I am early, I must have conquered the commute into the slum. I find myself waiting outside the classroom on the first floor of this tower block. I am lucky; the guard dog is asleep so I pass without any worries that he will bite me. When I have been early on previous occasions, I have taken the time to explore the compound and be blown away by all the different things I saw, things that I wouldn’t see almost anywhere else. However there was really no need to walk and explore. From the first floor of this tower block, I was still able to view things I have never seen before.
I look down to the ground. There is no real pavement and no real road, just pathways covered with all sorts of rubbish. One thing that I have started to notice is there are always loose playing cards abandoned. When walking up to the classroom today, I noticed a King of Spades, and bit further on, a Queen of Diamonds and just before I entered the building, a Jack of Clubs. For any brag players reading, I would have had a ‘coffee shop’. From the balcony near to where I saw the Queen of Diamonds, there are some chickens walking around, eating whatever they can find amongst the rubbish. Next to them are crows. These are great survivors and I have never seen them in such numbers. They will risk anything for a quick meal, and are experts at finding the least bit of food amongst the human rubbish. One was eating an empty egg shell that had just been thrown over the balcony only seconds before.
Looking further up the pathway, there is a cow, laying on the floor. She is taking it easy, maybe knowing she is sacred and life must be easier. Next to her are two adult goats and their three kids; these too are looking for anything to eat amongst the rubbish. Further inspection shows a rat, but he doesn’t stay around for long and soon disappears under the ground.
Above all the animals on the ground, I look at the tower block opposite where I am standing. I see a boy, I would guess he was about six. He sees me looking at him. I smile, the international language that always works, he smiles back. He was dragging a toy elephant along the ledge of the balcony, holding it by its trunk. He was playing a game, he was almost letting go of the trunk and catching just before it was going to fall. Two rooms to the right of him was a girl, I would guess she was about 10, she was just brushing her hair, and then flicking her head to one side and then brushing again in the same repeating motion. Neither of them were known to me and neither attended my school.
Standing there, looking at all this activity from the balcony next to my classroom, I wondered why I ever needed to walk around the slum, all life was already here. All these animals living so closely together, like a scene from Animal Farm, (without the horses or the pigs). Or am I just listing the months on a Chinese Calendar. Amazing to watch. I have also seen monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs and horses. There would be no need to set up a zoo anywhere near here.
The children and Marie turn up, and just wonder why I am so interested in looking over the balcony. I stop my observations and enter the classroom, keen and ready to teach more English to these children.
During the lesson I hear the Muslim call for prayer, it is loud and it makes me look out of the classroom window. But the children don’t notice it at all and all continue to work undisturbed. It made me think about noise and what I have experienced during my years of teaching. I suppose some noises you get used to, you just sort of don’t hear them and these do not disturb your concentration. I suppose rain drops hitting the classroom window back at home would be a close comparison. Or, when you live next to a railway line, after a while you don’t hear the trains going past. But when something different happens, your concentration can be disturbed. Back in the UK, for example I always remember fighting for the children’s concentration when the ride on lawn mower turned up and cut the field.
But here in India, teaching in this slum, the amount of different noises I have heard while I have been teaching are beyond anything I will ever experience again. But what has amazed me, and continue to amaze me, is the children. Whatever happens outside and inside the classroom, they are not concerned; they are here to concentrate and learn. They will not be put off by a few outside distractions. But to me these distractions are huge. In no particular order, I will explain the noises these children hear and I hope you will agree with me, it’s amazing they can still concentrate.
Firstly animal noises, but to be fair, I am almost starting to get used to them. But every now and then, the noise does stop me from my concentrating. The most consistent being the crows. They are everywhere on the balcony and looking through the classroom windows, ‘crowing all day’.
Then the chickens, including the one that lives next door to the school room, seeming to have forgotten the time to cock-a-doodle-do, and does it all day, not just at sun rise. With the goats ‘bleating’ and the cows ‘mooing’, at times it feels like I am teaching on a farm! Lastly, the scurrying of the rats in the corner of the classroom. Amidst all these animal noises, the children remain on task.
The musical festivals: there are so many festivals celebrated here in Mumbai, that I couldn’t start to remember all the names. Since I have been teaching there has been at least 4. All the streets are decorated in a range of wonderful, bright colours; the same happens here on the compound, but even more so. The music stands are set up with loud speakers placed all around the compound, ready for the night’s celebrations. But like any festival, there must be practise, and these practises happen during the day. On many occasion, the festival’s loud speakers are being used, and the music is so deafening you can’t hear yourself think, let alone be heard. Hindi music being blasted into your classroom for hours at a time is hard to ignore.
The other day there was a wedding and the music continued to be played nearly all day, again being blasted into the classroom. But the children remain on task.
Protests and Politics
A week doesn’t pass without a march, protest or a political party campaign. This creates more noise. There will be a vehicle of some sort, sometimes an ox (another animal I forgot to mention), pulling a trailer, with people shouting into a microphone, expressing their point of view. Again loud speaker noise directly being blasted into your classroom is a common occurrence. Just the other day, one guy set up his stand protesting for nearly two hours with a loud microphone directly outside the classroom. Still the children remain on task.
