I keep coming back…

13 Apr

The heady heat of a mercilessly cloudless, tropical sky is inescapable even inside the sparsely decorated – in fact, undecorated – hall, a long, wide cuboid divided into units which will serve as classrooms by thin, movable plywood and plastic ‘walls’. The classroom is neither visually nor audially isolated from any others, and the choral recitations of a,b,c’ s is as intimate to my 10th graders, rocking forward and back with their physics textbooks, reading aloud the English in un-English syllabic rhythms, as if the whole school were crouched on one bed.

I have come to this school, really, to fulfil an obligation. I cannot go back without teaching them. It is hard to see the faces of the privileged where I work, and not remember these other faces. They are so excited to see me. They measure my affection against the time other volunteers spend with them. I lose. I am unable to volunteer my whole time – and yet, I feel like I ought to. Everyone ought to and resources shouldn’t be a constraint. The need is here. That ought to drive the price that we are willing to pay higher than the laissez-faire system it operates on now… It hurts when my amount of time equals my amount of affection.

But it is something I learn from these ungainly teenagers, giggling and gawking and interested, yet uninterested in learning and advancement. The amount of time I choose to spend with the people and the causes I love is, in fact and inescapably, directly proportional to the amount of commitment I have towards them.

Uncomfortably I shift in my seat.

I decide to scrap the lesson plan I have, the literacy methods and the grammar. I want to talk to them. They learn language and literacy, conversation, application skills. I learn to remember the important things, and to see that one’s heart can get fogged in the confines of an air-conditioned classroom with anger management problems from six-year-olds, or the politics of who sits in which meetings, all simmering under the pervasive garnish of one’s own aspirations. I think I have more to gain from this encounter than they do. Selfishly, I take it.

We talk about who we want to be when we grow up. There are, applaudably, cardiologists and teachers and ophthalmologists and surgeons amongst us. My hidden agenda – because I am a boring grown-up – is to make them realise the pivotal role of school in all of these dreams. There are, of course, actors and singers and dancers. These too I am able, with all the finesse of years of manipulating conversations, to deflect to the point I am trying to make. Yes, I did roll my eyes as did the future cardiologist. But actually I ought to have guessed. The kids have no compunction tearing those blinkers off as I race forward clumsily.

I am stumped when several of the boys want to become policemen. Here they do not need an education beyond school to join the police force. They joke about maintaining a six-pack, ducking their heads shyly as their teenage awkwardness overcomes them – and I joke back about the fact (I kid you not) that most policemen we see have evidences of a different kind of six-pack inclination. And they challenge me about my statement that a college education is important, and that they have the choice to pursue it.

So, foolishly, I change tack and ask, with suitably raised eyebrows, why they would want to be policemen, of all things. These children have, it must be said, told me that they want to earn well and support their mothers. Pickings for policemen in these parts are acknowledgedly scarce, if legal.

I told you I was stumped. With little dissembling now that they are serious, three boys who have been poking, punching and distracting each other (but, annoyingly, giving their attention to me too!) now look up at me.

Big sister, we want to become policemen to stop the fights. We need policemen in our neighbourhood.

The fights? They’ve seen these fights? I know, objectively, that they have. But it is hard to face the retelling. It is also hard not to push to a point I was trying to make. No, not college. Making an effort. I desperately want them to simply try.

So what about the police now? Where are they? Don’t they stop the fights?

Yeah, like, when we call the police guys now they show up after two hours and it is too late.

The fight’s over.

I start to offer a smile because I am nothing, if not stupidly resilient. Children are intuitive though. They pre-empt me.

Yeah, the fight’s over and the man’s already been stabbed. And killed.

Haunting, yes. But do you see it yet? There, in those clear responses, is the stubbornness of grace and redemption.

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