As you mellow, the urge to compromise hits oftener, but latecomers continue to annoy me. Over a long teaching career, which is currently under a temporary suspension, I have tried many different ways to reform the unpunctual. My methods have been effectively challenged by the articulate, who used my pedagogy of connecting classroom learning with life outside, to argue that Delhi buses and distances had made punctuality unsustainable as a daily value. Between secret appreciation of such facetious logic and continued annoyance, I have usually chosen the latter, but this option did not seem right for my Peace Education course which had its dry run three years ago. How can a peace class start with anger? Fortunately, the first batch of seventeen had no persistent latecomers. In the second batch, however, I faced three.
One day when we were to start a fresh topic I waited for all three for about ten minutes. One of them came in at this point but the other two were still in a bus as I could imagine. The topic was human relations with nature. I had planned a silent reading from a book about Japanese gardens and a discussion thereafter, focusing on the role that everything, even stones and mud, plays in shaping our experience of a Japanese garden. I did not want the two remaining unpunctuals to miss the start, but I was getting anxious that if we waited any longer, no one might have sufficient time to read in silence without stress. My additional anxiety was about the discussion afterwards. Having spent two decades at India's premier teacher training institute, I had compromised willy-nilly with the idea of a planned lesson. This morning I was determined to follow the plan I had drawn up for the direction in which I wanted the discussion to go. How would I carry out this plan properly now, with thirteen minutes already gone, waiting for my last two challengers? How much easier would it be if I could assume that they were not coming that day, due to sudden illness which is so common in Delhi. My trouble was that I knew from experience that these two students were not capable of getting sick. They were simply late, as always, and would show up, eventually, testing my patience, consideration and compassion the fundamental qualities our course on peace education, as approved by the Academic Council, loudly announced as being basic to peace.
At the start of the sixteenth minute, when I had finally decided to distribute the write-up on Japanese gardens though I somehow knew my planned discussion was heading towards unseemly collapse my dear ones arrived. Their characteristic knock at the door aroused that sudden flame of anger no training can control. Even before I could fight my desire to ignore their knock, I could picture the two of them, feeling embarrassed, adjusting their gaze so it wouldn't have to face mine, trying to walk past a giggling class which was all too familiar with this daily drama. Over the next minute or so, this expected drama unfolded, with the addition of sounds produced by chairs being dragged and adjusted and dusted because the seating pattern today had been seriously disturbed on account of an upheaval in our room and the rest of our institute's building, caused by repairs designed as part of heritage restoration in the university campus. The two young women had to sit right at the back, in the middle of a jungle of mixed furniture brought from the adjoining room where heritage works read demolition, to begin with had begun.
Just as I was beginning to distribute the Japanese garden reading, I noticed we had thirty minutes left for this period. Something broke inside me, and something else took birth. What came up in a surge of anger was the passionate urge to get to the bottom of my failure to induce universal punctuality in my little class after three decades of being a teacher, two as a teacher of would-be teachers. Things cannot go on like this, I heard myself saying; let us find out why the late come so late.
The usual arguments and examples started pouring in. Someone said, 'It is a matter of individual choice'. Someone else said, 'It depends on how seriously you take your studies'. 'Do you all agree?' I asked the rest, some of them wondering whether I had abandoned the day's topic. 'Does everyone agree that this is a matter of choice as Asmita says', I repeated, referring to the girl who had made the point. After a moment of silence in which we heard a sparrow from the back window, Sneha, one of the late comers, said, 'Sir, Asmita lives in the hostel.' Nearly everybody laughed. Expectedly angry, Asmita said, 'Sir has forbidden personal factors as a basis for argument. I know that punctuality is a matter of preference.' Silence prevailed once more. Her logic was impeccable. It made me realise how pointless it was to look for reasons for unpunctuality without allowing personal factors to be taken into account. The reason why I had decided to ban them a month ago was because the course demanded meditation on collective responsibility which seemed incompatible with personal complaints over a group assignment failing to materialize on time. Now I realised that some personal information might be worth sharing; perhaps it would help if those who come from long distances and still arrived on time discussed how they manage their morning routines. It would inspire the three chronic cases, I thought.