Traffic and Motor Bikes
Even though the classroom is 20 meters from the road, the consistence traffic noise is something that takes a good while to get used to. The main reason being the consistence use of the horn, which I am still trying to work out the code to how honking it consistently helps your driving.
Cars often back fire and it sounds like you are under attack in a John Wayne film set. The worst example was the starting up of a motor bike just below us on the first floor. After about 10 back fires and the annoying kick start sound repeating itself so many times, I was wondering when the person would just call it a day, and catch a rickshaw. But no, whoever they were they were persistent and the noise continues for about 30 minutes. Finally, when I was teaching a great lesson on pronouns, I was aware the bike had started I could hear the engine purring. Well, that would be putting politely, it was more like putting along. This was then followed by a cloud of smoke that floated into the classroom. Some children covered their noses, but continued to listen. I followed their lead and was determine not to be put off by a bit of noise and smoke, so I continued, so did the smoke! The smoke had got so bad, it wasn’t the smell that was the problem, it was our vision!
I could hardly see the children sitting on the floor, and I am sure they couldn’t see the board. I was just about to jump ship and move the children out of the classroom, and there was another massive back fire, but this time more like an explosion. The smoke disappeared, I decide it would be safe to just look to see what had happened, and as they say, there is no smoke without fire. The smoke was disappearing because the motor bike was completely on fire and the petrol in the tank was burning nicely. I returned to the classroom. The children had since uncovered their noses because the smoke had gone. There they were, still sitting in their same places and ready to continue their learning. You’ve guessed it, the children remain on task.
I did briefly mention in my last blog, (Rats) that there was a new window fitted into the classroom. However I didn’t say how and what noise it produced. Marie had been asking for the window next to the toilet to be properly sealed to stop the rats entering the classroom. It had taken about 7 month for this to happen. It seemed after looking at the window, it just needed a new metal grate to replace the old one, which the rats had forced open entering and exiting the classroom. The lesson had already started in the morning and Marie was teaching whilst I was helping a group of about seven children learning some common words.
A workman entered the classroom, all tooled up, with a hammer, drill and a screwdriver. He spoke in Hindi and Marie pointed him to the window. I thought, he would just measure the window and the metal grate and come back when the children were not present. How wrong was I? First he started with a screwdriver and hammer to remove the old metal plate from the window, then the new one would be fitted. The hammer was going six to the dozen, and he was getting really frustrated that he couldn’t remove the plate. The noise of the hammer and scraping of the screwdriver were getting again to level where I couldn’t hear what Marie was saying, the children just continued to look forward and not once at the activity of workman that was taking place at the back of the classroom.
At last the metal plate was removed. I did look over to see one boy sitting near to where the workman was working. I thought I better keep an eye on that situation. I thought now that he had removed the plate, he will remove himself from the classroom, and we can get back to being able to hear what the teacher was saying. I thought he would just go out of the classroom, use the old metal plate as a template and later fit the new one in. No, I was wrong again.
He delved into his bag of tools and removed a new metal plate and set up his drill. (You can see what I was looking at instead of teaching!). The drill was inserted into the nearest electric plug socket, wires only, no plug. The wires stretched over the boy’s head whilst he was still concentrating on the lesson. The workman then started to drill. I couldn’t believe it. Could you imagine teaching with that going on in a UK classroom? The noise was unbearable, this time not coming from outside, but from within the classroom. His frustration continued and the metal plate he had was too large for the hole of the window. Oh well, time to stop, and get another plate. Wrong again, he went back into his bag and produced what looked like a tile cutter. He removed the drill bit, and replaced it with a cutting gadget. Still the children looked towards Marie and the lesson continued. The workman continued with his business. No problem, he was thinking, if the plate is too large, I will just cut it into size.
It almost seemed to be like a sketch from Candid Camera, or the Two Ronnies. I was almost expecting Jeremy Beadle to pop his head out of the cupboard in rat corner and say ‘You’ve been framed’. The workmen began cutting the metal plate to size, the noise increased. The boy still sat, there trying to concentrate on the lesson, then sparks started to fly. I could take this no longer. I got up walked over to the workman, who just nodded his head and continued to work. I am, after all a teacher and I must look after the well-being of all the students in my care. The sparks were now hitting the boy on the head and landing on his book. I looked at Marie. She stopped talking and was looking at me, wondering what I was going to do. She was almost looking at me as if I was the reason for this lesson coming to stop. I looked at the workman, nodded back and ask the boy to come with me, out of the line of fire from the sparks. It wasn’t my job to stop the lesson. The cutting, drilling and spark flying continued for another 30 minutes. And all the children, including the boy I had moved into safety, remained totally on task.
The distractions and noise these children put up with on a daily basis is amazing. Thank you children, again I am the one learning from being in your school.
So the next time the lawn mower distracts children from learning in my UK classroom, I will just smile.