Seated on a couch Divya rocked back and forth, her eyes fixed on the translucent glass pane, behind which a blurry image of Simran was writing something in her diary of appointments. Only five more minutes, thought Divya. After that I’ll ask for a feedback form and make sure her supervisors know about her lack of work ethics. As a receptionist it’s her duty to make sure the appointments are honoured. Some people are so unprofessional. If I was the Principal of the school, I’d fire Simran right away.
The sounds of flute and waterfall in the room added to her irritation.
A woman walked to Simran’s desk, and Simran handed her a form. Their murmurs reached Divya who closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. She wished this patient would leave instead of gossiping. Jobless people, thought Divya. Maybe she’s got nothing else to do.
Divya got up from the couch then sat back, fearing the other person might be a colleague who could recognize her. Darn it! If only I were living in Europe where mental illness isn’t a stigma. If only I had accepted the offer to move abroad…
Breathlessness clawed around her throat, accompanied with a slight thumping from inside her chest. She grabbed the seat of the couch to steady her shivering palms. She then pressed her palms to her thighs as if grounding her thoughts. Relax, she told herself.
She leaned to the back of the couch and closed her eyes. “Relax,” she mouthed the word, and took a few deep breaths.
The soft sounds of the flute and waterfalls gushed into the waiting room and poured into her ears. The sounds had always been there, but now the waterfalls appeared more nearby.
The cold air of the air conditioner brushed past her arms, and she bent toward the direction of the air currents letting them hit a bigger expanse of her cheek this time. A giggle bubbled on her face, but she pressed her lips shut to control her sudden gaiety. One must never appear joyful at workplace, she told herself. One has to be professional. But the cold air lured her to turn the other cheek toward it as the breeze skid past the right side of her face.
Shipa’s outline rose from behind the desk and approached Divya who, on seeing Simran, removed her mobile and opened a random text message.
“The therapist is ready,” said Simran, opening the door. “You can come in.”
“Just a minute,” replied Divya, typing something on her mobile. “Let me finish this work.”
Simran stood at the door, one hand pressed to the door frame, other hand dangling aimlessly. “He’s waiting for you.”
“So was I,” replied Divya, bobbing her head, eyes fixed on the mobile. “And done.” She put the mobile in her trouser pocket and stood up from the couch. “I was beginning to think my appointment would never come,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“I’m really sorry about the delay. The previous patient wanted more time, and she told this to us right at the end of her session.”
“Some people have no manners.” Divya held Simran’s hand. “I think you should call the security guard to throw such people out of the clinic. The moment a patient’s session ends, ask them to leave. If they insist for more time, then bring the guards and let them do their job. We pay the security guards their salary for a reason, don’t we?”
Simran picked up a pen and wrote something in her diary. “I’ve told the therapist that your appointment started late, so it will also end a little late. I’ve just put it on record.”
“Thank you very much. But we can’t be so liberal with such patients. They ruin your reputation. People will think you are incompetent. Just because there is a free therapist inside the school, doesn’t mean you guys can be incompetent.” Divya headed toward the therapy room only to turn back to Simran and say, “Today I accepted this excuse, but from next time please make sure my sessions start on time.”
“Divya,” said Nitin, walking out of the therapy room. “Just give me two more minutes. I’ll freshen up and come. You can sit in the waiting room, till then.”
Divya turned to Simran then back to Nitin and nodded. “Sure, I’ll wait. After all I have all the time in the world.” She entered the waiting room and closed the door behind her.
“So, Divya,” asked Nitin inside the therapy room. The two sat on the two chairs facing each other with a centre table between them. The table had a bottle of water, two glasses, and the air conditioner remote. There was also a couch on the wall beside them. The couch faced the door. In the previous session Nitin had asked Divya to lie on the couch after which he taught her breathing exercises.
It was a little useful today, thought Divya. Maybe the therapist isn’t that bad after all.
