Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Tangled Thread…

My blogs these days seem much of a piece – all about school.  But that is where my head is and where I am urging my heart to follow.

Each day brings something new, a high, a low and an in-between.  A child who will smile, a child who will frown, a child who will be more stubborn than a mule.  The mule I would ignore. The child stays with me even after the school day is done.  What could I / should I have done differently? Why was that one child so determined to challenge authority?  And why do I have to keep laying down the law?  A neat, tidy, orderly and silent classroom seems so at odds with lively, squirming children!!  But how lovely is the noiseless room, with minds engaged and thoughts abloom (even if they are all about getting even with the teacher!).

Singing class seems to be more about letting off steam than learning the tonic solfa and oh how they love their action songs. Even the ‘big’ girls!! When they’re happy, they really show it from the clapping, to the stomping and the screaming.  Next week, I’m planning on teaching them homemade percussion: if noise appeals then why not go the whole way? (A variation on ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’!)  I remember the fun we had, as children, tapping teaspoons, shaking little boxes filled with rice or hard grain and blowing through combs covered with tissue paper.  If you can think up any more impromptu ‘instruments’, do let me know.  (We also tapped teaspoons on the rims of glasses of water filled to different levels – when you got it right, you created the sweetest sound.  But we are too many, and glass and water can be so accident prone.)

And then there’s the crochet which is more ‘is not’ than ‘is’.  Teaching 60 plus students to simultaneously put hook to wool and turn out identical perfect stitches is the stuff of movies and dreams.  The variations on a stitch that I encounter are more the stuff of nightmares.  Perseverance is a virtue that both teacher and student need and I’m resolute, persistent, unrelenting, firm about reaching the goal!!

But there are the diversions.  One student managed to get a factory wound perfect ball of wool into an even more perfect tangle.  ‘Miss,’ she wailed, ‘HELP!’  I brought the yarn home and spent the best part of an hour following one end till it met the other and I had, once more, a well wound ball of yarn.  It was a happy shade of yellow and while hands were busy, my mind dwelt on the weeks gone by. Sitting and untangling the thread was somehow peaceful and yes, amusing!  And the student’s joyful whoop, ‘THANK YOU” was more than enough reward. 

Though I am still bemused by where I find myself, I have stopped wondering about the path, no matter how tangled. Like Theseus, I hold one end of the thread in my hands, but I know that the other end is firmly in God’s clasp.  And when the ends meet, I will be a perfectly wound ‘yarn’.  (Pun intended!) 

P.S. I finally managed to ‘draw’ using Paint.  My work of art? TANGLED!!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dear Diary VI

When I ‘meet’ a new author and that author appeals to me, I tend to go on a spree.  I liked Fr. James Martin’s ‘My Life with the Saints’ so much that when I came across the title of his other work, ‘Between Heaven and Mirth’ I pounced on it with alacrity.  Fr. Martin has a lovely chatty style, laced with humour and he keeps the brain engaged: my kind of author, my kind of reading.  I thought the second title would be a laugh a minute.  It’s not.  It is a pretty deep lesson on the link between humour and spirituality.  A slightly different take on the maxim: rejoice in the Lord.  And it made me reflect, remember and relive the gladness in my life.

Can you think back to those times when you enjoyed a belly laugh at good clean humour that did not offend?  Something that cleared the air, refreshed the spirit and left you feeling re-energised? 

I can recall one incident so very clearly.  Hubby and I were in a gift shop that sold odds and ends including posters and signs.  I suddenly spotted one that called forth a spontaneous guffaw much to his embarrassment - everyone turned to look at me and then at the sign.  Suddenly the whole shop was filled with chuckles.  The sign? ‘A minute could be very short or very long depending on which side of the bathroom door you are.’  A statement I can truly appreciate and that goes for everyone who has known limited loos and long queues. Yes, it felt good to see the funny side and I mentally applauded the creator.

