Revisiting the art of teaching

I was very upset that evening. Something about the class was deeply disturbing me. The students had been impassive throughout that class.
Perhaps I had rushed a little?
Perhaps I hadn’t made it as innovative and interactive as I usually do?
These were my thoughts. So I got back to my PowerPoint slides and breathed more life into them. But the next day was the same. And that continued. At first, I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. The faces before me were just not the ones I had seen at the beginning of the curriculum. I concentrated on their faces. They looked so exhausted.

They were numb….

To the point that nothing could penetrate them. They had become impassive to the good and bad in their environment. The irony was that they scored very well in their exams. And then I understood what was bothering me…

The fact that they were not enjoying learning.

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Numb faces stared at me in the classroom; five months of medical school had transformed them into zombies, incapable of being moved.

The pressure to perform had successfully transformed them into automated robots, good at swallowing capsules of information that could be regurgitated during exams. But nothing could move them anymore. They were no longer thrilled by those beautiful stories that described life. They were so saturated with ‘information’ that they had no space for stories. Just five months of medical school had transformed them into zombies, incapable of being moved by life.  And they are the future guardians of our lives…

Individuals who have no clue of what life means.

As I scanned their faces, I wished I could talk to them about the larger perspective of life. I wished I could talk to them about why they had to learn stories instead of swallowing information. But the medical curriculum in India does not give room for that. There is no time where students get to interact with teachers for a mentorship. All the time in their curriculum is invested in academics…

Academics that is of no practical value to humanity.

There is no leisure time. The extracurricular activities are also loaded with the pressure to perform and gain points that can enhance the CV. My students don’t read storybooks and novels. They don’t watch movies that go beyond entertainment and help them root their own experiences into memory. They are not aware of the role of books and movies in the formation of unconscious memories. Also, there is no intimacy between them. Their friendships narrow down to smiling faces on a selfie. They collect none of the beautiful memories that once characterized campus life.

One witnesses a slow death that eventually robs them of their ability to feel anything at all.

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The beautiful memories that once characterized campus life

I wish I could tell them that depression is their future. A brain with piles of information that means nothing to them at an emotional level…a brain devoid of any unconscious memories. Their bank of emotions and memories is empty. And they eventually fill it up with antidepressants.

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Their syllabus includes a beautiful chapter on the physiology of memory and emotions. A chapter on what it takes to form a memory. A chapter that differentiates between conscious and unconscious memories and educates as to why the latter is crucial in motivation and learning. And that chapter is squeezed out of its emotional component and fed into their brains where it doesn’t leave the tiniest trace of memory! The teachers and the text books are machines that are brilliant at this squeezing out process. The more they squeeze out the emotions, the better they are regarded. That beautiful textbook of Guyton lies in a dark corner of some library shelf, conveniently forgotten and abandoned. The good teachers also find themselves secluded.

If you ask me, these students are not yet dead. Their numbness is transient. They need to be released of this pressure to perform.

For which their learning environment and evaluation system must change.

And that can only be achieved by teamwork. I have always believed that education is a tool to awaken and develop the inherent curiosity and creativity that exists in every child. And this belief has isolated me. I find myself fighting the entire system when I teach, because I have to first struggle to teach them to feel.

I feel pained when I realize that man has reached a point where he needs to be taught how to feel and what to feel.

And just as I have succeeded in generating some feeling, somebody else takes over. And we have such a deficiency of true educationists that by the time I get to teach that batch of students again, they have already slipped back into numbness. Also, there is the struggle to oppose your peers and superiors and stick to your teaching module. Not to mention dealing with the hurdles created by their insecurities. This struggle is exhausting.

When I teach them physiology of the nervous system- those beautiful wires and circuits in us that breathe life into us, I feel pained at the thought that many of these circuits are slowly becoming vestigial for our modern lifestyle successfully suppresses them for good.

With every step of technological development, we are actually putting to disuse one emotional circuit within us, and thus removing one element of life from us.

Today, the circuits are lost only in individuals. But tomorrow, these circuits will disappear from our species. As I clearly see a future where a robot will replace homo sapiens, I hear aloud the cry of nature. Of that emotional world where life once thrived. Life, with its infinite joys of the wholesomeness that resulted from those infinite associations that our creative minds endowed us with, thanks to our ability to feel. Our minds that breathed life into colors and textures and sounds.

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Don’t we have the responsibility to preserve such a world for our generations to come?