Nitin held Divya’s file in his hand. “We’re meeting after two weeks, right?” He sifted through some pages in the file. “Our last appointment was on 1st October.”
“Yeah,” said Divya. “It’s been quite a long time.” She scratched her hand then the back of the neck. “Excuse me, but could you please power up the air conditioner? The one in the waiting room was much better.”
Nitin slid the remote toward Divya. “You can change the temperature to whatever you want?”
“Okay,” replied Divya, turning the air conditioner to full blast mode. The whirring sound that followed blocked the sounds of waterfall and flute, and Divya placed the remote back on the centre table with her shoulders held high.
Nitin removed a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote today’s date on the top right of a blank page in the file. “So how have things been during this week? Did you speak with the teacher like we discussed in our last session?”
Divya shook her head. “I tried to speak with her but she’s still unwell. Turns out she’s got Malaria.”
“That’s a serious ailment.”
“It’s her own doing,” replied Divya. “Her house is a mess. If you don’t clean your house, all sorts of insects and mosquitoes will pay you a visit. To be honest, I don’t care about her, and I’m fed up with such people. I am done looking after others. I have to teach her students as well, and they’re a nightmare.”
Nitin placed one foot over the other leg’s knee. “What do you mean when you say they are a nightmare?”
“I can’t handle—”
“Sorry, but is it okay if I increase the temperature slightly? The sound of the air conditioner is making it difficult to converse.”
Divya spread her open palms toward him. “Go ahead. I have no trouble adjusting.”
With the press of a few buttons on the remote, Nitin tamed the air conditioner, and the sounds of the waterfall and the flute flowed back in the room.
It’s actually more comfortable now, thought Divya who was starting to feel a little cold, but she folded her arms and said, “Those kids don’t listen to me at all.”
Nitin sifted through some more pages and tapped at the edge of one. He read through it then raised his head to Divya. “We discussed this the last time as well. Unless you change your approach toward the students, they won’t listen. These are younger kids than the ones you usually teach.”
“They don’t listen to me.”
Nitin shrugged. “You have to change your approach in teaching them.”
“But they don’t listen to me. I taught them synonyms and antonyms thrice, and still they have doubts.”
“Like I said, Divya, these are younger kids. You’ll have to try something new and be patient with them. Eight-year-old kids are very different from teenagers whom you are used to teaching. Kids need attention. Their psychology itself is very different. We’re taught this during our training that the mind of a child is very different from that of a teen or an adult, and it’s not anyone’s fault.”
“But I wasn’t like this as a child,” said Divya.
“You never know. How much of your childhood do you actually remember? Besides, everyone is different. If you want the kids to learn, to respect you, then—”
“They must listen to me which they don’t. I mean how hard can grammar be! On top of that, they ask all sorts of crazy questions. Like if I am teaching Future tense, they’ll pass random comments. The other day I said, Tomorrow Miraj will meet his cousin. Suddenly, one student got up and said, “I met my cousin yesterday.” And this fellow’s name was not even Miraj.”
A grin jumped on Nitin’s face followed by some lines on the sides of his eyes. He placed the file on the centre table, and said, “Play along.” His white teeth were like a wall with not a single brick crooked or of different size.
Everything is so perfect about him, thought Divya. He’s had a perfect life. What does he know about the trouble I go through? Then she saw his receding hairline which restored her faith in nature’s fairness.
“Play along,” said Nitin again. “Say that the sentence of meeting the cousin yesterday is past tense.”
Divya shook her head and pressed her hands to the chair’s edges to ground her irritation. “I can’t behave like this in a classroom. I have to be professional and sincere with the students. After all their future is in my hands.”
“They’re in class five, Divya.”
“Exactly. So young and already they misbehave with authority. Imagine what monsters they’ll be when they grow up. They don’t pay attention in the classroom, and then they ask what does this mean. The other day it was raining, and the kids acted scared.”
“It could be that they are actually scared.”
“They were lying. They’re all a bunch of liars. Everybody lies to me. It’s like they’re trying to ruin my life.”
