The class stood up as one when we entered.
“Good morning, Principal D’Souza.”
I stood at the side as the Principal asked them to take their seats. I’d been trying to take calming breaths as I walked up the stairs with him, but now that I was in the class, the anxiety was starting to take over. It was the first job I had had in two years. I smiled at the students, looking at each of them, but my fingers tapped on the back of the notebook I was holding. A few of them smiled back, and that kind of put my mind at ease.
“Class, this is Miss Nina. She’s new to our school as a teacher, but she has sat in this very classroom years ago. She’ll start with the syllabus from the next class, but as an introduction, she’ll be revising some phrases we learned during our English Club session on the weekend.”
As he left the room, he gave me a pat on the hand to say good luck. I took a breath, opened the book to the first page and kept it on the table.
“Hello, class. I’m happy to be here. You know my name, but I don’t know any of your names yet. Please introduce yourselves.”
They did. Most of them smiled as they did so. Some even added a “Nice to meet you, Miss Nina”, which made me happy. I knew I’d take a while before I could remember all the names. There was just a small piece of chalk on the table, but that was enough. I took it and wrote “Phrases” on the board.
“Let… let’s s…start with f…far f…far.”
Unexpectedly, there was a frog in my throat. Were the nerves getting to me? The students were looking at me eagerly, but one at the back had a smirk. He turned to look outside the window when he noticed that I had noticed. I looked at the notebook, took a deep breath, and continued.
“Excuse me class, f…first day n…nerves,” I told, trying to not let my smile fade.
“Yeah. You’re like a fish out of water,” said the boy near the window, still smirking.
Am I? Maybe he had a point. I’ve never taught in a high profile school before. It is my first teaching job, actually. But I have passion for this subject, if not the experience. I have to believe in myself. I notice some of the children glaring at the boy. I take another calming breath and continue.
“Yes. Very good, Vishal,” I said, laughing. That broke the tension, and even some of the students chuckled. “But let’s start with the phrase, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. It means a quiet place, maybe like a village. Does it remind anyone of their native village?”
One of the students was about to answer, but Vishal just wouldn’t let go.
“For crying out loud, take a proper lesson. We’re not taking English Club here, you know?”
It was his tone that caught me off guard. I never expected a student to raise his voice. And at the moment, it all came flooding back. I felt weak. I tried to raise my voice, but nothing would come out. I could hear the students telling him off. He looked older than the rest of the class. Maybe he was, I don’t know. He was definitely more determined than the others, and wouldn’t stop talking.
“Any more Basic English classes, and we’ll have one foot out the door to failing this year, friends. Isn’t that so, Miss?” he taunted, but I barely heard. There was a voice in my head already, one that I had tried to tune out for the last six months. I felt the tears well up, and saw the students look at me.
“Excuse me class,” I said, and walked out.
We were in shock at what had just happened. A new teacher had just walked out from our classroom. Our section was considered the best, and this left a foul taste in our mouths. We turned as one to Vishal.
“That was unnecessary,” said Florence. “She’s new, she’s nervous, and trying her best. You try being in her shoes. It’s not easy, Vishal. You owe her an apology.”
Vishal, two years her senior, wasn’t about to back into a corner. He had failed two years in a row, but one of his relatives, filthy rich and influential, had convinced the school board to keep him on. It had made him, if anything, even more arrogant.
“Fat lot of good she’ll do us, Flo,” he said, “She’s had her fifteen minutes of fame, and she couldn’t face the music.”
Neither the teachers, nor us ‘juniors’ had stood up to his antics before. But just then, I had had enough.
“If you think English Club is useless, think again. You’ve learned and used more phrases today than any of us here. It’s people like Principal D’Souza who has done that, and Miss Nina who’ll continue to do that. Bullying a new teacher who is nervous – that’s not a feather in your cap Vishal, and if you have any sense, you’ll come with me and apologize to her.”
I was an inch away from his face and was tempted to punch him. But I saw him gulp, and his confidence wavered for some reason. He got up and walked towards the boys’ washroom.