Fr. Martin also tackles the question of whether God (the Saints) and humour can be mentioned in the same breath (my paraphrase).  I wonder that anyone could possibly doubt that.  In nature one finds the awesome (the truly awesome and not the casual adjective that is scattered around today), the beautiful, the lovable, the joyful and yes, the comical.  God created the platypus. Surely he must have been in a playful mood?  I can feel the happy chuckle all the way from the beginning of creation!  

Have you never been subjected to the cheekiness of monkeys (yes, they can be annoying too)? Or watched a puppy chase its tail? Or caught dolphins leaping for sheer joy? Or spied a line of ducks waddle past? It’s a long list – no room here. I am sure that our Creator intended that element of delight for all of us to savour. The trouble is that we are usually too busy to notice. We also expect power to be cantankerous, and we tend to view the Divine with human eyes. We must certainly amuse God even when we exasperate and sadden.

Here’s one for the road: one of the resorts, at which hubby and I vacationed, boasted a tame pet monkey by the name of Canute.  I treated him to a handful of nuts to coax him into friendship.  He took the nuts, checked that he had collected all that was on offer, gave my hair a hard tug for good measure and scarpered. Then hubby went for a stroll.  On the return leg, he paused at one of the garden seats.  Canute happily scrambled onto his knee and sat there for all the world as if they had been best friends forever (or brothers in a different time frame?).  I could not help but laugh at the picture they made – both with identical quizzical expressions! (Hubby had a way with animals, but that will need a separate blog.)

Yes, laughter is definitely a gift from God.  One that deserves a heartfelt ‘thank-you’.

Dear Diary V….

 …or T G I F: a phrase that is in every working person’s lexicon - those that do not work on Saturdays and Sundays, at least.

Once when a harried friend shot the acronym at me, I cheekily replied that it didn’t apply – every day was a holiday since I had taken premature retirement.  I did not have to wait to exhale or anticipate eagerly the ‘whew’ moment when I could shed bags, clothes and other odds and ends, knock off those pinching shoes and fling myself into a comfortable chair, and stay up all night watching what was on offer on the Movie Channel.  I had leisure in good measure and I used it wisely, or so I thought.  

The problem with retirement is that everyone assumes that you are ‘free’ and the requests for your time flow in thick and furious, and when you say ‘yes’ to one, you end up saying ‘yes’ to another, and before you know it, you are busier than before.  Some engagements are fulfilling – you enjoy them, you learn from them and you are left happy for the experience. Others leave you wondering whether you have suffered permanent brain damage.  I have known both and I am still sane and sober – I have survived. 

It’s funny but the ‘not so happy’ experiences are experiences too: they add to that vast repertoire of knowledge that the brain will store away and hopefully dredge up when needed.  I know that my bad experiences have taught me to appreciate the good ones, to know what to avoid, and how to deal with people and situations. For instance, a stubborn and willfully disobedient child may not require punishment but understanding.  When dealing with a classroom of 60-strong, very lively eight year olds, patience is usually thin or quite worn out and the first reaction is to ensure discipline that the whole class will not forget.  But later reflection brings on the questions.  Never having taught in school, I am troubled by the one child that will not conform.  Could I have dealt with things differently? How?  Putting my head together with other teachers and parents and even children, provides perspectives that may help me in future.  I am on a learning curve.

And then there are the happy children, the ones that will smile and laugh and say ‘thank you teacher for the new song’ or they will come up to you and touch your feet or shake your hand and wave out to you on their way back to class.  And your heart is warmed by their attitude even if the volume of their collective voices makes you wish for earplugs!

And then, of course, my weekends are once again appreciated as has not been done for a very long time.  Now leisure is a treasure and I thank God for Fridays from the bottom of my heart.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Teach therefore I Speak

Some years ago, a friend of mine who is not so conversant with the finer nuances of the English tongue and who was a working mother at the time, told me that she had placed her toddler daughter in a ‘crush’ (sic)!!  I gently advised her that crèche was the appropriate word and pronunciation.  When I visited the premises with her to pick up the child at the end of the day, I realised that she had inadvertently bestowed the more appropriate title – a crush it was.  There were so many children crammed into the room that all you could see were an entanglement of little hands and feet and bobbing faces accompanied by an uproar of little voices.