“Is it getting too stressful dealing with your own students and these new students as well?”
Divya shook her head. “Work never stresses me. In fact, I am a workaholic. Work energizes me. I have never been stressed out in my life because I have immense will power. I can do Simran’s work as well. And to be frank, much better than her.”
“Let’s not attack her career right now.”
“Yeah, we’re here to talk about my problem. But the problem is with the kids. They don’t fear me.”
Nitin wrote something in the file. He then tapped the head of the pen against his cheek. “You want them to fear you?”
“It’s called discipline. Back when I was a child if we spoke one word during the class, the professor would hit us with a cane. But now we’re not allowed to beat the students, and I think this is the worst law that the education body has passed. Teachers must have the freedom to deal with the mischievous students as and how the teachers want. Discipline is very important in life.”
“Relax,” said Nitin, leaning ahead and pushing the bottle toward Divya. “First have some water.”
“No, I’m fine. I never take help—”
“I insist. As your therapist, I’m telling you to have some water and calm down.”
“Have you been following the breathing techniques that I taught you?”
“Why not? They really help calm the thoughts.”
Divya rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to calm my thoughts. It’s the students who I want to calm. In fact, I think the problem is with them and not with me. They need therapy, and they should be here instead of me.”
“Let’s do some breathing technique for now.” With his thumb and index finger Nitin closed one side of his nose and took a deep breath. He then exhaled and repeated the procedure with the other nostril. Divya did as he instructed, and the two of them repeated the exercise five times.
“Do this once every day,” said Nitin. “It’ll hardly take ten minutes. Gradually we’ll increase the time to half hour. Meditation in very important is today’s life, Divya. Not just for you, but for everyone. The world that we’re living in is very stress-inducting.”
Divya looked at the wall clock above Nitin. Twenty minutes of therapy was left.
Nitin replied, “Don’t worry. There’s plenty of time. Now, as for the students, I would never advise you to hit them. It’s illegal and you could be jailed for it. You don’t want a criminal record under your name. Personally, also I don’t think one should ever hit a child. It’s very cruel.”
“But they need discipline.”
“You could lose your job. So let’s be a little wise here.”
“To be honest I’ve never been worried about my job. With my resume and work experience, I can get a job anywhere. And no I won’t hit the students. I have immense restraint. I never lose my temper and always follow the rules. If the rule says to never hit the student, I will follow it even if I disagree with the rule. If the rule says to honour appointments, I’ll follow—”
“Sorry about today’s delay.”
“This is something I learnt in school. To always be calm and composed like a sea, and do your work slowly and steadily like a river. There is one quote that I always follow: deep rivers run quietly, shallow rivers make a lot of noise.”
Nitin scribbled some notes in the file.
Divya looked again at the clock. Fifteen were minutes left and the therapist didn’t have a solution for her problem. What else can one expect from free doctors?
“Let’s look at the possible solutions here,” said Nitin. “You can ask the Principal that you can’t substitute for the other teacher anymore. Her name is Andrea, right?” He sifted through the pages again.
“If Andrea is not well, then it’s not your sole responsibility to look out for her students. Some other teacher can chip in.”
Divya never took no for an answer, and there’s no way she’d beg to the Principal and refuse work. If there’s anyone who’d have to beg, it would be the students. In fact, she’d teach them so well that they’d ask for her to be their teacher from now on.
She cleared her throat and said, “You were mentioning about some creative way to teach them? What do you suggest?”
Nitin shrugged. “There are so many ways. You can use a projector and demonstrate pictures for synonyms and antonyms. There would be many Youtube videos that could help. You can easily find out. A simple Google search will reveal many new techniques to teach. Write small essays around the lives of the students and frame the questions from those essays.”
“I don’t know,” said Divya. “Their course is already well-structured, and the textbooks have clear pictures.”
“Give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Divya nodded and got up.