I shook my head, went to the table and took her notebook. The pages were empty but for one sentence.
“I will be strong.”
I took it and headed to the staff room to give it back to her. As I was crossing Principal D’Souza’s office, I heard her voice. She was inside, crying.
“I can’t do it, Dad. I’ve lost my strength. Five minutes, and I couldn’t even stand up to a kid half my age.”
That surprised me. Miss Nina was the Principal’s daughter?
I stood just outside the classroom, wiping my tears, trying to tune out the voice again. Had I just shown the students I was vulnerable? Why couldn’t I forget what had happened?
From inside, I heard a girl tell Vishal off for raising his voice. I took just a step toward the classroom again when I heard him reply. And I doubted myself. Fat lot of good I was indeed. Here I was, joining in the middle of the year, and yet introducing myself with phrases instead of getting into the syllabus. I was nervous, yes, but shouldn’t a good teacher think of the students instead?
“You can’t even make a proper cup of tea,” the voice piped up. “How can you teach a class of twenty students? You’re a failure… failure… failure.”
Before I knew it, I was going down the stairs, and running into my father’s office.
“Breathe, darling. It’ll be okay. What happened?” he asked, holding me close.
I told him everything that had happened. It had been my idea for him to not tell who I was. So the students don’t give me any special treatment.
I had wanted to be a teacher. That had been on the cards even two years earlier, but I’d chosen love over my career. I thought it’d be worth it. But turned out he had a whole other side I never expected. He didn’t physically abuse me, but it amused him to keep pointing out I was a failure, and that he was successful. I didn’t want the marriage to fail, so I held on, hoping he’d change. But he only became worse. So I moved on.
Dad had been by my side through the whole thing. He knew the state my mind was in, so this disrespect in the classroom was something he couldn’t tolerate. He was angry, I could tell, but more concerned about me.
“I can’t do it, Dad. I’ve lost my strength. Five minutes, and I couldn’t even stand up to a kid half my age,” I told him, sitting on the sofa in his office.
I knocked and entered. Miss Nina hurriedly looked away and started to wipe her tears.
“Adil, come, come. Nina, Adil is one of the better students in the English Club; and very trustworthy. Even if he heard what we were talking, I trust him to be discreet. Adil…”
“I didn’t hear anything except that last sentence, sir,” I quickly told him.
“In any case, I’ll tell you a part of it. My daughter has been through a tough time the last two years. So she has lost some of her confidence. She wasn’t always like this. I’m convinced that taking English for your class will help her find that. Most of you are supportive. But after the wrong start, she’s feeling otherwise.”
When I looked at Miss Nina, she turned away, unable to meet my eyes.
“Miss Nina, don’t give up just because of Vishal. He’s always been that way, and I have no idea why he’s still sticking around after failing two years. He shouldn’t be a reason for you to feel even more short of confidence. Fight fire with fire. Give him back if he tries that again, and he’ll be quiet. It’s only because you are silent, and new to the school, that he’s acting so disrespectful.”
“I don’t know, Adil,” she said, looking from me to her father.
“Don’t let your famous last words be ‘Excuse me, class’, Miss Nina.”
We turned towards the door to see Vishal there, and the rest of the class.
“I am sorry, Principal D’Souza, Miss Nina. We were just on the way to the staff room when we heard you telling that to Adil. You can trust us to be discreet too, Sir, Ma’am. It was wrong of me to speak out like that, and I don’t want that to be the reason you leave the school. If you would give me a second chance…”
I hadn’t expected an apology from a boy who had raised his voice at me just a few minutes back. He surprised me further when he boldly entered the office and took my hand, and along with the other students, led me back toward the classroom upstairs. But I smiled. Maybe I wasn’t a failure after all.
I could see Adil and my father stand there even more surprised than I was. But I knew I had to work to forget what had made my life miserable, and get the voice, the fear out of my head. Slowly, the doubts would vanish. Like my father I was convinced this class, even Vishal, would help me go from strength to strength, just like I was going to be there to help them do that too.
(© 11th February 2016)