Monday, March 31, 2014

Little Jem

As an impressionable teenager I read about Anne Shirley/Blythe's oldest son, Jem, bringing her the first mayflowers of each year. It was a little ritual private to them both, and when he was away at the Great War, her second son Walter (just thinking about whom makes me want to bawl) brought her the flowers instead. I sighed over the pages and dreamt of a son of my own day.

I knew I would have a daughter, of course, in my own image, and also infinitely better, but I also wanted a son. I dreamt of a quiet young boy, biddable, obedient, intelligent and very sensitive to his world. I don't know about quiet or biddable, but Rahul is immeasurably intelligent and alarmingly sensitive. He is also satisfyingly grubby, annoyingly whiny and rather more charming than I like to acknowledge.

He also gets me flowers. From when he was a tiny tot visiting my parents at Moore Avenue and he'd pick up the closed kolke flowers on his way home each evening for me, to the flowers he picked from the bushes lining his way home from the school bus-stops in Lake Gardens and Kalikapur. He grows older but the flowers keep coming, always for me, and then occasionally for somebody else as well. On my request he no longer plucks them (or so I hope!) but he gets the ones that have fallen from wherever he finds them, and remembers to bring them, wilted and faded, to me whenever he sees me next. A few minutes ago he promised me that he would always get me flowers.

Dreams come true, you know. Just rather grubbier than you'd expect, but still very satisfying.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rahul Niyogy goes hoppity hoppity hoppity etc.

Things Rahul said to me this evening:

"It's easy to be happy."

"Hopping makes me happy."

"I'm a tigger. I'm Rahul the tigger."

So he hopped and bounced around the Dakshinapan terrace, bless him.

Where Our Women Go

Last December or so Rahul asked me if the baby would be a boy or a girl, could we find out and could we please let him know? (He doesn't have a settled preference but is naturally quite curious.)

I sat him down and told him sex determination is against the law in our country. Then I told him about female foeticide. My mother said I should not have. I said, this is his reality, and it's never too early to tell him how his country treats half its citizens and citizens-to-be.

Reports like this piece on bride trafficking make me weary. They also strengthen my belief that we need to talk to our children about these realities. How did my generation buy into such mindless killing so easily? Why have we allowed it?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Little Ham

I fell asleep mid-morning and woke up calling for V. He came, but was elbowed out from beside me by Rahul who decided to get in the middle and give me a big hug. V made it a group hug. A squashed voice emerged from between us, announcing triumphantly, "Ami ekta ham sandwich hoye gelam!" ("I've become a ham sandwich!")

Monday, March 17, 2014

Motivation and the Classroom

Mejopishi and I often discuss Rahul's schooling. She's one of the best junior school teachers I've ever known and I've found her teaching methods suitable for teaching adults as well as children. Rahul is not the easiest of scholars. While easily being one of the smartest kids in class he is usually the one handing in half-empty worksheets and illegible classwork. It can take a great deal of patience and ingenuity to teach him, as Vicky and I know to our cost. In fact, if he had been unlucky enough to have studied with me in some of my schools, this really intelligent young boy would have failed. He would have been caned, punished on a daily basis, and would have learned to fear his teachers. Instead, he is lucky to have me to go speak to his teachers and teachers who have the training and sensitivity to see beyond the wall of obduracy his shyness and lamentable self-confidence makes him put up.

And yet my aunt recently told me about an episode he had once confided in her when he asked about some aspect of the school Christmas celebrations and a teacher had mocked him and walked off without even giving him the information he clearly lacked. M'pishi was furious that anybody would dare call herself a teacher, with that attitude, in this day and age; I was resigned, being more used to being mocked for questions than having questions answered with dignity and respect in my own school years.

Around the same time we met Li'lpet and her mother P after ages. P is a qualified teacher herself, working on higher qualifications, and Li'lpet, like Rahul, is a child of no mean intellectual ability. Yet she has been used to hearing, since her earliest schooldays, that her handwriting/spelling/recitation/whathaveyou is not good enough, that her parents need to work her harder and so on. Recently it accidentally slipped out that in fact her school does not actually feel this way; this is how they push her. I say they are lucky that P is not easily cowed by schools and teachers and fought back to keep her daughter's self-esteem intact because some kids can take this nasty kind of pressure but most can't. Indeed, why should they have to?

