knew what was best for him and that Roger did love his mother more than he loved his friends. Her wisdom prevailed in the end and Roger Skunk stayed a skunk.
In times when relations between children and their parents become strained as a result of difference of perspectives, the writer brings out the need to develop respect for each other. Jack would have been able to impress upon his daughter the moral validity of his story if he had been more tactful and flexible while telling his story. He could have listened to Joanne’s perspective and then could have explained to her the moral basis of his ending the story with Mommy hitting the Wizard rather than the other way round. Jack would have done a better job if he had learned to accept and respect the fact that Joanne was growing up, and that she was learning to think with a mind of her own. She had every right to have a different perspective from her father, and he should have taken this into account while getting across his message. On the other hand, Joanne too should have learned to respect her father’s point of view, and  that her parents knew what was best for her – not just her friends. The core issue here is whether it is morally right for a child to think so badly about one’s mother, one’s elder that she wants wizard to hit her. Is it morally right to be so vindictive of Roger Skunk’s mother that Jo argues with her father and reiterates her demand in the following words, “No. Tomorrow you say he hit that mommy. Do it.” The choice of words, “that mommy “ suggests an intentional distancing from Roger Skunk’s mother on Joanne’s part. She was that Mommy, a bad Mommy who dared to hit the Wizard for changing Roger Skunk’s smell to that of roses. How dare Mommy force the Wizard to change the smell of roses to the smell of a Skunk? Joanne needs to learn is that it is morally wrong to play with nature and change the way God has made us to be for fickle reason that all children run away from us. Moreover, there are no magical solutions to problems in life. In fact some of the magical solutions often instant solutions might not be the best solutions after all.
Besides propounding the moral theme of not playing wantonly with nature, Should Wizard Hit Mommy also presents before us the contrast between the Instant Coffee attitude and the Bread making attitude. In today’s world of commercialization and instant gratification, people expect instant solutions to various problems in life. In many cases this is because people have become so busy in life what with catching up with an ever growing workload, and the pressure to maintain a high standard of living that they don’t have time to wait for solutions that take a long time to fructify. In many cases, solutions made in haste can lead to more harm than good! The bread making attitude represented by Jack’s story and his conclusion suggests that one should take time to look for a solution. Ultimately in Jack’s story, Roger Skunk regained his friends, they became used to his friends. This was the best solution because Roger Skunk who smelled bad was in the end able to preserve his identity as a skunk, enjoy his mother’s love and have lots of friends. Joanne’s Roger Skunk would have alienated himself with his mother, he would have lost his dignity and identity as a Skunk, but he would have had lots of friends.
As an afterthought, the reader might wonder if it is morally right for a person to depend on a stranger for solutions in life. The skunk went to the wizard so that he could solve the problem of the bad smell. The question is, should the skunk have trusted the wizard, a total stranger more than his mother whom he had known ever since he was born? At a more subtle level, one might ask if it was morally correct for a girl like Joe to go to the wizard, a total stranger with her problems? Strangely enough, she just wouldn't listen to  her father's version of the story and she even goes on to suggest that, "that was a stupid mommy." What Jack wanted to impress upon his daughter was "that the little skunk loved his mommy more than he loved all the other little animals and she knew what was right." Whom would you choose to solve your problems, a mother who has known you for ages, or a cranky old wizard whom you don't know? In an age where little children are cautioned to be careful and alert with strangers, it could be asking for trouble to go to a total stranger for solutions. It is probably with this in mind that the mother exclaims, "of all the nerve,...we're going right back to that very awful wizard." The wizard, according to Jack is "awful" - he dares to take liberties to change the way nature has made Roger Skunk to be.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

How do you teach Poetry in Schools?