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Akshita

The session was a part of our ‘Tuning the Teens‘ programme. This session was on orienting the students towards a choice of career. It was my turn to be on the dais. I looked at the eager young faces that looked at me in anticipation. I searched my mind for a story that could connect to the child in them. And then I remembered Akshita.

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“I teach first year medical students. Whenever I ask them what prompted them to choose Medicine as a career, I end up getting stereotyped answers.

‘I have always loved Biology.’

‘I have always wanted to serve society.’

‘It is a respectable profession.

These are the answers I always hear. Recently, one boy smiled and said he hadn’t really thought about it. That at least was an honest answer. Most students get into Medicine only because Medicine and Engineering are the norm in India. These are considered lucrative careers and parents work hard all their lives to earn their children a medical degree. The child knows from kindergarten that he is going to be a doctor or an engineer. And so, when you ask students this question, they are puzzled. For they have always believed that this is the career they were meant to pursue. It appears odd to them that there must be a reason for it.

And that is what set Akshita apart. When I asked her this question, her face lit up and there was a glow in her eyes.

‘I have always derived my happiness from giving. When I was a child, I lived with my grandparents. They lived a life of generosity, and seemed to derive immense pleasure from it. For them, happiness was always collective happiness. Once they even brought a beggar child home, gave him a good bath, a change of clothes and food to the stomach’s fill. Perhaps it seeped in unconsciously into my mind. I remember how for Diwali, I would collect money, buy crackers and distribute them to the slum kids who could not afford it and would watch with longing eyes the kids from affluent families bursting crackers. The glow on their faces was priceless. At some point, I knew I had to choose a career where I could give a whole lot and make a significant difference in people’s lives. And so, I opted for Medicine.’

Education ideally, is supposed to nurture our curiosity and creativity and transform us into individuals capable of working to the best of our genetic potential, and thus contribute meaningfully to the world. Instead, the modern Indian education system successfully kills all our inherent curiosity and creativity and transforms us into robots capable of handling systems.”

I looked at my audience- adolescents who were listening attentively, inspired by Akshita’s example. They clapped hard.

Akshita is a teacher’s pride. A student who restored my belief that a student could do wonders as long as there was a teacher to believe in them. She reinforced the fact that a teacher could make or break personalities.

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I have watched Akshita unfurl into a confident, compassionate and competent medical student who studies because she wants to know how she can help people. She has made steady progress in the course of her medical school and I have no doubt that she is going to excel. I watched her shed off her initial fear, hesitation and inhibition and slowly acquire wings. I see her slowly getting ready for a future that will ask much in order to give back. And she has learnt this lesson early.

This lesson that life will test you intensely before it considers you worthy of its miracles.

When I think of Akshita, I remember her beautiful, sparkling eyes that seem to reflect the infinite beauty in the world that surrounds her. I remember those dimples that make her smile rather attractive. I remember her infectious enthusiasm. And the excitement in her tone as she talks about a million things that have touched her.

So alive….so full of life!‘, I think to myself.

Life and only life has that spark in it that makes people phenomenally beautiful. She is a living example of that. I can lose myself in conversation with her for she has so many things to talk about…

Things that matter….things that inspire.

She always makes me feel part of a large world where there is so much to explore. There is that element of rawness in her that makes her so loveable. And I can tell that this spirit of hers will endear her to her patients.

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That rawness also makes her vulnerable and gullible. But I have always believed that the happiest people are always the ones who can feel the currents of life in all its intensity. She is full of memories and that makes her a delightful companion. I have seen her through her moments of vulnerability, and I can say that she has resilience in her spirit. I believe that vulnerability and resilience is the best concoction one can have, for that enables one to feel everything and live life to its fullest, and yet find the strength to come out of setbacks. Akshita’s spirit easily puts insensitivity to shame.

Akshita has taught me that a student teacher relationship is rather special. We are both die-hard fans of Randy Pausch who brings out the essence of a teacher-student relationship in his book, ‘The last lecture.’  We have a lot in common- a deep love for nature, the inclination towards aesthetics in day to day life, a love for people and books and music, a passion for travel, and an undying thirst for the richness of life.

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The mind is indeed the most beautiful of all creation and I am in perpetual awe of how we connect with different people, and how we derive a deep sense of purpose from some of these connections.

The breeding of a criminal

They called him Sanju. His picture stared at me from the front page of the newspaper. Tall, dark-complexioned and strikingly handsome. But his eyes held a cold blooded stare that made me distinctly uncomfortable.