It took her three hours to come up with an essay that she could recite in the class. It read: Bittoo wakes up at seven in the morning, eats cornflakes for breakfast, and then heads to school. Inside his classroom, he recites a prayer with his classmates. The first class is of Science which is Bittoo’s favourite subject. He doesn’t like Geography and never carries the Geography textbook to school. At five he returns home and plays with the dogs outside his neighbourhood.
On her laptop, she typed three questions below the essay: When does Bittoo wake up each morning? Does he play with dogs or cats after school? What is the opposite of favourite?
She then copied the file in her pen drive and left her house to get the printout. At the stationary store, she took six copies of the essay then glanced through the story books on the shelf and purchased one titled: Animal Fables For Kids. The cover of the book had a monkey dangling from a branch and showing its tongue at a brooding crocodile in a river below.
That night, sitting on a chair in her bedroom, Divya read seven of the fifteen stories in the book. The stories were easier than the ones in the school textbooks, and there was also a moral below each story. She could scan the pages and arrange for a projector to display the stories in class.
Teaching Grammar through these stories will be fun, she told herself, then lay on the bed and kept the book under her pillow. The mattress of the bed felt softer tonight. She picked up the remote of the air conditioner and turned the vents toward her. When she accessed her mobile to set the alarm clock, the screen showed three a.m. It’s okay, she told herself. I’ll sleep more on Sunday. Her mobile had enough battery left, so she played meditation music on the mobile and placed it on the side table. She looked at the book of animal stories one more time then went to sleep.
The next morning, she put the recently made notes in her handbag and headed to school. “Okay students,” she said in her class, “we’ll play a game today. I’ll divide twenty of you into five groups.”
She made five columns on the blackboard then turned to the students. “I’ll ask you some questions, and the group that I select has to answer the question. By the way, if I divide twenty of you into five groups, how many students will be there in each group?”
“Five,” said Vishal, from the second bench, opening his palm to the teacher.
“Not five. The answer is four,” said Bittoo, slapping Vishal’s head.
“Why did you slap me?” asked Vishal, grabbing his enemy’s hands.
“Because you don’t know anything,” said Bitto. “You are stupid. Even your mom calls you stupid.” Bittoo bit Vishal’s hands to free his grip.
Vishal pulled his hands to his chest, then spat on Bittoo. “I will tell this to my brother,” said Vishal. “Did you forget how much he beat you last time?”
“Stop fighting,” said Divya, jogging to them, and dragging Vishal away before leading him toward the first bench. “You will get a chance to defeat each other in this game.”
“But he started it,” said Vishal.
Bittoo stuck his tongue out. “Do whatever you want. I don’t fear you.”
Vishal put an index finger in his ear and began scratching it.
“That’s enough,” said Divya. “I’m not wasting this class on both of you. Now, let’s begin this game.”
She huddled the students into five teams and distributed a paer to each team. She then returned to the blackboard and said, “I will read the essay loudly, and then I will ask questions to each team. I know that only three questions are written, but I have thought about the remaining questions as well. If the answer is right, you get one point. But first we have to name the teams. Now instead of naming the teams as A, B, C, D, and E.” She began writing on the board. “We’ll have Team Alligator, Team Bear, Team Cheetah, Team Dolphin, and Team–”
“Eagle!” said Bittoo from behind.
“No!” replied Divya in an equally loud voice. “Team Emperor Penguin.” She wrote the name in the fifth column and underlined the animal. “It’s actually my favourite animal.”
“Mine is the African Elephant,” said Vishal. “It’s so big; it can destroy our school by running through it.”
“It sure can,” said Divya. “And now,” she rubbed her palms, “let the game begin.”
The game interested the students who were more enthusiastic than she had expected. They cheered when they received a point and frowned otherwise. The student who gave a wrong answer received boos from his teammates. Midway the class, a teacher peered in the room, but Divya signalled her that she had the class under control.
“All right, kids,” Divya said toward the end of the class. “It’s time to announce the winner.”