Today, when the whole Senior Programme met in the school, a lively debate erupted concerning the teaching of poetry. The moderator of the meeting, the Senior Programme leader floated the idea that poetry should be open to interpretation by students and that students should be allowed to come up with whatever they thought was the meaning of the poem.  My colleagues entered into the debate in a healthy way and voiced their reservations about allowing students to set out on a free for all interpretation of what they thought was the message of any poem they read in class. The other teachers on the team felt that it was the teacher’s duty to identify at least the theme of the poem. The debate went on until I felt I had to step in. My assertion was that all interpretations were valid as long as they were supported by relevant proof in the form of quotations from the poem itself, or for that effect biographical evidence. While no doubt, one of the prime reasons for teaching poetry according to the CBSE is to enjoy poetry and appreciate the poetic form of writing, the question is, what do you do if the student misinterprets the message that the poet wants to put across? Another question arising out of this debate is whether we as readers of poetry are really interested in the message that the poet wants to get across to the reader. Take, for example, Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West-Wind”. Do we as teachers of poetry have a duty of informing students that the message of this particular poem is that there is a Silver lining in every cloud, or that there is light at the end of every tunnel? Do we as teachers take the initiative of telling the students that Shelley wanted to convey the message of hope in the midst of tribulation, that he was undergoing a lot of problems and that he somehow felt that he could gain hope from cycle of seasons, that autumn the season of death is surely followed by spring the season of rebirth? While undoubtedly, the very meaning of poetry is based on the figures of speech, rhyme and rhythm, metre and regularity, there are times, however, when there is a hidden meaning which might require the facilitator to step in and guide the learners towards it. Take for example poems that are deeply influenced by events taking place in history, or for that effect crisis being faced by the writer at the time the writer was writing the poem, doesn't it make sense to give some background information on the poem and the poet before starting to read one? 
While no doubt, the mechanics of a poem might be analysed through the figures of speech and the symbols employed, does it mean that these might lead the student to the message that the poet wants to put across? In many cases, this might work, but then how does a student get the meaning of the poem unless he researches the poet and his background, and the phase of life that he was going through? While some poems might have an easy message, might it not be possible that the poet could have included a hidden meaning in the poem? How then do you lead the student to the hidden meaning of the poem if you do not step in as a facilitator? Take, for example, the Poem, An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender. Would it not be pertinent to tell the students that Stephen Spender was a poet who had experimented with Socialism as a means of addressing the economic disparity that exists in the society as the root cause for the economically weak students studying in the school in the slum  not being able to benefit from the fruits of  education being provided to them?
When I showed to my students a poem I had included in my collection of short stories titled The Andromeda Connection, A Journey in time, my students, who are incidentally my best critics expressed their inability to comprehend what I had written. The poem, written in the form of free verse is based on the Nanking episode which took place during the second world war. I had tried to depict a pyramid in the first stanza followed by an eye in the second, and what I though would be an accurate depiction of my themes in a pictorial form built out of a collection of words. My students did understand the significance of the pyramid, and the tree, but then they expressed a difficulty in understanding the portion that depicted the eye. I had to finally tell them how to read the stanza depicted in the form of the eye. I am pasting below the poem itself so that you can see what I had written and what had puzzled my students:

The Pyramid

Top of the pyramid
A single open eye looks down at
A long line of humanity straggling on to the pyramid,
Feeding it with the despair of the defeated and the hopeless,
As they walk in a daze, routed from their homes, the old and young - men
Women, children, and suckling infants, all feeding  an ever-growing hunger for
Bloated egos, a desire to dominate. As the day grows, the pyramid keeps growing,
The single eye keeps moving away, ever watchful, silent, but the heart beats no more!

About the
A mother laments,  For the eye          heartlessness
  Of those that           That watched from top            feed on the milk
Of Human         Was the heart of Humanity          Kindness.
Silent n’ calm.
Ruthless, unfeeling!
Green fields

Stretch forth, far as the eyes can see,
A promise of good times yet to come, a bumper harvest
Promised through drops of blood and sweat. A reward fair,
For toil and struggle, assuaging a hunger that
Binds us all. And as the spring flowers blossom
In colours so bright,
They rest in shades that soothe, the old and young,
Lovers and children, a celebration of life as a precious gift! For a gift
It be from the Almighty Lord, why waste it with guns and blood shed, cutting short
A child’s song and a lover’s promise?
And the eye watches
From afar, as the men
Stand guard, watching
And watching as the pyramid
Grows in height, a Mass of
Humanity that that would
Have worked on the Paddy-
Fields, tilling and planting,
A harvest rich for the plucking,
Themselves a harvest,
Cut before their prime,
Interrupted dreams, and
Broken promises, songs
Cut short by a whimper,
The bark of a gun, and
A violent shove in the back.

