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Lessons in English

What Indian children taught me about the English language, life and the word 'discipline'.

Taking the wooden rod out of my hand the school girl said politely, 

“No, madam, to the student, you use.” Then she demonstrated how to use it as if the desk was the student.  

Since 2004 I have taught English on a voluntary basis in a private school in Mysore, India. As a teacher entering their classroom I already had two strikes against me. First, I was the ‘new’ teacher and second, I was the foreinger. I decided to prepare myself with a lesson on English grammar. This was not a dumb idea because the children were often asking me about the English lyrics and how to use the past and present tense.  Before I could start, a group of girls approached me about the difference between the words, 'brave' and ‘beauty’.

"Madam.” they said. “Much confusion there.”

I began writing the words on the blackboard. Their classroom was an archaic assembly of wooden benches and attached table tops with 62 children. “A smaller class”, I had been told by one of the teachers. The room had an orange drape to shield the sun and there were black bars on the window to prevent anyone from escapingy. A rickety fan lay in the center of the ceiling, which wobbled sideways as it spun. Sometimes it stopped before it made another round.

“Are these the words you are having trouble with?” I asked.

They nodded eagerly and there were faint, “Yes, miss, yes, miss, yes miss” echoing around the around the room. In India, 'madam', 'miss' or 'auntie' are acceptable means of reference. It also indicates respect.  Only the bold and namely the boys would even think of addressing me with, “Hey Mor-tonne, how are you?” and laugh like a hyena. And when one of thier teachers caught them they got a slap on their head.

In India, it is not surpsing. The year I was conducting my research on yoga for children in school I observed many teachers slapping the children without a second thought. 

“It’s allowed,” I was told. On the surface, I nodded politely. Inwardly, I had an opposite opinion.      

“Hitting?” I thought. “Now, this is really archaic.”

It was exactly the same when I taught English in Korea. They also welcomed hitting as a form of discipline. During one of my lessons I had returned to the office and witnessed 5 little kids standing with their arms over their heads. As I excused myself to get around them and to my desk, they looked as if they were being read their rights.   And it was not only the supervisor of the school who permitted it, who by the way had a degree in fashion design, but also the parents who shared the approach.      

A Korean father told me, “And if my kid gets out of control just give him a slap.”

But here in In India, I was surprisingly confronted with the students who approved of hitting. When we started the lesson on ‘beauty and ‘brave’, one little girl got up from her seat to pass me a stick. She pulled out my hand and laid the slender stick on my palm.

“Here, madam...you use it...” Seeing that I was a bit confused, she picked it up and offered another demonstration.

“Like this, Madam!” as she slapped it on the desk. Tap, tap, tap.

Instinctively, I grabbed the stick from her and hit the table. Maybe it did work to quiet the class down.

“No, madam, to the student you use.”

I became silent. Realising I had succumbed to what was expected and torn between what I knew was right, I put the stick down. Now the little girl looked confused. Another child piped up, “You beat.”

I decided to ignore them and continued to discuss the words in question. Looking out into the sea of 124 black eyes, I wanted to hug them not beat them. I wanted to explain how hitting and stick rapping were ineffective. I thought, “Do they know in my country this would be the end of any teacher´s career?” and if I was a sick preson  I might even take advantage of this situation. As my thoughts overpowered what was happening, I did not notice one girl had slipped out to call for a teacher. I did not notice l how suddenly the class was 62 talking heads. 

An Indian teacher entered the class and shouted, “Silence, children.” The children hovered at their desks. One little boy carried on making jokes. She went over and slapped his head. He quickly snapped out of his bratty behaviour and sat up straight.

“You take the lesson?” she asked.

“Yes.” I said meekly.

“Okay” she replied and left.

I returned to the blackboard and pointed to the words, “beau-ty” and “brave.” My lesson continued.

All Copyrights Reserved, 2009. Heather Morton, The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada.