A learned man said to me once, “Why do you want to become an English language teacher? It’s a fucked up and funny language.” It was a cloudy day, perfect for epiphanies, and so I let one mess with my brain again.
The two adjectives he used caused enough stirring in me to stick to my resolve to become one (effects of prolonged exposure to banality and monotony in life, I believe). And so I began on this journey, to a destination I thought I knew and understood. It’s been less than a year since I started teaching English professionally, and all I can say, is that I was wrong.
One of my students is a bright young boy who works as a waiter at a popular pub in Gurgaon. He always keeps me on my toes by asking me curious questions about the English language.“Mam, on recharging my phone, why do I get a message saying ‘Your balance has been credited’? Don’t we use the ‘ing’ form of verb with ‘has +been’?” He asked me one day- with I don’t know why- a naughty smile.
While I know the English grammar rules, and also the fact that the mere possession of knowledge doesn’t suffice, I realized you have to be a teacher to really understand your own understanding of certain things. You have to pass on the concept in the best, the most creative way possible.
I asked him at the beginning of the session, as I do with all my new students- “Why do you want to learn English?” That day, I couldn’t help but notice a deep sadness and dejection in his eyes
“I want to be able to speak English fluently so I can become a manager at a pub one day. And so that people would respect me. Nobody really respects the waiting staff. Whenever something goes wrong, even if the customer is at fault, we are reprimanded, and expected to apologize”, he explained, with his lips curved in a strangely gentle smile of despair.
I have seen these people at restaurants, the ones who for some twisted reason have grown up to believe that they are the most superior beings on this mortal planet. Being sarcastic at best and, rude and disrespectful at worst, these people think they own the place. The ritual of whistling, shouting out ‘Aey hello!’ to address the waiters is common. But, when I heard about it from this young boy, his eyes full of dreams and aspirations getting misty, his predicament pierced me like a sword. It angered me. I felt for this boy who was smart, humble, worked 16 hours a day, earned a livelihood for his family, and spent a considerable part of his monthly salary on learning English, with the belief that this language would earn him respect. I don’t know what’s disheartening if this isn’t.
His response that day changed the way I viewed my profession. Hell, it made me rethink the meaning of my choice to become an English language teacher. I realized that my perceived sense of responsibility towards my profession was all wrong. Since that day, I have taught many such students, who spoke in their native language with great confidence, but transformed into meek, underconfident strugglers the minute they switched to English. Some of them were so conscious of their pronunciation, that they wouldn’t speak the word but would spell it out to ask me the correct way of pronouncing it. Trust me, this really scared me as a teacher.
You know English in India is not just a language- it’s like a degree that gives you confidence, promises you better prospects, better opportunities, better jobs, better livelihood, and it hurts me to say, but respect. May be I was aware of all this before, but now I am a part of this process for people. I am no more doing a job for myself alone, but for people who invest their trust in me. Teaching has changed me so much as a person; I have grown more perceptive, humbler, and yes I’m no more the judgmental grammar Nazi I used to be.
Ten years ago, my uncle had asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up, and I had said “anything but a teacher“. Surprised, he asked why, and I said, “because nobody respects teachers“. I don’t know what was responsible for this idea. May be the teasing and making fun of teachers at school which I hope, we all are guilty of indulging in. When I look back now, I just feel sad about our childhood sensibilities and morals.
But today I am glad I’m a teacher; I feel happy to see my students learning and becoming confident; their dejection dissipating as classes progress, and something meaningful is learnt. It’s amazing how these classes don’t just improve their communication, but also transform their personalities.
Lack of self worth, be it for any reason, can be the most dangerous thing for a young mind. I have been through this phase as a teenager, and I know how fucked up it feels. I don’t want people to go through it because of a language, and that too this funny language.
It would just be sad.