I finally had to tell my students that the second stanza is meant to read as: “A mother laments about the heartlessness of those that feed on the mill of human kindness.” And the portion in the centre meant to represent the human eye is supposed to read as; “For the eye that watched from top was the heart of humanity, silent ‘n’ calm.” What I as a poet wanted to get across to my readers were the three different themes in my poem, namely the first stanza depicting the pyramid of dead bodies of the natives of Nanking, the second stanza being the eye of the Almighty Lord that looks on the doings on mankind, the eye of conscience, and the third stanza which is in the form of a tree suggests that life goes on in spite of the violent deeds that man might visit on others. My students found it difficult to interpret my poem and needless to say, I had to step in as the author of the poem and their teacher. It was only after I had explained the message and the reason behind the peculiar structure of the poem that the meaning did click in for them! The moot question for me as a writer of poetry and a teacher of literature is whether the teacher should not step in from time to time to guide students to the true meaning of the poem that the poet wanted the reader to arrive at. My argument here is  whether the objective of teaching poetry is to appreciate  the point of view of the writer of the poem or just to steam roll his point of view and arrive at a myriad of interpretations that the reading of the poem might lead to! In many cases the student of poetry might arrive at fantastic interpretations of the poem which the writer might not have even had in mind! My repeated question here is,j do we simply ignore the message the poet might have intended to pass on, or do we just put in our own interpretation on the poem fantastic though they might be and hurt the expectations of the poet? Can we afford to ignore the fact that Coleridge’s intention in writing the poem, Rime of The Ancient Mariner was to bring out the theme of crime and punishment or divine retribution for those who harm nature for no rhyme nor reason?
Poetry is no doubt a genre of literature that is abstruse, vague and open to interpretation, however, it goes without saying that every poet has a message to pass on to his readers, and it is up to us as teachers and readers of poetry to respect and understand the poet’s point of view about life, and for that effect the message that he or she wants to pass on to the readers! My students did berate me for not adding to my poem titled, The Pyramid, instructions about reading the poem. I replied that I wanted to let the reader guess for himself the true symbolism of each stanza. I told them that I didn’t want to tell the reader about the meaning behind each stanza. They were not happy with my explanation and they very categorically stated that I should have given a hint supported by instructions on how to read my poem. As a teacher of English literature, and a writer of poetry, I can’t help asking myself if I as a teacher would be doing full justice to the poet by not leading my students to the message that the poet wanted to give. Many of  those who read my poems  of come up with interpretations of my poems which are so off beat and beyond my wildest imagination that I certainly feel offended and angry at times. Sure it was my poem, so what right did the reader have of putting in an interpretation of my poem that was not even in my wildest of imaginations? If we really want to respect the poet and the message that he wanted to give to his reader, then surely we as teachers of poetry need to ensure that the poet’s intention in writing the poem should be respected as sacrosanct, and we should simply not allow the student to arrive at an interpretation that goes against what the poet had intended while writing his poem. Let us end this debate by agreeing that the intention of the poet, and the message that he wanted to pass on need to be safeguarded by the teacher as a guardian of poetry. If my readers plan to put in interpretations into my poems that I had never intended, then surely I will stop writing poetry and instead devote my time to the writing of thesis papers where there is no scope for errors in interpretation of what I had intended while writing my poem!
If the purpose of writing poetry is to express one’s feelings, ideas and interpretations about life, then let us not ride slip-shod over what the writer of the poem intended to express, let us pay tribute to the poet and not in any way hurt his sentiments by arriving at interpretations that he had not dreamt in the furthest of his creative imagination. It is therefore the duty of the teacher to protect the integrity of the poet’s thought while teaching poetry to his students! To ride roughshod over the aspirations of the poet would surely be a travesty of pedagogy!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Emotional disconnect at the family level is driving Children into depression, encouraging them to experiment with dangerous living, sex and a desire for a virtual reality as opposed to life in the real world

