“Attendance please,” I said writing the date on the page. I was sent to teach Comm Skills to the geography batch of the Pre degree students ( batch of 100 and no public address system for the teacher).
I was shaking life a leaf – inside. But I put up a bold front and breezed into the lecture room looking (I hope) cool as a cucumber. Beverly, the junior most teacher who got her posting a day after I got mine, had resigned her job because she could not handle the law and order problem in this class. So I was next. You see, I had wonderful colleagues in my department who believed that a new hand should be baptized in fire. And the Pre-Degree II batch was allotted to me. And thus it was that I happened to find myself looking down at those hooligans (sorry, but that’s the most apt word in my vocabulary to describe them), notorious in the college for their insolent, arrogant and disorderly behaviour.
How did they get away with it? Well, those who led from the front in that class were daughters of prominent citizens of that little town, and the college authorities would rather give the teacher a dressing down than wield the rod on those students.
That particular year there was another unfortunate development too. The university made attendance compulsory, and a system was put in place which monitored the attendance of the students every month, on the basis of which communication was sent to the parents with warnings about disqualification in case of poor attendance. The result – all the unruly elements, who in the normal course wouldn’t come to class, were present for all lectures, and gave vent to their frustration by indulging in loud comments, guffaws – blowing to the winds all semblance of discipline.
AS I walked into the class, I could feel the hostility. It was tangible. Audible. I felt like a gladiator thrown into a den of lions, all waiting for me to make the first move before they tore me to pieces.
You bet I was NERVOUS. No. Not nervous. I was petrified.
Like I said earlier, I walked into the class with the attendance register and text book. I stepped on the platform and kept the books on the lectern. I saw that the wood on the lectern was wet where my cold, clammy fingers touched it.
The girls were screaming. Yes screaming. One called out to another from one end of the room to the other. Someone cracked a joke loud enough for five rows of benches to hear and all the five benches of students laughed loud while others asked, ”hey, what is it?’ and “tell us, no?”
“Silence please’, I said. No mike and my voice was drowned in that medley of noises coming from the other side of my desk. I almost thanked God for all that noise, or those girls would have heard my knees knocking against each other.
But the noise continued – noise that should not come from a class room. Just then, I noticed the duster (you know the one which looks like a shoe brush). I took it and banged it on the table, continuously, without a let up. I was scared as hell but there was something else boiling inside me. Anger. Sheer primal anger, kept under iron control by fear. I do not know how this deadly combination expressed itself on my face, but soon the class began to fall silent. I did not stop banging the duster till there was pin drop silence in the class.
See, this is how it worked. Because of the offensive sound of the duster banging, the girls looked in my direction, and then I noticed that their expressions were changing the minute they saw my face. I wonder how I looked. What a pity we can’t see our own faces.
Soon the students were silent. Absolutely silent. The only sound was me banging away on the table with that poor duster. The sound was horrible and I stopped.
“I don’t know how effectively I can teach you comm. skills, but I sure can teach you some manners. One more word from you and you’ll learn a lesson you’ll never forget in your life”. That was me. I couldn’t believe it. Is it really me talking like that? Where did I learn to talk like that? To be honest, these thoughts actually flashed through my mind as I (poor me) stood before them, glaring (?) down.
“Attendance, please”. I said
“Number 701”, I coaxed (God, even today that number makes my heart trip with nervousness!)
"Continue", I said.
One girl gets up.”Ma’am, can I call out my roll number? I’m 702. You said you’ll teach us a lesson of we open our mouths”
I was flabbergasted, but took care that my feelings didn’t show on my face”.
“Sit down”, I told her. Then I announced “Please give your attendance in a disciplined ladylike (I shouldn’t have used that word) manner. Ok. Continue’
"OK, 703 is absent. Continue”, I said.
One girl jumped up. "I’m 703, Ma’am"
"Why didn’t you call out your number?"
"I did, ma’am. But I did it in a lady like manner", she said, looking as innocent as she could.
“Please answer your attendance loud enough for me to hear”, I announced to the class again.
Like a loud clap of thunder came the next number 704. I literally jumped out of my skin, dropping the pen.
The class dissolved into their previous mood. Laughing, clapping each other on their backs. I saw girls turn around to congratulate 704.
At that precise moment something snapped inside me.
I left the lectern, walked to the front of the teacher’s desk, leant on the desk for moral and physical support, and shouted as loud as I could.
"Keep quiet". I said, "KEEP QUIET” (How I had underrated my decibel capacity)
Again the girls saw something in my face (what was it, I have never ceased wondering), and fell silent. I looked up 704’s name in the register and my heart sank. Her name was Lynette Pereira (Name changed). I’d heard that name mentioned several times in the Staff room. She was the daughter of a doctor with a lot of political connections. The college authorities valued this connection and the girl knew it.
I knew it too. What should I do, I thought desperately. Since I had come this far, I thought, going forward was easier than backward.
“Lynette Pereira, please stand up.”
She stood up. I was terrified. The insolence and the arrogance on her face made me want to follow Beverly's path. As usual, I prayed. Intensely. Jesus, why do you put me such situations, I asked fiercely, silently.
I wonder what my facial expression was like.
Patiently, in a well modulated and polite tone, I said ”Lynette, please apologize to me, then call out your number and sit down’.
She looked me straight in the eyes, unblinking and said.”Ma’am, how do I know your idea of normal, acceptable loudness?”
That did it. To hell with this job, I thought. Yes. If I throw her out of the class, I’ll get thrown out of my job. My people will be upset. This is one of the best colleges in South India, I heard them say, and you have got yourself dismissed. You are in the marriage market, they would say. If they enquire about you in the college, how do you know what report the college will give about you?
For a split second, I hesitated. How am i going to back off, I wondered. I looked at her face – and what I saw there made me blow all caution to the winds.
She had a sneer on her face!! And hardly seventeen, she was.
“Lynette”, I said in a controlled but firm voice. “You either apologise or leave the class room. And if you leave the class room, I’ll see that you come back only after a month’s suspension”. (What am I saying, I thought, who’s going to suspend her? I’ll be dismissed, and not she suspended.)
Lynette did not move. She stood there like a rock, looking at me coldly defiantly.
“Lynette, I’ll give you five minutes. Apologise or leave the class room. I mean business about your suspension”.
She didn’t move. I took my watch off my wrist (Is this really me, I thought. Am I capable of such dramatics?), held it in my right hand and stood there leaning against the desk, looking at the dial of the watch – and scared stiff.
There was pin drop silence in the class. Can they hear my heart pounding away and my knees knocking against each other? Can they hear that terrified sob trapped in my throat?
“One more minute, Lynette, and if you don’t leave the class, I’ll leave – straight to the Principal’s room”
She didn’t bat an eyelid, but stared at me hard and cold.
Five minutes were over. I tied my watch on my wrist, picked up my belongings from the desk, stepped down the platform and walked to the door.
As I crossed the door and stepped into the corridor, I heard a big commotion in the class room, and the sound of students squealing. I looked back into the class room and saw Lynette jumping over the desks, over the heads of seated students. In a matter of seconds, she stood before me, blocking my way and literally spat a “sorry ma’am” on my face.
That was enough for me. The situation was defused. My face was saved. I heaved a huge mental sigh of relief.
I accepted the apology graciously, and walked back into the classroom.