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The Sanju in my memory is different. I remember him from his childhood. A child with sparkling eyes. He was a chubby baby, inquisitive and restless. I remember the aunts rocking his cradle, humming lullabies and putting him to sleep. He would kick his legs frantically the moment they stopped humming.

As a child, he was blissfully unaware of the cruel equation of the world he was born into.

Those early years of his life were filled with loving unmarried aunts and uncles, and grandparents. And so, he was oblivious to the schizophrenic edge to his mother’s personality or to the relative indifference in his father’s attitude.

I remember the time his sibling was born. Sandeep was a fair child and as is the case in a lot of Indian households, he received a lot of attention and pampering. There was a palpable discrimination in the way the aunts and uncles treated Sanju and Sandeep. When guests visited, everybody asked for Sandeep. Nobody bothered with Sanju. As the siblings grew up, this equation continued. Sandeep was asked to recite nursery rhymes and sing songs while nobody seemed to notice Sanju. He stood there, perhaps unsure of what was expected of him. I remember the way the oldest uncle would cane Sanju for the slightest mischief on his part.

And yet, Sanju was in love with the world. He loved going to school. He loved his uniform, his school bag and his umbrella. He loved the mud trails that took him to school and the little puddles of water on these trails. He loved playing with other children at school. He also loved music. He learnt to sing and he would sometimes sing in the chorus for temple festivals. He loved watching kids swim in the pond during monsoons. He was enchanted by the world he saw on the rare occasions his uncles or aunts took him out. Like all boys his age, he loved buses and cars.

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Sanju had a special regard for his father simply because he saw his father very rarely. His father was 10 years older to his mother, and this was his second marriage. He was a quiet man who always spoke in soft and sweet tones to the children, but his involvement in the family was minimal. He lived with his extended family, and visited his wife and children rather occasionally. When he visited, he would bring sweets and savouries for the children, and this would make them happy. But they never realized that their father cared little for them….that he never paid for their education or other necessities…that he never involved in decisions and responsibilities concerning them. His responsibility ended with these little visits that meant nothing in the real scheme of things. But the children were too young to understand this and they regarded their father with much love, and despised their mother who constantly nagged them and scolded them.

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My vacations in Kerala were an important component of Sanju’s life. He looked forward to my visits because that meant a lot of outdoors. I would take the siblings to an acquaintance’s house to watch television. We went to the theatre to watch movies. We played badminton and we went fishing. We went to Seaview park and sat on the rocks to watch the sunset. We ate ice creams there. I would read them stories from English storybooks and translate them. Sometimes we would just walk around the orchards and allow ourselves to be fascinated by the wild berries and flowers we discovered. We would go to Meenakshi edathi’s big house to play hide and seek. We would run to the local bakery to get a loaf of freshly baked, soft, uncut bread.

The three of us shared a special bonding because I celebrated Kerala as a welcome break from my life in the city and they celebrated my urban spirit as a welcome escape from the restrictions that dominated life in Kerala.

Every year, we looked forward to this time together. Every year, it was heartbreaking for me to say goodbye to them at the end of my vacation.

As years went by, my encounters with them reduced. I met them less often. Sometimes I got to spend only one day with them. That day would be very precious for all of us. I still remember one such day that we had spent together. At the end of that day, when I was leaving, Sanju asked me,”Have you watched the movie Kakothi kaavile appooppan thaadikall?” I hadn’t. He didn’t say anything more, but I could gather from his eyes that the movie had touched a deep chord within him. Years later, when I first watched that movie, I could relate to his feeling.

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The carefree nomadic life portrayed in the movie, the deep bonding that develops between the free spirited Revathi and the troubled little boy Murali, their pranks and their laughter, the way their bonding fills up the void in both their orphaned lives, Revathi’s youthful spirit that celebrates the simple joys of life despite the nothingness in her life, the enchanting wilderness that forms the backdrop of their lives, their ability to be mesmerized by something as simple as a milkweed…I could connect to every still of that movie for they were stills from my own life- the carefree vacations I had spent with these two kids, believing in fantasies and fairy tales and folklores. We built our paradise on earth from these stories and from our aimless wandering, reveling in its bliss and freedom.

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Sanju’s circumstances changed over time. His grandparents passed away. The aunts and uncles got married and went away. His mother’s insecurity grew with time and her delusions occasionally surfaced, clouding her ability at perception.