When my students confronted me one day and stated that they thought I didn’t connect to them well enough, I was taken aback! I asked them why they felt that I didn’t connect to them,  they replied that it was because I didn’t ask enough about their personal lives; what went on at home, their personal tiffs, girlfriend and boyfriend problems, and so on. I took a deep breath and replied that although, I would love to enter into a discussion of their personal lives, I however wouldn’t encourage such activities in excess because of the fact that we had a target for syllabus completion and since theirs was the last year in school, their future careers would depend on the grades they would get in their boards. Added to all this there was, I explained to them a respect for their personal space which I didn’t want to invade, and wanted to keep sacrosanct. Often discussing intimate personal details might leave the student vulnerable, and I feel that this should be handled by more experienced professionals, guidance counselors and Psychiatrists, moreover one never knows, sometimes the discussion of private lives might open up a can of worms that the teacher might not be able to handle!
So then, what is it that students want to discuss with  their teachers? Why do they want to open up? Would they be ready to unburden themselves with any person they come across in life? Does it mean that teenagers today have become so vulnerable because they want to share their private lives with any one who is ready to lend a sympathetic ear for them? This brings me to another occasion when a student stood before me and talked about the books she had read, she talked about the philosophy of hope and motivation that she appreciated in these books, and my, she spoke for a continuous thirty-five minutes, and I told her to take a seat, but then she said that she liked standing. I was doing my work while she talked, but kept asking her questions from time to time to show that I was listening to her – and yes I did listen to her! Thankfully, I learned that her love for the motivational books she read was shared by her parents.
The increasing lack of emotional disconnect between parents and children,  aggravated by the steady decrease of quality time that parents spend with their children because of various reasons might be affecting the emotional development of growing children. Are we lacking in our ability to nurture our children in healthy teenagers and young adults and our responsibility towards them by not listening to them, and perhaps showing interest in what they did in school, and what they with their friends? In times when parents have begun to become more and more emotionally detached from their children because of the demands of their careers, it has become the duty of employers to avoid giving graveyard shifts to working parents, and teachers need to communicated their observations with parents. While teachers might step in as surrogate parents, and attempt to lend a sympathetic ear, this might not be an easy task when the number of students goes up. One solution to this problems is appointing mentors from within the teacher pool and assign them mentees. This however will only work if enough time is given within the existing timetable for the Mentor-Mentee sessions, otherwise, this would turn into a damp squib!
In times when everyone is had pressed for time, teachers and parents included, it is growing children who suffer the most. But then this doesn’t mean that students have all the time in the world! No, the stress and pressure to  perform that working parents suffer from  does  filter down on  to the children.Students who plan to take up white collar jobs, those who want to become Engineers and Doctors, or those who want to become Directors and Managers in big companies will also take up coaching right after school, meant to prepare them for a slew of entrance exams that they need to get through in order to get admission in a college of their choice!
Is technology driving us crazy? This is a question that comes to mind when I think about how much students like discussing their personal lives with their teachers in spite of the fact that they have a slew of Social Networking sites on which to share their ups and downs amongst thousands of virtual friends. Virtual reality is no substitute for the real thing, and surrogacy and outsourcing can simply not replace the duties and responsibilities of parenting which includes spending time with children. Parents who spend time with their children remain younger and motivated. They have happier children who have better self-esteem, they are parents who share the joys of reading inspirational literature, they might even enjoy watching T.V. with children. Parents need to maintain that emotional connect with their children and welcome with respect the individual tastes of their children. So if the parent likes reading and her daughter doesn’t, then it doesn’t mean that she should force her daughter to read, rather she should try to understand what it is that her daughter likes the most.
Today, in India we have moved away very quickly and much too fast from the joint family system to the nuclear family system, and this has affected how children relate to others in the society. In many cases where this shift has taken place within the child’s consciousness, it might have left some emotional and mental trauma, in a situation that has changed from times when Grandpa or Grandma would spend much time with their grandchildren and now there is no one to talk to them and Dad and Mom come home so late, and are so exhausted that they don’t have the strength to discuss the day with their children. I know of another student who looks after his younger sister in the absence of his parents. He cooks for his younger sister, supervises the maid, and handles more or less everything that an adult parent should. This is a boy who seeks to constantly unburden himself before me, which means receiving phone calls at odd moments. Once I received a phone call as late as eleven in the night!
Are our young adults and teenagers so disgruntled with their existing lives that they want to indulge in drug abuse, participate in conti-parties (contributory parties),  with alcohol and weed thrown in as an afterthought? It was amazing how young some of the children were when one conti-party was “buzzed” by authorities in Gurgaon a year back. Some of the children were not more than ten and eleven years old. When the parents arrived to take charge of their children, they expressed disbelief and surprise on seeing their children, some in varying stages of intoxication. Could we conclude that the  expression of disbelief and surprise by the  parents on seeing their children was genuine? Was it for the first time that they saw that they had failed as parents rather miserably for not having paid attention to what their children had been up to? Had they really tried to verify whether their child was going for tuitions? Today, information about these Conti-parties are passed on through various Apps, like BBM, where only those who are added as friends get to know about the forthcoming event. If only parents had spent more time with their children, this Buzz(t) would never have happened!
So then why do sometimes promising and sometimes average youngsters join terrorist organisations in the middle-east? Are they so disgruntled with life that they think it would be better to martyred for a cause that they think is valid although it might not be for others. When recently the parents of a Mumbai boy, who joined a terrorist organization in the middle east and was subsequently killed, expressed their surprise and ignorance about the activities of their son, it put a question mark on their own parenting skills. Had they been so detached that they were not aware about what was going on in the head of their child? A recent story about a girl from Scotland who went to the Middle East to be a bride and fight in the Jihad is yet another disturbing story about what happens when this emotional disconnect creeps into the relations that exist between parents and their children these days. The girl’s parents have been pleading with her to return, but then I guess this appear has come out too late. Is this new phenomenon a cry for recognition, a rebellion against relations that have gone sour, or perhaps the result of being fed up and disgruntled  with a rather sterile and unemotional life in a world that is dictated by an almost machine like obsession with precision and regularity? Is the very fabric of the society being threatened by lack of compassion and empathy the exists in the very basis of the society, the family? If the family as an important unit of the society cannot provide for the emotional needs of a growing child, then is it not high time that educationists, great thinkers and policy makers, prime ministers and presidents thought about sitting together and chalking out policies that would prevent the family as an important institution from fading away?
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Thursday, 4 September 2014

Ek Din Ka Madarsa – A Tribute to all Teachers on Teachers’ Day

The fifth of September is observed internationally as teacher’s day and what can be a greater matter of honour for teachers of India than that the day dedicated to teachers should fall on the birthday of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, a great teacher, and a great thinker! Teachers’ Day  reminds all of students about the great tr Guru Shishya tradition that has existed in India since time immemorial. Teachers’ day is  dedicated to all  those  wonderful people whom we call teachers - they are the untold heroes, Nation Builders, and makers of character who  have devoted their lives for the emancipation of the society. Many of us  must   have  surely come across descriptions given by our parents about their favourite teacher who would tie up the note books of his students on the carrier of his bicycle on the last day of the week so that he  could check the same at home. The  timeless qualities of humbleness  modesty patience and empathy, the ability to transform lives through his infinite wisdom  have marked the ideal teacher as distinct from other professional! Ultimately, what marks a teacher apart from others is his or her marked lack of interest in earning a good salary. A Principal and Educationist that I once knew used to say that a teacher will always remain down to earth, modest and humble, and relatively less inclined towards monetary gains! Teachers, surely, are those people who will go all the way out to help their students, they are people whose Philosophy of life is to give their all for the emancipation of the society.  As such the best gift for them is to see their students achieve succes in life, not just as professionals with a good salary package and the acclaim that a materialistic society would give them but as students with a good character and the qualities that make a good human being!  
But then, that brings me back to the history of how Teachers’ Day began to be celebrated in India. In the early Fifties, Teachers’ Day was celebrated in the Jamia Millia University as Ek Din Ka Madarsa, literally, one day’s school. This was the time when  Professor Mujib Ul Rehman was the Vice Chancellor, and Dr. Zakhir Hussain was the Chancellor. In those days, one day in the Academic session was pegged as Teachers’ Day, and it was on that day that students picked up the mantle of their favourite teacher. They took classes on  behalf of their teachers. The tradition exists even today. This was an occasion when students saw for themselves, what it was to be a teacher! In a school where I taught for a couple of decades, taking up the role of a teacher  was an activity that was taken seriously. The students would took up their roles seriously,  and dressed like their favourite teachers. At the end of the day, the students would collectively share their experiences with their teachers in a feedback session, and most of them  expressed their appreciation for what their teachers had done for them.
A few years into my job, Mr. Anil Virmani, the  Chairman of the school where I  once worked shared a story with me titled “Teacher, teacher what do you make?” The story was about a conversation  over a dinner between engineers, doctors, managing directors of big companies and  the wife of one of them who was a teacher. The topic of their discussion was about who earned the most. While the Engineer boasted about the bridges he had made, the Doctor talked about the patents he had discovered that had made him rich. The professionals were all boasting about how much money they made, how much prestige they had, and how popular they were in the society.The main assumption of success in their case depended on the amount of money earned. Ultimately, the assembled group turned towards the lone member in the group that had remained silent through out. She was the wife of one of the professionals and a teacher too. These successful professionals asked her, “Teacher teacher what do you make?” They wanted to prove that this woman didn't have a standing in the society because she didn't earn as much as the others.  She smiled and answered, that though she didn’t make much money, she had at least made the engineer to be what he was, and the doctor to be the successful practitioner that he was. Taken in totality, she might not have earned the salary of the Engineer or the Doctor, but then she could at least claim to have led these professionals to the  success  they had achieved!  She had achieved the greatest success of all the professionals who had been gathered there, for if it had not been for her, the engineer would not have earned the salary that he deserved, nor would the doctor! Ultimately, the professionals who had gathered to boast of their success were silenced as the mulled bout their favourite teachers who had encouraged them to take up the path that had lead them to success in terms of the money that they earned.
So then, what is it that marks true teachers as being apart from the rest of the professionals? Is it the salary that they earn? No, certainly not! So then what is it that marks teachers apart from some or their more successful students? It is apparently the the feeling that they have done a good job and moulded students into the successful professionals that the are that finally marks the success of teachers. If it hadn’t been for good teachers, we wouldn’t have successful engineers, successful doctors, and successful managing directors! The patience, selflessness and the devotion of the teacher towards the job in hand had marked  her  as distinct from all the other professionals who had been gathered there and were boasting about how much they made. While all the others boasted about the amount they earned, it was this humble teacher in their midst who claimed that although she didn’t earn so much, she was at least satisfied with what she had done for the society and it was this satisfaction that had exceeded the satisfaction of   having earned a huge amount of cash!