Rahul learns from everyday things, when things are explained logically to him. He likes to think on these explanations and work out further theories. It doesn't make him Einstein but it does make him a very difficult person to explain arbitrary mathematical rules to. Why is it so? Because it is so. But why? (How the hell does his mother know!) And if the whys don't make sense he lets that line of thought lapse, which can complicate life when you want to build on that groundwork.

Over the last half a dozen years Vicky and I have had to dig into whatever little remains in us of our own education to explain natural phenomena, linguistic complications, mathematical contortions, even psychology. I'm aware this is only parenting and every parent does it, but it does remind me forcibly of all those ads advocating for educating the mothers of tomorrow for smarter future generations. At this point I have a child who will use 'obviously' in the most appropriate and annoying contexts but absent-mindedly write 'goned' for 'went' in his classwork. Obviously he needs a teacher who understands his capabilities and works to find ways to motivate him rather than pull him down for not knowing the past tense of 'to go' at age seven. So far he has had such teachers, but not all students do, as I know all too well.

Through my high school and middle school years I dealt with the confusion of occasionally knowing more than my teachers -- and them despising me for it. I learnt to hide my knowledge and despise them for it. I cannot think this was a healthy attitude for schooling. Things improved a little in high school and of course in university I had wonderful teachers, but those early scars remain... naturally, this piece on humiliation in the classroom struck a chord with me.

As a teacher and a parent I try to remind myself from time to time there are no poor students, only teachers who haven't yet found a way to motivate them to learn. Motivation comes in different ways and parents teach differently from schoolteachers. Yet we all need to remember that the common goal is to bring up a child who is healthy, confident and interested in the world. Every child wants to learn. It is up to us to work out ways that make it comfortable for them.

Lastly, here are a few tips on teaching that I have personally found helpful:

1. Prompt if required. Rahul is learning the multiplication tables and we found it much easier once I allowed myself to prompt him where he forgets. I don't give him the answer but I remind him how to work it out. The idea is to imprint the number on his brain through constant repetition, not let him focus on how difficult so much memorising is.

2. Make connections. When I teach a language I try to work in rhymes, opposites, synonyms and other related words, going back and forth so that no concept is ever taught in isolation. I realise I also do this with science and maths, and it works wonderfully if you can relate things to your students' daily lives or other learnings. Recently a demand for iced water ended in a flustered call to my father to find out why the fan makes ice cubes melt faster. The explanation was duly conveyed to the child in turn.

3. Do a little everyday. A few minutes on each subject, even a few lines of reading if your child doesn't read by him/herself. A quick oral give and take on weekend mornings. Repetition really is key.

4. Be realistic about attention spans. Not even an adult can give a class undivided attention for a full hour, so why expect the impossible for a child? See how long your child can maintain focus and organise the study accordingly. In theory I prefer to give R work that can be completed in 10-15 min max, allowing him a few minutes break while it is reviewed. Some of his classmates can go on for longer, but he can't and it's frustrating for us both if I force him to.

5. Be honest about feedback. Calling R an idiot when I'm in a temper has not helped his learning or my temper. Telling him to give me five minutes to myself so I don't give in to my temptation to strangle him was far more productive. When he fails at something I remind him that his problem is his lack of focus, never a lack of ability. I tell him this because it's important that he knows what his problem really his.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Holi 2014

I've always liked Holi. My parents didn't enjoy the madness and mostly, neither did my brother, but I used to be the one member of our family out there getting back home dripping and multicoloured. I have fun memories of Holi up and down our lanes in Golf Green, a huge apartment complex celebration in Hyderabad and of course, the epic celebration that was my last Holi in Vizag. My schoolmates and I went around picking up friends and eventually we found ourselves noisy, egg-covered and discoloured on the beach. The episode ended with us showering off in Esha's front garden, to the detriment of her mother's fancy new Pears soap not to mention her towels. She was a good sport about it though.

