A teacher’s dream

I am sure we all have stories during covid, so here is one of mine.

Well the short version (my kids keep telling me my stories are unending) is that my 83 year old father’s bedroom AC stopped working on day 15 of Lockdown in very hot Mumbai. Most of us have a comfort level with our own beds, especially as we get older, me included. My dad is no exception and he can’t sleep anywhere but in his own room! It was a very real problem, 2 nights of no sleep can wreck just about everything.

Day 3 I wake up and see that one of our staff, Vasuda Didi, who has over the last 20 years seen countless AC technicians come and go, has decided to give it a go. As in she decided to try and repair it, and here’s the climax of the story.. she succeeded.

The back story here is that she’s a super bright woman, who in another life might have been an engineer, but instead is now a domestic worker. A wasted resource, as many are, in this country of ours.

So the point of this story is that it made me think about opportunity & specifically opportunity in Education.

Now I am sure that all you enlightened folks know and believe in equality, I know I do. We also know and can agree that humans are also inherently not equal in terms of abilities, drive, intellect, physical strength, talent and a host of other things. Each one of us is unique. But when we say we believe in equality, we mean that we believe that all humans should be treated equally and have equality of opportunity.

Now I finally come to my main point. I know what you’re thinking; my kids were right about my never ending story telling.

The question is: If your special talent, ability to work harder than others or just plain good luck helps you to be more successful & therefore earn more money, then would it be fair for you to be able to buy a fancier car or go on an more luxurious vacation than your neighbour? I would say the answer could be a..YES.

What I mean is ..I could live with that.

But.. and this is the header question; If that same wealth that you earned, gives your child access to better education or your family access to better healthcare than others.. would that be as fair? The answer to that in my mind should be an unequivocal NO.

I strongly believe that Education & Healthcare cannot & should not be differentiated in terms of grade and quality, with higher quality sold to the well heeled buyer & substandard quality sold to the poor. It is morally & societally wrong.

In a ideal or perfect world you shouldn’t be able to buy a “better education”. Every child should have access to that “better education”. The onus should be on the state and private enterprise to ensure that there is parity between each and every school and healthcare centre. A perfect world is what we should be striving for and working towards. That should be the goal post don’t you think? A truly just society requires that.

If we really want to change the landscape of this country we have to understand that education for educations sake; as in to a send a lower income group child to a substandard poorly funded school has absolutely zero value. That epitomises “unequal opportunity”, does it not ?

For education to have value, it must be, of the exact same quality (staff competency, teacher student ratio, infrastructure and so on) for every child in the system regardless of the income bracket the child’s family comes from.

“Same to same” as we like to say in India.

In short, every child most definitely and without a modicum of doubt deserves a level playing field in education. It gives him or her the best shot at changing the narrative of poverty and inequality that they find themselves in.

Now how can we make that happen?

A bold move to address this was made via the Right to Education Act 2009.

I quote here

“It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats to children (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan).”

However, and sadly no surprises here, the very idea of private schools taking in kids from low income group families was and continues to be met with so much resistance by upper class India. It literally sent the whole population of private highly funded schools into a major tizzy. “Knickers in a major twist” as one of my friends is fond of saying! This resistance was across the board; from parents, school administrators & faculty.

The resistance is never outright. As in it’s never “We don’t want those poor kids in our school” (subtext is: dirty kids)

That is because we, the upper class of this country are so damn good at appearing woke and empathetic and caring, making many go to great lengths to demonstrate that this is not about their kids and that they aren’t classist.

“It’s not about us” they argue vehemently with voices full of sincerity, “it’s about them and their feelings!”

It’s a very a compassionate resistance you see. It focuses on how out of place a poor kid will feel hanging out with the rich kids! How those lower income group kids will develop a sense of inferiority! How they wouldn’t want that for those ‘poor kids’!

Never once stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, nothing could be worse than what they are already going through. What could be more inferiority building than their very hard lives! Always looking in & never able to touch.

I honestly think nothing could go wrong with giving that lower income group child a seat at the table? To my mind there’s only an upside to that. Isn’t that what equality of opportunity is?

