Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath brings a Singaporean School to our doorstep with a sentimental recount of her experience at relief teaching
It was pre-dawn and still dark. The shrill alarm jolted me from the depths of a death-like sleep even as I tried to cling on to the fading vestiges of a sweet dream. I was just within reach of seeing its mysterious ending but it was gone. Like a wisp of smoke! I tried to slowly blink away the remnants of sleep from my eyes—heavily lidded and which just refused to open even a crack at a grim time as this.
The alarm was ringing incessantly.
“Could it be a mistake that I set it to go off so early? At this bleak hour?!
Uh! Hold on, it wasn’t the alarm but a phone call for crying out loud!”
At this unearthly time, when most of this side of the world was asleep, I dearly hoped that it would be from one of the two sources–Either from Piny Woods Primary School or Woody Pines Primary School. Yes, Thank God! I was right! I recognised Carrie’s number of Piny Woods Primary School.
Phone calls during pitch-black hours did tend to give me the chills, driving me to think only morbid thoughts. Groggily, as I answered my phone, the usually chirpy voice of Carrie trickled through, panic-stricken.
“Good morning, Sangeetha! Are you available for relief teaching today?” She spoke fast and the anxiety in her voice was unmistaken. I could almost picture her, crossing her fingers hoping against all hope that I wouldn’t decline.
I steadied my voice trying not to sound garbled, my voice still thick and parched from sleep. But try as I might, my effort to greet her in my signature sing-song tone hopelessly came out more like a croak.
“Hullo there Carrie, a very good morning to you too. Yes I am.”
There was an audible sigh of relief at the other end before thanking me profusely and with a hurried “See you at 8am.”
Yet another day when I scored a merit for putting Carrie’s worry to rest and saving her the trouble of dialling the next number on her roster.
“I’d better be up on my feet and sort out my day. Every second counts.” My thoughts were racing even though my feet were leaden, unwilling to step on it.
On this rainy and dim morning, I was tempted to burrow inside my quilt and sleep in, but it was not to be. It was a mad rush through the shower, an equally mad brush through my hair, a hurriedly made buttered toast which was thickly lathered with my favourite pineapple jam and finally I was all set and rearing to go! Meanwhile, a pot of coffee brewed. Nothing like a cuppa and a whiff of the aromatic caffeine to get me looking sharp and wide awake.
It was time… to Rock N’ Roll!
I was there at 7.30! At the gates of Piny Woods Primary, there was a bustling crowd of school children chattering away as they made their way in and a jam-packed line of cars and school buses which had come to drop them. I breezed into the general office flashing my brightest smile, to pick up my schedule and made my way to the staff room on the first floor. I was all smiles as a quick glance at my schedule told me that I would be taking a Primary 1 class. An entire cohort of newcomers on their first day fresh out of Kindergarten.
“Goooood Morrrrrrningggg, Children. I’m Mdm Sangeetha. Your teacher is not coming to school today and I will be your relief teacher until she comes.”
I tried to sound sunny hoping to bring some warmth into the classroom despite the overcast greyness and the blowing rains outside. The customary introductions were made which were met with blank faces. They had no idea what a relief teacher was. For them, I was their form teacher for all they cared, on their first day in a new school.
They were hopefully easier to talk to and a cinch to work with…or so I thought. I had looked forward to the day, which was obviously going to be a cakewalk. But Oh Boy, was I wrong!
As the day progressed there were the occasional tears of homesickness which I had to put to ease to the best of my ability and quieten down some uncontrollable sobbing from stray corners before I could actually dive into uninterrupted teaching. However, the dejection inside the classroom was quite infectious and a long line of droopy faces and quivering lips stemmed from almost everyone. I just put it down to the longer hours in a new, unfamiliar school and the absence of a nap time which they were so accustomed to in Kindergarten or Day-care.
All the same, nothing that a story-telling didn’t cure in getting them acclimatised to their new environment. It was the need of the hour to change my strategies. It worked wonders when their stricken faces bloomed and their eyes lit up. There were bursts of laughter and joyous clapping of their hands when the ‘Huffing and Puffing Big Bad Wolf fell into a pot of boiling water and the Three Little Pigs lived happily ever after’. My animated voiceover and dramatics went a long thankful way in chasing away their blues. After the initial hiccups, it was a smooth transition into Primary 1.
We delved right into the lessons for the day with great enthusiasm after I promised them with another story when the ‘big hand of the clock was on 10’, on condition that they maintain discipline in class, listen to Mdm Sangeetha and let her do her job of teaching them.
The camaraderie was instant. I had won them over.