When I talked to the students who had volunteered to take up my class, they told me that they were overwhelmed by the task in hand and did not not know how to take up the lesson in hand. This was understandable because they had not planned for the lesson in hand, nor had they prepared the lesson plan that would go along with the lesson. They said that they had found the task so great that they wouldn’t like to be teachers in the future! The teachers who talked to the student volunteers  became aware of how the students felt that teaching is a tough job! It is only when the learners take up the mantle of teachers that they realize that teaching includes within it challenges that few would dare to take up! The revelations of the pupil teachers opened the eyes of all the teachers who were present.
Once, when I was given the task of enlightening and motivating the teachers who were present on the occasion of teachers’ day, I was daunted and wondered what I would say, but then I remembered my  favourite teachers and then launched myself on a journey that would visit each quality that I liked in them. Today, when I look at the admiration that students have for their teachers,  (which they express on Teachers’ Day with greetings and cards and bouquets) I feel glad that our students have the same respect that their parents and grandparents had for their own teachers. The only thing that has changed perhaps that instead of flowers, students now give their teachers cards, and instead of homemade sweets, students offer their teachers chocolates. The feelings that students have for their teachers will continue as long as we have dedicated teachers and and curious students.
So dear fellow teachers of the world, rejoice in the knowledge that you are Nation Builders, and builders of Character! No other profession can provide you with the satisfaction that you get when a student of yours comes to you after five or ten years and tells you how you were the one who motivated him and compelled him to change his ways, and yet you did not know that you had the power to transform a life, even if it was just one life! Therein lies the power in teaching, that although you might not earn much, you are however wealthier than others in terms of the blessings and prayers that your students and the parents would  have given to you! If people have labelled teaching as a noble profession then surely they were not wrong were they? Both healing and teaching are noble professions and if a doctor heals the  disease in a patient, then the teacher applies salve on distressed minds. It has not been wrongly said that when you open a school you shut down a prison, and when you employ a teacher, you rid the Nation of a criminal – That my fellow teachers is the power of teaching!

For if a teacher could so light up the darkness of the world with
His smiles even though he would burn out himself,
How much better would the world be, to have
Such wonderful teacher who  could show the way
Of hope!
For who would cover up a light so bright,
That the darkness could chase?
Let this be a tribute from my side,
To the teacher who taught me to dream,
And be
One who'd dare to convert those dreams
Into reality!
And if Teachers could nurture others
As parents true and real, then how
Much more  valuable are they,
Parents who have the worlds children,
As their own,
And taught them lessons in patience
And honesty, and humility – for to be 
Good human beings be the lesson 
Of teachers  that are teachers of life!

The photographs that I have pasted in this post is an attempt to show my fellow teachers in lighter moments as people who are more human than can be, people who are not the strict and Calvinistic professionals that Dickens and the society might sometimes portray them to be. Teachers are full of life and like to celebrate life as a gift from God, a gift that needs to be appreciated during light moments, whenever they present themselves!