So I for one don’t buy this myth of ‘they will feel bad’ & ‘it’s for their own good’. By saying that, we are in essence endorsing segregation. We are saying let our rich kids hang with their own kind & let the poor kid hang with his own kind. And in that way we maintain the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The very same logic should apply to healthcare too. No one should ever be able to buy better quality healthcare because they can pay more.

Sure, you can buy more or better bags, jewellery, clothes or gadgets, because you are smarter than me or you worked harder. But what you shouldn’t be able to do, is get a better education or a better hospital for your child. Those can’t be commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

For any society to be truly civilised, that has to be a non negotiable or at the very least we should be working towards making it a non negotiable!

I am well aware that this is not an easy problem to solve. I don’t claim to have the answers. I also know that wanting it might be a Utopian dream but I do think we have to try.

Why not be the one to ask your child’s school about RTE? Check if they are complying. If not, then ask why. Speak to other parents. Maybe ask your elected officials what percentage of the GDP is spent on education and healthcare, and advocate for increased public spending on both.

Equal access to quality education is one of the best ways to help a child rewrite the story of their poverty and that’s an opportunity that every child without exception is owed.

Like I said I don’t have the answers but I have the questions and I am allowed to have dreams aren’t I?

Fly me to the moon

Soft murmurings, the clattering of forks, the ringing of a teaspoon against a cup, a gentle hand on my back as I open my bleary eyes and find my cheek pressed against the too soft too tiny pillow that’s kind of wet with my medicine induced open mouthed sleep. Open my still unfocused eyes & brain and see the beige uniform and a smiling face. She’s saying something but it takes a few seconds to comprehend that she’s asking me if I want breakfast because we are going to land in a short while. That in short was my dream last night and has been for quite a few nights. A recurring bit of ecstasy that’s hard to wake up from. “Just a little longer please” you tell your sleeping self!

That magical feeling when you are both dead tired and also paradoxically filled with energy as you land in a new place, far away from home. The place could be one that you have been to before or it could be a brand new place, whichever one it is, both are bursting with new experiences.

If there’s one thing I have realised I miss through this nightmare that the world is experiencing, it is that feeling of spreading your wings and flying away on a vacation. It could also be spreading your wings and driving away.. just leaving for new horizons is exhilarating.

The days leading up to travel day, the packing and the repacking. The endless internal debates on what to carry. The googling of the weather of your destination followed by some more internal and external debates with family members on the kind of clothes and accessories to pack. Heated arguments on how many bags we should each take and whether someone really needs that extra pair of shoes or that sweater they just love. The night before travel predictably brings with it a mild degree of insomnia. Lying in bed going through all those imaginary and real lists of things to do before heading off to the airport. Jumping out of bed in a panic at 1 AM wondering whether you’ve packed your spare kindle charger and of course your “more precious than gold” kindle.

The day of travel passes in a flurry of chores and instructions to everyone around. The same instructions repeated so many times that you can see people around you wondering if this is just an adrenaline rush or something more sinister! They soon remember that they have seen this game being played out before and they collectively start rolling their eyes. I see them but I pretend not to. ETD is discussed a million times. Loud arguments erupt again between the risk takers vs the safety net folks. Finally a compromise is reached.

Suitcase loaded, handbags checked for the hundredth time for passports and for me in particular..my most important air sickness life saver medicine Dramamine. And there lies a contradiction.. I have absolutely horrible, incurable & just have to ‘grin and bear with it’ motion sickness. It’s really at a level that is incomprehensible to most people. You have to have lived it to know it. Most people thankfully don’t have to live it, but I do. Inspite of that I love getting on a plane. It’s really a hard to understand paradox.

Airports and the inevitable lines and the cribbing that follows. The fake complaining overlaid with smiles and very real bonhomie. The excitement building as one wanders through Mumbai Airport. Predictably as always we discuss how lovely it is now and then of course the mandatory reminiscing that goes along with it, by us, the so called ‘elders’ about travel and airports of days gone by. More eye rolling and reminders by the youth in our group of our tendency to repeat ourselves!

