I was nine years old when I first encountered the word ‘empathy’. Born and raised in Dubai, I am an only child brought up by parents who had both come from large, sprawling families back in India. Precocious and fidgety—as a lot of only children are wont to be—I had always been a fast learner, and usually did well in school as far as academics were concerned. During the parent-teacher interactions, the only standard complaint that my parents would receive about my engagement in school was about my tireless and incessant chatter.
In 2003, however, I started fourth grade in a new school, and I would hear something very different from my teacher that year during the first term parent-teacher meeting. Once again, academically, I was faring perfectly well, and there was nothing much that had to be said on that subject. On that little slip of paper that we received as our term-end report, there was, however, a column titled ‘Things to Improve’, and there were just a single word scrawled underneath the heading, in my teacher’s unmistakable handwriting: Empathy.
My parents’ crestfallen faces at that solitary comment are unforgettable even today. While my teacher talked on about the need to empathize and understand the situation of the other children in the classroom as well, all I could focus on was my parents’ reaction, nodding along furiously and agreeing with everything that the teacher seemed to be saying. Basically I was told that I needed to be more patient with the pace at which classes proceeded, for everyone needed to understand what was happening before we could all move ahead. Thoroughly puzzled as to what was going on—for sympathy I knew, yes, but what did empathy mean? I managed to divine, from the responses of the adults involved in the conversation, that whatever it was, it was absolutely indispensable, for not even my stellar marks seemed to placate my parents regarding my seeming lack of empathy.
That meeting, and the subsequent conversation with my parents that followed, left me wiser in two ways. Firstly, it was drilled into my head, at the tender age of nine, that the kind of person I am is worth far, far more than the kind of things I can do, or how well I can do them. Secondly, it left me with the impression of myself, albeit unconsciously, as inherently a rather insensitive, unempathetic person. Long after my parents were asleep, I remember consulting the dictionary in the quiet of my room that night, only to find that ‘empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others’ was something that I could not, at age nine, comprehend.
Twelve years later, a couple of months before I was due to graduate from college, I visited The Valley School, my alma mater, to talk to some of my old teachers about the possibility of going back to teach there. Thoroughly disillusioned with the kind of higher education that I had received during my under-graduate studies, I was looking to come back to The Valley for a number of reasons. One amongst them was the need to inhabit a space where I could contribute meaningfully and creatively; another was, most definitely, the romantic, nostalgic bond that I had shared with the place during my high school years there. During a conversation that took place at the time of my interview, however, I was made aware of yet another reason that people seek out spaces like these to work in—the desire to live a different kind of life, one that is holistic and thoughtful and deeply sensitive; a reason that had not, up till this point, occurred to me at all.
The Valley, nevertheless, welcomed me with open arms that year, with raging monsoons and brilliant sunsets and a renewed, strengthened sense of topophilia. Old teachers and new ones treated me with affection and indulgence; old students and new ones received me with ease; old spaces and new ones rekindled memories and painted new ones for me. The place and the people all blended together into a fresh, familiar, magical acceptance. I was home.
Through the haze of joy and relief that seemed to permeate my early days of teaching at The Valley, however, a sense of inexpressible unease seemed to make its presence known every once in a while. While I was wholly thrilled to be back here, my parents’ reactions, when I had first told them that I would be teaching for a while after college, was mixed. Delighted as they were at the decision, their happiness had, nevertheless, been tinged with apprehension, some incredulity even, “You? You’re going to teach? You’re going to be handling young children? Really?”
Perhaps their apprehension fed into mine; perhaps my anxieties were all my own; but the unease did also stem from the fact that, for most of my life, I had never considered myself as someone who was good with children, for that took empathy, something that I most definitely did not think myself capable of. My love for The Valley, and little else, had brought me back, and I was willing to do whatever was required of me here. The idea of having to do the actual teaching, the actual engaging with children, was, nevertheless, a terrifying one.
I believe that the universe has a strange sense of humour, a delectable mix of irony and serendipity. Although I had initially requested to teach in senior school (an age group that was closest to my own, and hence I believed perhaps to be most relatable), I had been interviewed for work in the middle school (as vacancies were only available there at the time). It was only on my very first day of work that I was told that, owing to emergency re-staffing at the last minute, I would in fact be working with class 1.
