CW: Reference to ADHD
Does every criminal know this? That her unpunished crimes bury themselves deep and gnaw at her best moments?
I lower the window of the staff car in which I am driven past the impressive portico of the private school, the one from where I retired today. After serving for 25 years.
In a rare gesture reserved only for the most loved teachers of the school the principal himself stands at the steps leading to the foyer along with the staff and a few senior students. A banner is propped among them that glints in the afternoon sun. It reads ‘Well Done Ms. Lalita. We will miss you!’
I feel breathless and hold back the tears with a resolve that has served me well all these years. I was a little embarrassed about how sloppy I got at the farewell lunch earlier in the day. The driver slows down, just enough for me to say,
“Thank you all for everything.”
To which the leader of the attending party gustily responds,
“No, thank YOU!! Off to your carefree days Ms. Lalita. God bless!”
I like this chap. My principal for the past 5 years. Younger, sharper and a stickler for professional standards.
The standards that I had held up proudly for all these years.
Every child who passed through my hands had left in better shape than when he came to me.
As the car leaves the school premises, a voice hisses in my ears, “My, my you really believe all those praises heaped up on you, don’t you?”. I freeze. An invisible cold hand comes out from the bouquets arranged carefully on the backseat. I suffocate and sink to the depths I don’t want to be at.
“Principal wants you at her office” informs the office boy as he shuffles the substitution slips and scurries away to seek out the unsuspecting teachers. I roll my eyes and say to myself there goes my free period.
I glide with my youthful steps towards the office. Nita at reception utters a single word, “Parents” as she gestures me to go inside. I knock on the door with clammy hands and enter.
My eyes take in three figures sitting in front of the principal. Mother, father and child, they look huddled as if expecting an attack from an unknown assailant. My hands regain their warmth as I realize they are not here to complain.
I inquire politely, “Did you call for me, Madam?”
“Yes, Ms. Lalita. Meet the Pathaks. Their boy is your new student and will be attending classes from tomorrow. They wanted to meet you.” She says in a voice steeped in authority. Then she turns to the parents and says cheerfully, “Mr. Pathak, Ms. Lalita is the class teacher. She will guide you further”.
I take the cue. I suppress my irritation at having to accommodate a new student in the middle of the session and turn to the parents with a trained smile.
“Please follow me,” I walk them out of the office and into an adjoining room reserved for counselling.
The father looks suspiciously at my blunt hair as if its shortness is an indication of my abilities as a teacher. The Mother looks exhausted and avoids eye contact.
Then I look at you. The little creature with narrowed eyes and a tilted head with a mop of curly hair. Your eyes don’t meet mine; they are staring at nothing in particular. Your mouth is open as if your lips lack the will to keep it closed. Your fingers on the table tap away without any particular rhythm.
The father blushes, clears his throat and addresses me,
“Madam, Vijay has a few challenges and he needs extra attention”
I think, is there any 7-year-old who doesn’t need extra attention? And say,
“Of course. Mr. Pathak, don’t you worry about that. He will be taken good care of. Let me guide you through the timetable and the course. I assume you have already collected the materials from the store?”
Then you stand up without a warning and scream “STO…RE!”
It has been a month since you walked into my classroom.
Your dazed eyes, imbalanced gait and untimely outbursts have thrown my perfectly managed class into chaos much to the delight of your classmates. I complain to my co-ordinator about this every day. She is sympathetic to me and calls your father.
Your father comes well-armed as anyone in his position should. He talks to me in a mixed tone of privilege and pleading which somehow makes my resolve to label you as ‘problematic’ even stronger. He shows me the prescription of medicines that you are on. He takes out the information booklet about ADHD and tries to get me to read about your condition. But my young ambitious hands just push the booklet aside. My impatient eyes fail to see the despair in his eyes. My mind is made up. You are better off in a special school. I tell him so. He leaves a little more shaken than when he arrived.
I walk into the principal’s office with my Coordinator.
The principal greets me with narrowed eyes. I soldier on,
“Good morning, ma’am, the new admission is not adjusting well in the class.”
She crosses her arms in front of her and says,
“Isn’t it your job to see to it he adjusts well?”
I curse myself for my weak opening line.
“Ma’am, he cannot read or write at his class level. He refuses to sit at his place and disturbs his classmates”
The principal draws in a sharp breath, leaves a sigh and says, “I know that. I have seen his medical certificate and it says the child will benefit from regular school. You have to remember Ms. Lalita, ours is an inclusive school. Give him time. He will come around.”
“But ma’am, at times he is completely uncontrollable”
“When I am on my rounds, I have observed your classes are at times completely out of control. So, should I let you go as well?” She asks red-faced.
My coordinator’s eyes have gone wide and my hands have gone cold. The co-ordinator’s peacemaker voice cuts through the tense air,
“Ma’am, can we request the mother to sit with him so that he stays calm? It will help other children to learn better”
I have missed my chance to oust you from my class.
The principal gives it some thought and relents,
“We can request her. But only if she is comfortable doing so,” she says with a raised finger.
Your mother starts sitting with you in the class soon afterward. With her shrunken form, she takes up less space than a 7-year-old would. I bundle her with you and ignore the combined presence. I teach with my fresh out of the teaching school fervour to your classmates. I choose to dismiss the way the other children are considerate towards you and your mother. I take pleasure in stabbing your work with my red pen in a way it bleeds all over.
In what seems to be a long time the session comes to an end.
My appointment as a teacher is confirmed. I think that I have survived you.
It takes me another session to see that it is not true. You have survived me. You seem to be thriving under a new class teacher. Your mother comes to school only once a week. She looks people in their eyes now. I tell myself maybe she is used to it by now.
You seem to be getting on fine even after two years. That means I did something wrong. I am not able to look your mother in the eye when we cross paths in the corridor sometimes. I have to talk to her, soon.
Then without a warning, you leave the school and I come to know you have relocated to Delhi.
I am too young to admit I was wrong. No, being young is just an excuse. Even if I had a heart of a 7-year-old I would have accepted you as you were. I would have included you in my world. I would not have punished you for something you had no control over.
I have committed a few crimes since then. But this one has a special place in my private hall of shame.
I hear a distant voice calling out,
“We have reached home, madam”
I release myself from the cold hand and come up from the depths gasping for air.
I thank the driver and ask him to convey my appreciation to the principal for this kind gesture.
My husband opens the door with a smile that has added sweetness.
He must be happy now. He got a fellow retiree to keep him company other than the cat. He says,
“Get freshened up honey, I have made your favourite snack for the tea”
I feel full and nauseous but don’t want to rebuff his show of affection. I nod my head with extra vigour.
I take my time at the shower trying to wash off the day’s heaviness.
I come to our living cum dining room.
He has already taken out the bouquets and cards from the car and arranged them neatly on the corner table. The golden plaque engraved with words proclaiming my excellence as a teacher has been given pride of place in the showcase.
He gives me a peck on the cheek as we stop to admire its craftsmanship.
I don’t think you will even remember me. But will you forgive me?