When it was time to dismiss the class for breakfast recess, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. A very heart touching craft was given to me by Hannah as I was leaving the classroom. I had noticed that she was tearing a page off her brand-new Power Puff Girls’ diary, folding something hurriedly with it and tying it up clumsily with a strand of light green embroidery thread just moments before the dismissal hour was up. Her friend Samantha, came running up to me in the corridor and almost out of breath said
“Teacher, Hannah wants to give you something. But she’s shy to talk to you”.
I made my way back into the classroom and approached Hannah. I had to squat down to her eye level and strain my ears before I could hear her feeble voice, which was a little more than a whisper
“Teacher, can I give this to you? It’s a butterfly I made for you…”
It was a heart-warming moment for me as she had crafted it with her tiny shaking hands in a hurry and interpreted it as a butterfly.
“To me it’s a butterfly and more, dear Hannah. It’s beautiful.” I tried not to choke on my words.
Hannah beamed at me with a wide toothy smile. I left the classroom, keeping the delicate strand of paper in a pocket of my handbag careful not to crush it. It almost felt like the butterfly had a flutter of life inside it.
Back home, it went into my treasure chest of other loving charms that I had got from my students over the years. Immaterial as they looked, they were quite hallowed.
This ‘Butterfly’ was my first welcome gift of 2017 at Piny Woods Primary School.
The phone buzzed at an alarming rate before I could answer it. It was a call from Woody Pines Primary School.
“Mdm Sangeetha, are you available for relief today?” The frantic voice of Magdalene got me on my toes in a trice. There was no time for formal greetings and niceties as it was almost 20 to 8. I hadn’t expected a call this late either. I had to hustle it if I had to make it on time.
I was also told that there was the festive Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations going on in the school and that the children were all in ethnic costumes of any country that they wished to represent. I too was supposed to come to school in a traditional attire, if I so wished.
I didn’t need to be asked twice. It was a dream come true! An opportunity like this never passed me by without dressing up to the nines. The children in my Primary 4 class were all agog to see my shimmery grey Ghaghara fringed with shiny diamantes paired with the silvery organza Dupatta
For a brief moment, I too was taken aback by their reaction and double checked myself to see that nothing was amiss– that my face flushed from scurrying in a mad dash that morning wasn’t melting my makeup and streaking my eyeliner down in black tears. God forbid if I had looked like a Halloween masquerade rather than anything else.
But no, my fears were unfounded. They were all actually in admiration of my Ghaghara and the ‘Kundan’ set of accessories that I wore. They wanted to know all about my country and the name of my attire.
I was only too happy to oblige them with the rich culture and customs of India. That being done, we proceeded with the lessons for the day. After the initial excitement over each other’s costumes subdued, a pin-drop silence ensued with productive work being done for the rest of the hour. As a reward, they had a 10 min time-off for a quiet storybook reading or drawing to recharge. Which in turn led to a little something from Janice, to brighten up my day.
All the Chinese New Year gifts handmade by her were either tagged or already given away to the regular teachers and she had no idea that a relief teacher — that I was coming to her class today. With a lightning flash idea, she drew a caricature of me on an A4 paper — in a floating Ghaghara with a flock of birds flying in the background and gave it to me as her CNY gift.
Needless to say that the drawing went into my cherished file folder which held innumerable scraps of papers with stick figure drawings on them, Origami crafts and post-it notes with words of appreciation in every style of scrawl and childish handwriting.
But, the ones that I hold most dear are the pages which have undecipherable squiggly-wigglies on them from my Primary 1 classes.
With the end of Term 3 in Woody Pines School close on hand, the schedules were getting more compact, deadlines were like a two-edged sword dangling above everyone’s heads and group presentations were getting more and more daunting for the pupils. The weather was wickedly humid and steaming, not helping the mercurial tempers either. I was in a Primary 5 class scuttling about from workstation to workstation trying to finalise their ideas about project work from rough draft onto the PowerPoint slides, brainstorming those still lagging behind, facilitating them to the best of my ability and stamina, besides cooling down tantrums and teamwork squabbles.
All in all, a good nonstop 3 hrs and more in only one class. It was a backbreaking, nerve-wracking day and I was psyched enough to plop down limply like a rag doll.
It was a touching moment when Lawrence looked up at me, pointed to an empty chair at his group table and said, “Mdm Sangeetha, you are on your feet since ages, why don’t you sit down here for a while”.
I was at a loss for words. I did take a seat gratefully, nodding dumbfounded and drained out of my wits when he turned to me and said kindly
“Being a teacher must be a hard job, right? I understand….” He is a Wise Old Soul, he is!
It was! It truly was! I was ready to crash and burn…
Well, the story doesn’t end here! My last hour for the day before dismissal, was in a Primary 2 class. It was a generally good class with kids being kids. And I dutifully lined them up in twos’ to lead them to the parents’ waiting bay area when Kyle said to me in all innocence,“Lǎoshī*, can I hold your hand as we walk?”
