Some of us enjoy playing with words. Some of us love rolling a pen between our fingers and watching curls of ink shape ideas on pages. Some of us love burying ourselves into a good book, only to emerge hours later having traveled through many lands. Stories can open up a world of possibilities at our fingertips, without us even having to leave our bedrooms! It is travel on a completely different scale altogether.
It was with precisely this mindset that I wanted to share my love for writing with Pittsburgh’s Indian-American youngsters, an easily-accessible demographic for my first teaching experience. My mother, my ever-helpful liaison, contacted a variety of friends and acquaintances to procure students for me to teach. It was surprisingly easy; my mother teaches weekly Sanskrit classes, and she roped in her students to attend. They, in turn, called their friends. So, it was with great excitement that we turned the basement into a classroom and I found myself impatiently waiting for Thursday afternoon, when the dear little cherubs would waltz into my classroom, eyes shining with a love for writing and pens quivering to take flight.
I was, it appeared, slightly too optimistic.
It is not considered cool to enjoy writing.
No one ever told me that… I had grown up hearing people sing great praises of children who wrote well, seeing them win prizes in school festivals and have their works published in the literary magazines. I thought writing was something exciting, something everyone ought to love just as much as I did.
Eleven droopy-eyed children trooped into my basement that Thursday afternoon, notebooks swinging loosely in hand, heads hung low. It looked for all the world as if I had ordered the capture of eleven despondent seabirds and was marching them into an iron cage. I could almost visualize the clipped wings and hear their sullen squawks as my students surveyed my makeshift classroom with anything but enthusiasm.
“Is there a bathroom?” one asked, his tone implying that he feared we had no toilets for his use.
I pointed to the door on my left silently, trying to marshal my thoughts into words.
“When can I go home?” my next stalwart student inquired. He looked – much like his predecessor – like he was awaiting his turn on the gallows.
“When I dismiss you,” I said firmly, recovering my voice at last. “Phones away, watches away, please sit down at a table.” I cleared my throat, raising my eyebrows at the tallest boy, who seemed to be trying to melt into the back wall of the basement. “At a table, and please don’t slouch.”
The children stared at me, evidently startled at my no-nonsense tone. They had hoped to find a meek and malleable teacher, I daresay. But if there is one thing I am not, it is malleable. And so, they sat, the small tables squeaking as they thumped notebooks down on the surfaces.
“Wonderful,” I said, struggling to inject cheer into my voice. “Let’s begin!”
If you have never had the fortune of teaching middle schoolers, know this: there is a reason all teachers jockey for the position of high-school or elementary-school teacher. You would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who volunteered out of free will to teach middle-schoolers. My kindly optimism towards this demographic melted away within the first ten minutes of class. I also found myself regretting every agreeing to wrangle ten boys (the poor lonely girl was my best pupil by far, perhaps due to her automatic segregation from the rest of the clan) for two hours with no parental supervision.
But slowly, I began to find small pleasures in the exercise. The boys, to my surprise, began to mellow down eventually. After attempting every possible escape route from the basement, they began to comply with my instructions. For every sassy comment, I made the offender read aloud a poem or a paragraph from a Ruskin Bond novella. For every minute spent chattering about nonsense, I made the miscreant write a new sentence describing their first day of school. And I made sure to reward their little bouts of enthusiasm. I gave them free rein to try their hand at poetry when they asked to try. I let them read aloud their little paragraphs and design their own characters. I encouraged them to describe in as much detail as possible the people in their lives, and then to try and draw pictures of these people based on the descriptions. It took every ounce of my willpower and my mental facilities, but I kept eleven middle-school children engaged in a subject they supposedly detested for two hours. And when I assigned them homework for the next day, they eagerly asked if they could tailor the prompt to their individual interests.
That was when I realized that children aren’t naturally programmed to hate writing. They enjoy it. They enjoy using their quick minds to create new ideas and to keep the attention of the audience on them. Of course, most children complain during the process. But by diverting their attention from the pains of writing to the excitement of creating something that is wholly their own, a testimony to their intelligence and abilities, children can be persuaded to enjoy the writing process. They can be persuaded to call writing “okay,” or “not too bad,” or even “fun.”
My next battle, of course, will be in persuading them to go to school in the fall and tell their friends that they think writing is “cool.” And maybe it’s a losing battle, but I think I’ve made a beginning!