It is true that mental illness is the ultimate coping mechanism of a fragile mind that does not understand the selfish and cruel ways of the world.

I had always loved his mother. She was a very selfless and straight-forward woman. She always talked about old memories. And I love people who cherish memories. I believe they are capable of much good. She always made my favourite dishes. She had a jar that I called the ‘Akshayapathra‘ for it always seemed to have a stock of sweets. I had a sweet tooth and every time I visited, she would be very upset if she had not stocked up sweets for me. I would automatically open this jar, and would find some sweet. And her face would light up and she would say,”Oh! I had forgotten all about this. Ragini had brought this when she visited.” This happened many times and so, the jar became our ‘Akshayapathra‘.

The irony was that she was brilliant at comprehending difficult things. Her understanding of medical literature and the human mind surpassed the ordinary. But in day to day life, her thoughts were entangled and clouded. And as the loneliness in her life became palpable, this entangling increased. Sanju’s father’s untimely death devastated both Sanju and his mother. Though that man contributed little to their lives, his absence had a huge psychological impact on both their lives.

They derived a strange sense of security from his presence, and that was now gone.

Sanju transformed as a person. He was into his teens and he was totally lost. The aunts and uncles never took a genuine interest in his life. His mother was paranoid and lost. Sanju took the only path that gave him pleasure. The path of no return.

The next I heard was that he was arrested for being part of a gang that was into manufacturing explosives. He was released on bail, and I had the opportunity to meet him once. He seemed detached from the reality of his life. He cracked jokes and laughed as if nothing had happened. He had no guilt or remorse. His eyes had changed. I felt a little strange talking to him. He was closed as a person; we could never get him to discuss the private details of his life. But apart from that, he joined in our conversations and went about life as if nothing had changed.

His mother was admitted subsequently for an acute worsening of her schizophrenia. She was delusional for a long time and it had taken her a long time to get back to the routine of life.

Sanju got his father’s government job. Sandeep got a job in Dubai. Things seemed to have taken a miraculous turn. And then it happened.

I still remember that day clearly. I was coming back from work, and I spotted a huge crowd gathered at the house of the deceased. Somebody in the bus told me about the murder. I was horrified listening to the details. Coincidentally, we visited Sanju’s mother that evening. She talked about the murder because the boy was a close friend of Sanju. They were classmates from school and he would come over to play cricket. She described the state in which the body was found. ‘Can’t you just shut up? Don’t you have anything better to talk about?’, Sanju had shouted at her. We had suspected nothing then.

He was arrested the next morning. And he confessed to the crime. I was in shock for a long time. I heard about his bail, but I never wanted to see him again. It took me about 6 months to muster the courage to confront him. I was shocked to see Sanju. He sat there, almost oblivious to his surroundings. He looked at me, and I was gripped by a strange fear.

For there was nothing in those eyes anymore. They were cold; his soul was long gone.

His mother spoke a lot, occasionally drifting into delusions. In a way, it was a blessing. She could cope with this situation only because she was mentally ill.

I do not know why I visited them many times again. I do not know how I gathered the courage to talk to Sanju all those times. I remember Sanju’s pet cat. When the cat was unwell, he had taken all the trouble to take the animal to a vet and had nursed the animal until it was well again. Animals loved him.

And here he was, unaware of the brutality of the act he had committed.

“Accused sentenced to life-imprisonment for cold-blooded murder”, the headlines read today. The article went on to describe the murder of a 21- year old boy that had hit the headlines in 2009. The boy’s mutilated body was found on a desolate hilltop and the circumstantial evidence pointed to 21-year old Sanju as the culprit. He was arrested and then bailed out, and it had taken 6 years for the case to be taken up in court. Today was the verdict. “The accused remained impassive throughout the session. There was no trace of remorse or guilt on his face.”, the article read.

I thought back to the little inquisitive boy with sparkling eyes who had known little happiness in his life. I thought back to our little paradise when we were children. I thought back to his affection for his father. His love and empathy for animals. And then the infinite, unspoken moments of loneliness, emptiness and humiliation. Those untold stories that led him to the paths he eventually walked. That we were fortunate to have the security of a family on our side and he was not, makes me shudder. For it could have been any of us. What the journalist who wrote the article did not know, was that we as a society, were responsible for what Sanju lost- the paradise that the sensitive little boy with sparkling eyes believed in.

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