Alarmed at having missed a condition the boy might be having and feeling guilty for having overlooked it, I subtly and compassionately asked him –
“Does your regular teacher always hold your hand as you walk?” He shook his head expressively and pointing in the direction of the bay said
“No, I just want to hold your hand and walk up till there”.
I obliged, taking his tiny hand in mine. Or rather vice-versa. The trust, acceptance, and the approval– I was moved beyond words. As we reached the gates of the waiting bay, Kyle sped into a run, and turning back waved a bye at me. Stirring moments like these were a cool mist of respite on my scorching soul and on the extremely boiling day as well.
My teaching days at Piny Woods and Woody Pines were not always a rose petal strewn path. I’d had my fair share of unruly classes and mass indiscipline where I’d been driven to my wits’ end with the helplessness of my voice being unheard over and above 30 screeching, playful voices even as I was standing in the doorway. News of their regular teacher being absent would reach them even before I did and they would be jubilantly celebrating away.
If they wouldn’t settle down upon seeing me, what was the next best thing that I did? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!
I would calmly take a marker and write in bold on the board,“Ready when you are! If I don’t finish my lessons in 1 hour, all of you stay back after class!”
Then without a word, I would cross my arms sternly and give a dead stare at the wall in front of me, behind them all. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted something unusual in my composure and would take the lead to shush the entire class. It was only then that I would give them cold stares and each one a pointed eye-contact from where I was standing. That would make them bend down their heads sheepishly and apologetically.
I would never raise my voice at them. Not to scold, never to yell.
Only when they had started to behave themselves and got reined in, which they ultimately did, would I show them the side of me that could be warm-hearted and friendly with them as well.
On a clear Mid-November Friday afternoon, the school term at Piny Woods Primary School was coming to a close for the academic year. There were varied emotions from the graduating Primary 6’s. There were tears of parting, bear hugs with their besties and some trying to keep straight faces with moist eyes and yet ,there was a charming compliment from Victor after having seen me around, about, in and out of their class for a year now—-
“Why does everyone call you Madam? Are you really Madam?” Madam being the salutation of a married woman, it was my turn to get amused. And in the best way possible not to get blurry myself, I replied that I’m indeed Madam. I really started to wonder how this enlightenment had set in him out of nowhere, when out popped another remark from him—
“Lǎoshī, serious, ah? You look like Ms.”
More cheers in the background from fellow classmates at their friend, Victor.
I realised no sooner then, that Victor was diverting the class from getting swamped with emotions and lightening the overall energy and mood of the class.
“Yes dear, seriously!! I have a daughter in Secondary 2, so I’m the most perfect candidate for Madam”. They looked at each other, their jaws dropping.
This candid, light-hearted conversation did help banish the despair in the classroom to some extent. Trying to sound convincing, I further assured them that life was a circle and that they were bound to meet each other in Secondary School, Junior College, University or even at their workplaces in future. This consoled them that graduating from Primary School was not the end of the world, after all.
After which, there were fist bumps, hi-fives, promises to keep in touch and smiles of gratitude for the best six years spent together with friends and classmates through countless joys and sorrows right from Primary 1. It sure was a long journey and a hard one to break away from, a bond so concrete.
In the face of it all, it took a lot of grit to maintain my composure and not breaking down in front of them.
Next year, there was bound to be another graduating Primary 6 class and another Primary 1 class to welcome with open arms.
Life gives us many Hello’s in good measure for every fond Goodbye!
There’s an Eternal Summer in a Grateful Heart
“I am pleasantly surprised when you know my name even before I introduce myself,
I’m immensely overwhelmed when you are happy to see me early in the morning and greet me with a great show of enthusiasm by cheerfully jumping up and down with a pitter-patter of tiny feet.
I’m divinely blessed when you come up to me with your teeny-tiny snack boxes wanting to share a biscuit with me, a piece of sandwich or a potato chip. It’s with a heavy heart that I refuse to partake of it so that you have your full fill of it yourselves.
I feel truly honoured when you share your deepest thoughts and classroom squabbles and fallouts with me, trusting my judgement to solve it for you.
I feel extra special when I see the joy on your innocent faces when I meet you after a gap of a couple of days.
I feel accepted and approved when you give me that look of recognition and respect.
You make my days fruitful and fulfilling.”
Thank you, Class for giving me an opportunity to realise my potential.
Disclaimer: Based on true occurrences. Names of locations and characters have been changed to protect identity. Any familiarity, similarities of names of actual people in said locations and of the locations mentioned herein are purely coincidental and unintentional
* Lǎoshī – Chinese for teacher
Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath did her schooling from St.Agnes Primary and High School, Mangalore, India. She is a B.Com graduate form St.Agnes College, Mangalore. She is an aspiring self-taught creative writer.
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