I come from a family of teachers. My parents are teachers. My sister is a teacher. Hey, even my grand uncle was a teacher. I, too, am a teacher. I love teaching. It was not love at first sight, however. I entered my first class in 2003 with a lot of expectations of myself and from my students. It was an unmitigated disaster. I lectured for long periods of time, became nervous, then angry. They progressively got disinterested and resistant. After the class finally ended after 4 long weeks, I told M (my advisor) – an excellent award-winning teacher himself – that I can’t do this. He handed me some iced tea in his lovely garden next to his goldfish pond and simply said – you’ll improve. And I did. I took myself less seriously. I followed M’s philosophy and understood that students learn differently, and I became more focused on the process of discovery than a set of things they needed to get out of the class. And somewhere along the way, during those years in graduate school, I learned to enjoy it.
The first feedback I got came from a student who was studying the violin at Penn State. He had taken a summer course with me and was extremely resistant to the ideas of feminism. I was teaching Sociology of Gender then. Every class was a struggle with him – it helped me immensely to sharpen my thinking, but I had no idea what he got out of the class. . .until two years later, I received a letter of invitation to his solo violin performance at the School of Music. He wrote that he had learned a lot from me, and it would be his privilege to have me in the audience. I remember sitting in my chair, holding the letter in my hand, looking out the large windows on the 7th floor of Oswald Building to the changing colours of the Nittany mountain, and feeling like a part of me had just settled into my own skin, like a part of me recognised who it is that I was.
I revisited this feeling yesterday, when I stood in front of another classroom as a guest lecturer. I didn’t know who the students were or what they knew, and yet, at the end of the class, I recognised that familiar feeling of connection – of us having taken a journey together. After the class, I went to dinner with my former students from IIITB. People in my life know them as ‘my kids’. I met them five years ago – young, eager to learn, and very impressionable. Now, they have grown into themselves. I sipped my very strange cola at the dinner table and I remembered how fascinating it was to teach them and to read who they were through their assignments. And how it continues to be fascinating to watch them, as they are pushing out of the nest into a world they are trying to make their own. As I watched them make plans for the future – some make-believe and others, very real – I feel so proud to know them, so privileged to have been let into their lives, with such openness and abandon.
I once told my kids that I teach because I get to learn from them. And it still holds true. They still surprise and challenge me with their questions. And as I made my way home yesterday, in the midnight traffic of Bangalore, I smiled to myself – in one way or another, no matter where they go, they will always be ‘my kids’. And that, perhaps, is the reason I teach.