Today’s classrooms are a spillover of this scene.  Not quite Dante’s inferno, but nearly there! What have we done?

The idea of education is practically as old as time.  Sharing of knowledge, and the ‘how’s and ‘why’s of the way things were done, ensured continuity and survival.  As people evolved and curiosity grew, the scope of knowledge expanded proportionately and each generation added its own layers.  The only difference between earlier generations and ours is that knowledge was the prerogative of the elite and was shared only with the privileged few.  The remainder were left in the dark, exploited as menials and deprived of rights since they ‘did not know any better’.

I like to think that it was the Catholic Missionaries who wrought a change; who realised that education and knowledge meant empowerment and in an ideal world, where all are meant to be equal, an equal access to education would make a sound beginning. Revolutionary? Yes!!  Catholic education has made its mark worldwide and ‘convent educated’ was, at one time, an unofficial ‘magna cum laude’.  Why the past tense?

A peek into today’s classroom shows us a Catholic education system that is a shadow of its former self.  No longer are we the innovators and propagators.  Instead, we meekly allow ourselves to be dictated to by an authority that has no business to be in authority. True learning and all-round development are slowly being stifled by a prescribed syllabus that has nothing to do with education.  The number of children per classroom is ridiculously out of proportion with the need for teacher-student interaction, and the powers that be need to be reminded that bricks and mortar are rigid by nature and therefore the number of desks and benches can only go thus far and no further. The well ventilated, airy classrooms so conducive to learning have been replaced by ‘crushes’ stuffed beyond the limit.

Add to this the underpaid and jaded teachers, an exam system that rewards a ‘learn by rote’ attitude, and an unrealistic pass percentage that aspires to 95% and over: it’s not surprising that we are churning out mediocre geniuses, by the schoolful.

On the other hand, among the institutes in the city, there are a minuscule few that happily and resolutely insist on breaking this mould.  Why are the Catholic schools – convent and parish – not among this number?

It’s time that we stood tall and reclaimed our heritage. After all, we were taught by the best teacher ever.  So, don’t tell us how to educate, we’ll tell you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dear Diary – IV

Remember when you were little and grandma was snoozing and you were determined to be a tease? Grandma would seem to be unfazed by your incursions into her comfort zone and then all of a sudden, her eyes would fly open and her false teeth would pop out at you.  Scary! And the next day you would try it again to see if she would do it again!!  (I agree that my childhood memories may not be universal, but I’m sure somebody, somewhere will have experienced this.)

This morning a young dog, still at the very playful age, was urging an old dog to be up and at it.  It was early morning, the sky still grey and the weather damp from overnight rain.  The old dog sported a very grey muzzle and ears.  He ignored the youngster and rearranged his limbs with a deep sigh.  The youngster would not give up. Finally, the old one raised himself rheumatically on all fours and bared his teeth with a menacing growl. The youngster fled yelping down the street.  The old one shook himself (I’m sure I heard a satisfied ‘harrumph’) and settled himself back into snooze mode.  Some tricks still work. And the young dog will be back tomorrow. 

The juxtaposition of memory and incident was a welcome start to the day.  More so since the morning papers always seem to offer bad news, on top of bad news.

Today, at least one news item proved interesting: The East Indian dictionary. A resource that will provide future generations with information about the mother tongue that many no longer use. 

My introduction to EI-speak was via a recipe.  The final touch required one to run a greased belan over the surface of a cooked sweet ‘dough’ after it had been poured into a mould, in order to render it smooth before cutting into triangles.  What on earth was a belan?  A classmate at Secretarial School, supplied the answer: ‘rolling pin’.  She was, as I discovered later, an EI.  

Over the years, I have encountered words and expressions which convey much better than the translation, exactly what the speaker means.  For example a ghoomat is a ghoomat ! What else would you call a gutted, dried gourd, topped off with a dried skin, drummed upon with the tips of the fingers to render a magnetic beat? It’s not a drum, it’s not a tabla, it’s not a bongo.  It’s a ghoomat.