And so it was, in my very first year of teaching at The Valley, against all odds and despite all apprehensions, I worked with the first grade. My discomfort with what I was going to have to do was, luckily, overshadowed by my gratitude at having a place here at all. In retrospect it seems like this is what propelled me to go on as I did: to teach the first grade, and teach it, for all my fears, as well as I could, and, in the process, enjoy myself so unexpectedly, intensely, and completely.
This is my third year of teaching. In the time that I have been here, I have had opportunities to interact with almost all sections of the school: from teaching the first grade, to Psychology in senior school, English and Library with the eighth-grade and the middle-schoolers, and now houseparenting for the eleventh-graders. The kind of interactions I have had, and continue to have, with children across the school have been richer and more varied than I could have ever dreamed of. On a daily basis, I find myself having to switch perspectives, to change lenses, to constantly glimpse a world different from mine in order to engage with the other. There is the fresh wonder one feels upon spotting a firefly in the dark, or discovering the Latin roots of words, or watching spoken word poetry for the first time; the irrepressible curiosity one can have about insects, and birds, and the opposite sex, and even the inherent nature of humanity; the pain of rejection upon having to spend ‘free-play’ alone, or not wearing the ‘right’ kind of clothes, or watching a friend drift away from you; the unbeatable frustration of not being allowed to climb trees when it’s time to do math, or having to take off your socks each time you enter the library, or juggle school work and college applications and relationships; the incandescent joy in going for a walk to the banyan tree, or spending hours and hours on the basketball court, or receiving a ‘Well Done!’ on an assignment for which sweat and blood and tears have been spilled.
Recently, a colleague of mine made a passing comment about how she thinks that I am so good with the children! It caused me to stop short. My teacher’s remarks and my parents’ discomfited faces still fresh in my memory, I accepted the compliment uneasily. In my third year running, doing what I have come to love more than anything in the world, I still find it difficult to think of what I do as something that comes naturally to me. It is hard work, this relating. When later that day I mulled over what she had said, though, I could not help admitting to myself that this is hard work, and good work, and the stage for the most fruitful kind of learning.
When I walk into a classroom today, the biggest challenge I face—a challenge that I see so many of my colleagues struggling with as well—is not homework, or handwriting, or even motivation towards excellence—it is empathy. In a world growing increasingly more fragmented and divided, spaces like our schools, amongst others, concerned with learning about the “…totality, the wholeness of life”, are becoming all the more relevant. Surprisingly, though, this particular frustration that I face—of increasing insensitivity in the world today, which naturally translates into so many everyday interactions around me, some that I myself am a part of—has not left me despondent or cynical in the least; on the contrary, I find that these years have left me softer than before.
I think back, quite often, to that initial conversation at the time of my interview, about how teaching and working in spaces like these is far more than a career choice. It is a lifestyle choice. The truth in this assertion has never been clearer to me than it is now, as I watch children learn, not as much from what is said and done in the classroom, but instead from the lives that their teachers lead outside of these walls. I find myself pausing to think before I speak, catching words before they spill out of my mouth, to examine them closely, before I let them escape me, and deem them worthy of an audience as absorbent and ready to learn as the one that I am constantly surrounded by. My tastes, preferences, choices are influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by what I think my students will benefit from—whether it is willingly taking a helping of a vegetable dish that I dislike during lunch time, expressing a political opinion as carefully and in as unbiased a manner as I can, or even learning to be more patient, more forgiving, with myself, as much as I am with someone else. My students inspire me towards greater sensitivity and compassion, just as much as, and maybe more than I can ever hope to do so for them.
I am twenty-three years old today, and empathy is a topic of daily conversation in the life that I live now. I see around me a world rife with strong opinions and rigid judgments, with very little space in between all of these for diverse narratives to co-exist. I do not pretend to as yet comprehend, in its entirety, this elusive quality; but the absence of it is, to me, a hard, harsh reality. And so I find myself attempting to live a different kind of life, one that attempts to be holistic and thoughtful and deeply sensitive. I am no longer able to separate the teaching from the learning, the working from the living. Topophilia brought me back, but something deeper compels me to stay. And let’s hope—for the sake of that bemused nine-year-old all those long years ago—that I finally learn something of empathy along the way.