“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” — T.S. Eliot
I charge my way through a narrow alleyway barely three feet wide and all I can hear is the sound of my chappals on the wet cobblestone below. It’s my first day, and I’m late, but determined to make up for the time I lost trying to hail a taxi to take me to my school in the early morning monsoon.
I walk through the bright blue gate of the school where I will be teaching for the next year, SSRVM Dharavi, dump my soaking umbrella into a bucket by the door, and try to slip inconspicuously into one of the classrooms where another Teach for India fellow, Swathi, sits cross-legged, meditating.
We teach in an Art of Living school, where meditation, yoga, and surya namaskars (sun salutations) are part of the daily routine. Today, especially, I feel thankful for these thirty minutes of meditation. I close my eyes and try to think about the next three hours. I imagine what my kids will be like and what they’ll think of me. I review my rules and procedures in my head, and try to remember what games I’ve planned as a backup. I take a deep breath and remind myself not to be afraid.
Half an hour later, I’m in my classroom, attempting to put up charts and locate chalk and a eraser. Luckily, Swathi helps me out with the last two, which are nowhere to be found. Across the hall is Neha, another Teach for India fellow who has already finished the first year of her fellowship. She stands at the doorway of her classroom — which is less of an actual doorway, and more of a garage door — and flashes me a huge grin. She nods her head towards the main gate of the school, where a flood of children stream through. In their identical school uniforms, I can barely tell them apart. “That’s your class,” she says with a smile. “Good luck!”
In seconds, the room fills up with kids. From my register, I know that I have 22 boys and 12 girls. But today, only half the girls have shown up, and only 15 boys. Still, in this small classroom, it feels like a crowd.
“Teacher, teacher, what is your name?” one child asks me. “Teacher, where are you from?” says another. “Teacher, can we play a game? Teacher, do you speak Hindi? Did you speak with Ranjani teacher? Is she coming to visit us?” Their questions are unending.
The girls in the class are especially eager to talk to me. Gowri gives me advice on how to arrange the room and tells me we should vote on a class monitor. Pratamesh helps me finish sticking charts. Omkar informs me that one of the fans in the classroom isn’t working and needs to be repaired. They’re sizing me up and comparing me to their previous teacher, Ranjani, a 2011 Teach for India fellow. And me? I’m just trying to keep their names straight.
The next few hours sail by and soon my new students are sliding into their raincoats and shoes, running through that same bright blue gate they came through that morning. In the few minutes between the staff meeting and lunch, another teacher informs me that my class has been switched across the hall to a bigger room. I decide to wait until the next morning to shift my charts and books. In a brief gap between one rain shower and the next one to come, I hop across puddles and catch a cab on Mahim-Sion Link Road.
As expected, the June rain thunders down yet again and I’m stuck in traffic. The first day has finished, and I’m left reflecting on a few meager moments. I close my eyes and remember how intimidated I felt when the three middle rows refused to listen to me. I felt guilty when the two side rows looked at me as if to say, “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?” I felt overwhelmed when Satish and Shailesh started fighting and hitting each other in class. I questioned myself afterwards as to whether I handled that situation well enough or not. I quickly learned that seating arrangements are going to be crucial in my class. I realized that clapping to get my students’ attention wouldn’t work because the boys in the back row got so excited that they just kept on clapping.
But, alongside the moments of frustration, there were moments of complete joy. Like the moment that Pratamesh told me he wanted to finish his writing assignment at home. Or the moment that Govardhan volunteered to spell out “world championship,” along with the names of India cricketeers “Dhoni”, and “Sachin Tendulkar” on the board when another student wanted to use them in his essay. Or that amazing moment when I read Kiran’s essay saying that he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up because he wanted to make a machine that would “stop people from smoking tobacco and drinking.”
The first day of school gave me a glimpse into the year to come. There are going to be a lot of challenges — I can see those very clearly. But what are still blurry for me are the moments of joy. I know that they’re out there, waiting for me somewhere ahead. Reading through my students’ essays from today, I can already tell that my kids are bright, sweet, and thoughtful. They’re still quite innocent at the age of 11 or 12, yet they’re also incredibly malleable and easily influenced. The trick, then, is influencing them in the right direction. And I suppose that’s where I come in.
Just as I start to imagine what tomorrow will look like, the cab screeches to a halt. I’m finally home. Colorful chart papers in tow, I turn the key in the lock and drop my backpack by the door. I open up my chart papers and get to work. There’s no time to waste — day two awaits.
This post originally appeared on the writer’s website Out of Chalk. Vaidehi Joshi recently graduated from Barnard College in New York City with a B.A. in English. Currently, she has joined the movement to end educational inequity as a 2013 Teach for India fellow in Mumbai. You can see more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vaidehijoshi.