It was a new start, and I am not sure whether everybody saw it in a positive light. Some, who routinely arrive early, were visibly disappointed as they wondered if there was going to be no real teaching, i.e. teaching on the topic of that day. They too, however, joined in cheerfully when the new topic opened up. We all felt a little bewildered as students, whose faces we were all familiar with, told us things about their homes and routines some of which were remarkably inconvenient or even painfully bizarre. For instance, we learned that one of the few male students in the class cooked for his sister who had a much tougher life than his. Vasudha who seldom spoke on her own during discussions described the great number of things she did for her chronically sick mother before coming to the class. A number of class members acquired a new image and respect, but the three unpunctuals had nothing much to offer that might inspire us to view their annoying habit with greater tolerance. All they could mention were long distances and difficult bus routes, requiring change and waiting.
We were nearly finished with listening to everybody's morning life when a myna came in, sat on the ceiling fan and started chattering loudly as only mynas can, without provocation. On earlier days, we had dealt with pigeons and sparrows, but the myna seemed more self-confident. Asmita looked at her and said, 'Sir, she too wants to talk about her morning routine!' This was a fine statement to come from Asmita who was feeling a little inane since she had no special morning narrative to offer as a hosteller. Her remark cheered her up and everybody else too. It gave me an interesting idea which vaguely reflected the topic we had fully abandoned. I asked, 'How far do you think this myna has come from?' No one took this question seriously, but it propelled me to go a step further, 'What else is present in our class that might have come from afar?' It was obvious that I was now referring to non-human participants, but were they living or non-living? This question came from Rekha, one of the habitual latecomers. Never mind, I said, say whatever you notice. She thought for a long second and then surprised everybody by saying that the electricity giving our tube lights their energy had come from God knows where. Two students immediately intervened, 'You know it comes from Indraprastha Estate.' This is the name of Delhi's notorious thermal power station. 'How do you know for sure, ' Rekha asked, 'it might be coming from the national grid it is all connected, you know.' There was silence. Even the myna turned quiet. My job in such moments comes down to prompting further, so I said, 'That's a great thought. Let us see if there are any other long distance participants in our class.'
The matter had so fully opened up by now that it required no more prompting. My students started spotting things at a wild, inspired speed. Dust on our desks! The air! The sounds of traffic! One by one they quickly exhausted the potential of this exotic exercise. The dust seemed to have travelled the longest distance indeed from Rajasthan as everybody thought. I was ready to conclude, 'So, is that the longest commuter?' We were uncertain, a little nonserious too, but still not quite ready to let the quiz die. Everyone thought hard for half a minute, and then Jyoti noticed the long patch of sun as it lay across the floor. She said, 'It's not the dust. The sun has travelled lakhs of miles.' I was stunned. So was everyone else. We had become aware of a phenomenon we had never thought about, how the sun came from so far away to make our class happen. The pedagogue in me could hardly resist using Jyoti's insight to teach Rekha a lesson. 'How does the sun manage to come on time despite its long journey?' To my utter surprise, she took it well, thought for a second, and then replied, 'You are right, Sir, but the sun doesn't change buses!'
The bell rang. As its authoritarian sound came pouring in, I felt we had learnt the topic of the day without using the reading I had selected. It would still help, I thought, and distributed the three-page essay about Japanese gardens. As I personally gave everyone a copy I said it would strengthen what we had discussed today. There was no need to bring it back unless they had questions, I told the class. 'What about attendance?' several students asked as they always did. 'It wouldn't be accurate, ' I said, 'because the myna has already left.' The students laughed as they started leaving.
Did that lesson, unplanned as it turned out, achieve anything? Behaviourist readers of this article have every right to ask: did the three habitual latecomers improve? Yes, they did, I am happy to recall, but the course could not continue for long for reasons out of my control, so I cannot say if the bad habit changed for good. From the perspective which evolved that morning, it hardly matters because the class changed annoyance into insight, a much higher goal than punctuality. We also came to know each others' lives better, and developed a sense of community. A miracle had occurred, without an effort or plan, which is characteristic of miracles. The unpredicted outcomes of learning are far more important than the ones we can predict and plan for. This is so because the crisis caused by violence and conflicts in the human world is far deeper and vaster than any rational plan can resolve. Only miracles can, if we let them happen, as they do quite often, eventlessly.
Dr Krishna Kumar has been Professor of Education at the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University for many years. Currently he is Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, Delhi. Author of several books and articles on education, his forth coming book is titled : Peace Lines.