Vicky and I have played Holi. It's not Rahul's favourite festival but we've had fun with colours and water and bhang, the works. Left to themselves, I have accepted that the Niyogys wouldn't play. Vicky will light up the house from top to bottom for Diwali, like he did last year (and left the mad cleaning up to me, of course) and buy crackers after we decide not to waste our money, but increasingly he wants to head out of town for Durga Puja and stay home during Holi.

This year I'm sitting out Holi too. I offered to make safe colours for Rahul to play with at home, but neither of them seemed particularly interested, and I'm far too sleepy all the time. Next year, we'll have the baby celebrating with us.

A happy Holi to you and yours. May you be blessed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The little woman in the niche

I live in a city of refugees. It is one of Calcutta's deepest truths, possibly its biggest challenge. People both born poor and impoverished by their circumstances find their way to this city and try to live out what lives they can. Some find work, some others pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps. An overwhelming number end up begging on the streets. As a student I never had spare change, so I promised myself that when I earned my own living I would show more charity. However I soon learnt not to give the children and the able-bodied money, mostly because they rarely get the money they earn through begging.

On the way to our Metro station, I noticed a little old woman who sat in the half shelter of the closed doorway of an old building on Russa Road. She wore a widow's saree, that is a saree that is all white with a narrow border without the colours red, yellow, orange etc and never seemed to make much money. When I eventually mentioned her to Vicky I discovered that he too had been in the habit of giving her a coin or two every day. She sat in her niche, staring into space with empty eyes that must once have been pretty. She looked like a tiny little grandmother who should have by rights been living with a family that cherished her. Instead, she sat out on the footpath in rain and shine, regardless of all the people rushing past her. She didn't even bother to beg; she merely sat in her place with one palm open in her lap, lost in her private world.

There is a row of old-fashioned shops off that footpath, selling things like paint and packaged snacks and hardware. I once asked a few shopkeepers about her, on a particularly nasty day I think, and they shrugged and said she never spoke but that she was always there. I noticed though that in their own ways they kept an eye on her. They would never let any of the street louts rough her up, for example. Once when her outstretched hand tripped a passer by and he started shouting, they calmed him down, sent him on his way and then checked on her.

The only time I saw her respond to her surroundings was when we once walked past with Rahul, then three or four, and instead of handing her the money ourselves, gave it to him. He looked curiously at her and, in that compassionate way very young children have, put the money carefully into her palm, touching it as he did so. She turned her gaze towards him, looking at him and then, with her shaking hands, blessed him, touching him on his head. It was a gentle moment in the madness of the commuter rush. Back then I used to be a mother who rushed to keep him clean when unclean hands touched him but I could no more dust away any possible dirt from her palms than I could tell Rahul that she was a dirty old woman and he mustn't touch her.

Time passed. We continued to give her money, occasionally through Rahul if he happened to be with us, and she always acknowledged him. We stopped our daily commutes as first Vicky and then I returned to our home offices. We didn't pass that way very often. A few years ago I realised that I never saw her any more. I asked a shopkeeper and he said she'd stopped coming. Then I saw her again, back at her spot, looking shabbier and even more lost than before, if such a thing were possible. And then she disappeared for good. I wondered what had happened to her and hoped she had died.

I remember her because I used to wonder how I would have appeared in her circumstances. When Vicky told me he gave her money too, everyday, it reminded me of the man I'd fallen in love with who seemed to disappear in the daily stresses of our domestic life. Rahul's little interactions with her were one more chapter in the big book of little ways in which strangers responded to him. He has always been a little boy who exasperates his friends and well-wishers, but something about him draws out the best of unknown people. They give him seats, offer him sweets, smile at his conversation, bless him when he isn't looking. He has always been rather shy and wary of strangers, so these little episodes are never quite expected but they keep occurring and always have. He reminds me of my brother, blessed beyond others in the ways that matter.

Unlike that little old woman.

This was in response to The Old Gent and His Violin by Evie. You should read that too.