Finally boarding, settling down, reading the menu, discussing what we are each going to have.. someone debating the pros and cons of eating shellfish on the first leg of a long journey, others wondering aloud if they should have wine or something stronger. Someone else from the family already slouched in their seat perusing the movie options and asking in a sotto voce from across the aisle if we have any recommendations. I can always be found struggling with the complicated buttons of the seat that I can never seem to master despite having flown a million times. I have accepted that seats and buttons on planes are clearly not my forte. I do try I must say but eventually always give up and have to ask one of my daughters for help, or more embarrassingly the crew if I am on my own. 

That feeling when the wheels leave the ground is like an invisible switch going off in my brain. The first 5 minutes I am tense as the aircraft lifts its face up to the heavens & the whole world seems to tremble, but as it equalises and steadies, my shoulders relax, I sink deeper into the seat, my eyelids seems heavy and soft and that invisible switch pulls my facial muscles into the widest smile. When this happens on my solo flights I am sure my co passengers must doubt my sanity. Or perhaps they all feel the same way. 

The rushing for connections at transit airports or the leisurely coffee and meals at those very same airports, they all weave their magic that make up an unforgettable experience. Some of those airports as familiar as Mumbai airport that you stride through confidently, others strange and new that you negotiate carefully, always aware that you are out of your comfort zone. It’s that feeling of being out of your comfort zone that makes you hyper aware and sensitive to the sights and sounds around you. No time for day dreaming here, it’s all systems on and you truly feel alive.

And finally the wheels thudding down on the tarmac, your hands poised and ready to open your seatbelt, your handbag all set to go. Surrounded by a hastily folded blanket, pillows squashed behind your back, empty water bottles, chocolate wrappers. All around you signs of a journey taken. A journey that is both ending and just beginning.

I miss that little red cap on the heads of the smiling cabin crew as they welcome you on board and as they wave goodbye. I want that feeling of excitement again as the wheels land heavily in a place, bringing with it the promise of new adventures. I miss it all. I want that invisible switch that makes my mouth stretch and curve upwards. I want to find myself smiling idiotically again.

Awakening

I don’t know when I became aware of my own mortality. I can’t really put my finger on it. Was it when I was a teenager, lying in bed late at night, dreaming and concocting stories in my head about the future, the way all kids do..  stories that didn’t really have an end. They were open ended dreams that were vague and hazy in their conclusion. I couldn’t really dream beyond a certain point of time. Not that I thought I would be dead by then or anything so grim, but more like the exciting part of life would be over. Or perhaps it was just that I exhausted the limits of my imagination. How young I was. Big dreams, elaborate stories, detailed to the minutest. If one day it was a dream of a house and a man, the next it was of a career of fame and fortune. Each story so detailed and so real. It felt like I could reach out and touch it. But never did I plan for anything but the infinte. A dream and then.. well then nothing. My mind couldn’t make my dream or story jump beyond a certain point.

But somewhere along the way when the dream and the reality began merging I stopped dreaming and probably started living. The occasional story flashed into my head some nights but most nights the reality was better than any dream and it felt disloyal and selfish to want more.

Life passed by and very surreptitiously the end entered my consciousness. When and how things changed I really can’t pinpoint, but change it did and the seeds of thought on my mortality crept into my mind, and with that the dreams became finite. It has to end, that’s about the only sure thing in this journey, the end is a certainty. Maybe it happened because I lost a parent or maybe when I became a parent. Awareness of my mortality not in a ghoulish way but in a way that makes your life come alive.

I know now that there are all these unanswered questions that I have for my mom that I didn’t ask, and I know that there are some moments in my child’s life that I will never see. But I also know now that most of those questions don’t matter, and what matters is the life we lead together. With my children too, the length of time spent together won’t matter as much as the way that life was lead.

Knowing and accepting it’s going to end is what has made everything more bright, colourful and delicious for me. Something to savour and cherish, much like the feeling you get when you dig your spoon into your favourite dessert. It has to end but the joy and satisfaction you feel while eating it, is what makes the moment unique.

This might sound totally crazy I know, but now that I can savour my own mortality, my smile has gotten wider and my world a whole lot brighter.