I approach my first teaching day at the Fabindia School in Rajasthan, India, with all the nervousness of an entering first grader. I rise at 6 a.m. and breakfast on the terrace of the farm where I am staying, and appreciate the splendid view of the Aravalli Mountains towering above the desert landscape.
The rising sun appears from behind a peak. A symphony of birds welcomes the new day.
From the farm, by car along a dirt road, we pass through the shallow waters of the Mithari River, with its banks overflowing following the monsoon rains. We encounter shepherds with cows and water buffalo on their way to graze by the river and continue to Padarla, a dusty village, to await the yellow Fabindia School bus collecting boys and girls from surrounding villages for the 14-kilometer trip to the school.
The crowded bus arrives. Beaming faces, bright brown eyes, girls in braids, boys with hair combed down, all wearing the school’s olive green uniform. A boisterous, bumpy, dusty ride over rutted roads. So much youthful energy so early in the morning!
The Fabindia School has 1,000 students, pre-K through grade 12. To encourage the enrollment of girls in this conservative, agricultural community, up to class three girls pay a reduced school rate. Forty percent of students are now girls. To give an example of school fees, parents of sixth graders pay $14 monthly. ($35,000 annually at my former elementary school in New York City.) Parents are farmers, shopkeepers and government workers.
The school day begins with an outdoor assembly and the singing of the Indian National Anthem, with words by the great Indian poet, Tagore. The principal, Parinita Rampal, assigns me to Bharti Rao, now in her eighth year at the school teaching English. My teaching assignments are English, writing and public speaking. My students are children in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. (My first job after Columbia Law School was running an elementary school in Puerto Rico.)
I am teaching “out of curriculum,” in effect creating my own course. I select composition topics and have students read lots of poetry aloud in class, an excellent way to introduce them to the wonderful sounds and richness of the English language.
In my first class, with 13-year-olds in the eighth grade, I share the story of John Keats who, at age 21, having dinner with a friend, is introduced to Homer through the translation of the Elizabethan poet and playwright, George Chapman. After returning late at night to his lodging, Keats sits down and writes of the experience:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
When I first read the poem as a student, I felt myself a co-celebrant with Keats, experiencing my own discovery of the world of literature. “May you,” I say to the students, “come to share the same experience.”
In another class Ms. Rao asks me to talk about Julius Caesar. With no time whatever to prepare, I am pleasantly surprised how much I remember about Caesar and the play. She asks me to read Mark Antony’s funeral oration. I oblige with the greatest pleasure, a far cry from my role as the soothsayer in a school production where I had two lines.
I introduce students to Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Hurt No Living Thing.”
Hurt no living thing;
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
I suggest that the poem is less about birds and butterflies and more about how we should treat other human beings.
The poems of Langston Hughes are popular with my students.
His “April Rain Song” resonates in a land of monsoons:
Let the rain kiss you…
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night—
And I love the rain.
Rajasthan is the largest state in India, covering 342,239 square kilometers. Much of it is desert. Few of the children have seen the Arabian Sea. In his poem “Long Trip” he writes, “The sea is a wilderness of waves/A desert of water…”
How pleased I was when several students ask to read Hughes’ poem, “Dreams.”
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
We discuss Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias.” And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Like Egypt, India, in its thousands of years of history has had its share of once powerful rulers who are long since forgotten. Even the monuments of its most recent ruler. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins write in their superb book on Partition, “Freedom at Midnight”:
Yet, once, that vaulting Gateway of India was the Arch of Triumph of the greatest empire the world has ever known…
All that seems so distant now. Today, the Gateway of India
Is just another pile of stone, at one with Nineveh and Tyre,
a forgotten monument to an era that ended in its shadows
half a century ago.
I have my students read the moving words of Nehru written hours after the assassination of Ghandi with whom he shared the closest of bonds: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”
We read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
When students are reading out loud, I encourage them to stand straight, look at their classmates since speech is communication, speak in a firm and audible voice and closely follow the punctuation.
Fabindia is a “median English” school, meaning that all courses, except Hindi, are taught in English. Most of my students struggle with English. Little wonder. At home they speak Marwari, the language of the Marwars, a Rajput kingdom ruling this area for centuries. At school they are taught Hindi and English. Three languages to navigate—two more than I speak.
As with any professional undertaking, one experiences good days and bad days. On some days, everything clicks. On other days, the students are bored with their teacher and the teacher irritated with his students. Twelve,13,14 and 74-year-olds can, at times, be difficult.
Memories of my own misdeeds at their age, both disciplinary and academic, help me through these rough patches. Besides being lazy at school, I misbehaved. One day the headmaster told me, “Go home if you don’t like what I say.” To his and my astonishment, I went home, becoming an instant school celebrity. (This was about the time when the Russians were walking out of the United Nations with frequency.)
Traveling in India, I find the presence of animals thrilling. On roads, in cities, towns and villages, on sidewalks, on railroad station platforms, everywhere, day and night. Cows, water buffalo, sheep, goats, lambs, families of monkeys with parents coddling their young, and camels. (The streets of New York may seem dull on my return. I may petition the city’s Department of Health to allow me to graze a water buffalo on east 73rd Street.)
My eight weeks of teaching concluded Dec. 1. I will miss Rishiraj, Vaishali, Pooja, Yash, Akshay, Naushad, Ahmed, Raza and Khusbhoo, along with scores of others who call me teacher, a designation giving me great pleasure.
And I will miss my Rajasthani encounters with nature. The sun rising over the Aravalli Mountains. The mountains and desert illuminated by the light of a full moon and the glorious star-filled Indian sky.