EI speak is not easy to acquire; you need to be attuned from birth.  It is akin to Marathi but is a dialect in its own right, with vocabulary, grammar and idiom that the dictionary will hopefully capture. I never did quite pick it up since hubby spoke fluent English and Marathi when conversation was needed.  At other times, words were redundant.

But my AI ears are always tuned in to new sounds and I did manage to grab a few choice words and phrases here and there.

My favourite? Just has to be ‘pyethyu’ (rendered phonetically).  It is supposed to mean ‘young lad’ but more often connotes ‘lazy rascal’ and many a nephew has been hailed with ‘oye pyethyu’ in his time!  

Being EI is not just belonging to a community, it is a way of life which one encounters in the living: cuisine and kitchen implements, weddings and social encounters, dress, music, architecture and furnishing, customs and observances.  How long will all this be followed?

For example, almost gone is the lugna (lugda?)the nine yard sari - replaced by ubiquitous denim (the universal jeans).  As a wife, I did sport the festive nine yards on occasion (surprisingly comfortable!) but as a widow I need to don one of another colour.  So, mine has become a relic which may perhaps be worn by generation next more as fancy dress than attire.

For now, the past is present in memory.  Happily so!

Dear Diary – III

A friend recalled to me Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and its mesmerizing message.  Well, dear universe, what I would dearly love is a huge and spacious mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens and a bevy of minions to wait on my every need and instruction.  Now that would be heaven!  Which brings me to the realisation that I first need to complete my stint on earth.  Oh well!!

In the meantime, little moments of joy will do very nicely thank you, and this Sunday had quite a few of them.

Sunday morning was cloudy and cool; in Church, Thomas the watchman had set up the keyboard so I did not have to run around in a tizzy to get things done; the Sisters were in good voice and the hymns included my favourites; the usually self-effacing celebrant preached a sermon to remember; the prayers of the faithful (I do so prefer the Protestant ‘bidding prayers’) were simple and child-like for a change and I got to lead them.  Yes, the day started well.

There were reminders that friends were looking out for me and that I was missed at an occasion I did not attend.  A not so mild case of hiccoughs (I'm on a retro trip and this spelling is much more elegant than hiccups) had grounded me for the better part of that evening and night.  It’s nice to know that one matters.

And then I got to wash the dishes.  The maid has a heavy cold and the doctor has advised her to avoid putting her hands in water as far as possible.  Much to her chagrin, I barred her from the kitchen sink and set to.  I love washing the dishes: this is one exercise that allows me the opportunity to rid myself of all frustrations, anxieties, and temper – all those negative vibes that activate (aggravate?) the bile duct.  There’s nothing so satisfying as seeing clean and rinsed kitchenware drying on the rack and an empty, scrubbed and shining sink to crown one’s effort.  There’s a song on my lips too – the new one that I’m teaching the ten year olds in school.  It’s catchy! 

A little bit of crochet, a little bit of reading, a little introspection, a little bit of catching up with friends and family over the telephone, a mid-day nap, my favourite dessert of stewed peaches with sweet yoghurt to wind up supper.

No mansion, no minions, yet it has still been a delight-filled day!

And now I shall lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep….

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dear Diary – II

Be careful what you wish for.  The wish might just come true. How often have you heard that? 

Crochet with me is an addiction and it makes me sad that there is no one who wants to learn the craft.  Not in my vicinity, anyway.

Well fate and the Education Board seem to be on the same wavelength.  The latter have decided that crochet and knitting are fundamental requirements for young ladies about to graduate from school. I quote (faithful to the original): “Crochet and knitting has (sic) been very popular in Europe and Japan. It has also been very popular even in India, where it is being practised for the last 200 years.  These two arts have always complimented (sic) each other.  It is being popularly practiced by women both in urban and rural India.  Woolen clothes are particularly used in places where the climate is extremely cold.  Those who excel in this art have been able to earn substantially from it.  Earlier the crochet needle was called a hooked needle.  Crochet is done by the hook of the needle, whereas knitting is done by two needles.  These needles are prepared from light metal and plastics.  ….Variety of attractive items can be prepared by crochet and knitting for e.g. torans, sweaters, shawls, table mats…. These forms have seen many innovative adoptations (sic) in new styles…”

Yes, the Education Board for English Medium, Government aided Secondary schools either needs to revisit English language basics or learn how to make use of spell-check and grammar-check on their computers.

But we are talking crochet.

The Principal needed a ‘teacher’.  I know crochet (I really do).  Put the two together and I now have 120 14-year olds who have to learn how to hold hook and yarn and produce a square handkerchief, a circular handkerchief, a small purse, a doll and a strip of lace by the end of the year. They are both optimistic and enthusiastic.  I hope I catch the contagion.

It is years since I stepped into a classroom and experienced the noise level at close quarters.  It takes some getting used to as is the: ‘Miss, please may I go to toilet’, ‘Miss, please may I drink water’, ‘Miss, I have to keep my appointment with the Counselor’, ‘Miss, she’s pinching me’, ‘Miss, may I come back into the room’!!  After years of just doing one’s thing and not interrupting the speaker’s flow, of cautiously leaving the room and re-entering, of being independent in thought and action, it is strange to find a roomful of persons chained to ‘authority’ (mine) and ‘permission’ (yes, mine again) .  But I cannot circumvent school rules even though my inner voice urges me to tell the girls, ‘just go!’

Strangely enough, I find other school lessons coming back to me.  Faced with chubby thighs and short skirts (yes, the mind boggles), I feel the need to tell them how to sit like young ladies: skirt over knees, knees together, ankles crossed.  The slump at the table is corrected with a sit up straight and I tell them how we had wooden foot-rules shoved down the back of our uniforms to ensure that straightness!  And then the thunder on the stairs is muted by asking them to walk on their toes rather than the flat of their feet.

The girls regard me with amusement and I am not surprised.  At 61 I am a species of dinosaur. The nice and friendly kind, I hope.

Dear Diary – I

Life has turned into such a day by day, blow by blow event that it is difficult to focus on a topic or theme.  Remember the kaleidoscope – that amazing, crazy combination of colours and shapes? You fell in love with the pattern and then with a slight turn or shake of the cylinder an even more stunning pattern fell into place, never to be repeated. What fun!

Well, my seconds, days and hours have turned just as colourful, chaotic, comical, curious and compelling. 

Three days a week, I endeavour to develop the musical skills of little girls ranging in age from 8 to 13, in batches of 65 or thereabouts.  None of them come from English speaking backgrounds; none of them have ever been exposed to western music not even to the ‘Disney’ tunes that have enthralled generations.  I was told to expect the unexpected.  Little did I realise.

At every lesson, taken in the library, with keyboard primed, eager little feet came trooping in and 65 little bodies in all shapes and sizes settled cross-legged on the floor (no sweeping and swabbing required here – uniformed derrieres did the job beautifully!) and 65 voices wished me good day. I hope the smile on my lips belied the trepidation in my heart.  Did any of them know how to sing? A unified chorus of 65 yeses greeted me.  Did any of them play a musical instrument?  Again a full throated roar of ‘yes’.  Turns out they didn’t understand the question.  They had just stopped at ‘play’ and all children know how to play, right?  Well once that was sorted out, I got them learning how to fill their lungs with air and how to stretch their little lips into the required shape for sounding words.  So far so good.  The giggles and good natured pushing and shoving augured well.

Then came calamity.  Asked to ‘la la la’ to the tonic sol-fa, they just could not hit the notes.  Flat would be an understatement.  Without this basic skill, how would they ever sing?  And how would they ever learn the difference between shouting in unison and singing in unison? 

As I teeter between amusement and frustration, I remember one of my favourite musicals ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ – now if I could only reprise Deborah Kerr’s role (without Yul Bryner, of course – pity), life would be a song – literally!