“No!” said Bittoo. “We have one more question left.”
“It won’t matter,” said Vishal. “You’re three points behind us. You can never win, you stupid loser.”
“Miss, he’s calling me loser.” Bittoo pointed at Vishal then rubbed his eyes and began wailing.
“You should not make fun of others, Vishal,” said Divya. “That’s bad manners.” An idea clicked in her mind and she pulled Vishal’s cheeks. “Thank you so much.” For the next class she’d bring stories based on manners. She tapped Vishal’s forehead and did the same to Bittoo before returning to the blackboard and rubbing it clean.
“So the winner of today was Team Cheetah, but the other teams better not lose hope. There will be a game tomorrow as well, and you can catch up. Especially, Team Emperor Penguin, you have a really strong team.”
The succeeding classes were a like walking in a weather of joy and success. Divya brought short stories that were based on Animals or Manners or Weather. Then she made teams and continued the game. The questions of the next day were on Tenses, and on the day after that she taught Synonyms and Antonyms.
A week later she had her appointment with the therapist, and she called the receptionist to cancel it.
“I’ll talk with the therapist and let you know,” said Simran from the other end.
“Okay,” replied Divya inside her cubicle in the staffroom. On her computer’s browser she typed Essays on Fishes. A search result came up and she clicked on the first link when her mobile rang. The screen showed Simran.
“Hello,” said Divya.
“Hi Divya. It’s Simran here.”
“Hey Simran. Did you cancel my appointment?”
“Yes, I’ve cancelled it, but the therapist is saying he needs to meet you.”
“But why? I don’t think I need therapy anymore, I’m perfectly fine.”
“I don’t know, but he’s insisting on seeing you. Even if it’s only for five minutes. Can you come today evening at five?”
“Just a moment,” said Divya, then clicked on the date icon on the monitor of her computer. Her calendar appeared on the screen. She had a meeting with another teacher from three to four, her therapy appointment at five, and two classes tomorrow. “Yeah, I’m free at five. I’ll be there. It’s actually the time of my original appointment.”
“I know,” said Simran. “I was the one who scheduled it. See you at five.”
“See you.” Divya hung up and turned to the computer screen. There was some sarcasm in Simran’s voice, and normally Divya would be enraged on receiving that treatment, but she felt indifferent today. As if there was a shield of optimism around her that no mockery could pierce. She looked at the time on the computer. Tomorrow’s English class would be at eleven in the morning. Twenty-three hours left.
That evening, when Divya entered the clinic, Simran led her to the therapy room right away. Nitin was sitting on his chair with Divya’s file in his hands.
“Hello Nitin,” said Divya. “You’re probably wondering—”
Nitin gestured Divya to stop as Simran closed the door and left.
“We can speak now,” said Nitin. “How are you?”
“I’m good. The students are listening to what I’m saying, and the classes are a delight. I look forward to teaching those students now.”
Nitin shook his head. “You didn’t hit any student, right?”
“No, no, not at all.”
“That’s good.” Nitin wrote something in the file. “What change did you make that the students are listening to you now?”
“No change as such. I... well I used my own method. I used my creativity. The night before the class, I make essays for the students. I’ve also made a game for them, an engaging one, and I’ve turned classroom teaching to a sports competition. I would’ve said Olympics Event, but these are kids we’re talking about.”
“Like I said, being creative works.”
“Yeah... Also I used my own idea to incorporate a game into teaching. The students enjoy it.”
“I’m happy for you.”
The two stared at each other, and soon Divya wondered why he’s wasting her time. There was nothing to talk about. She didn’t need therapy anymore. She looked around then shrugged her shoulders then cleared her throat.
“Why did you cancel today’s appointment?” asked Nitin.
Divya leaned back in her seat. “Because I feel fine now. I’m not stressed out about the kids”
“Divya, I think the problem is something else. The kids were just a trigger, and the problem is deeper than that.”
Divya shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I mean sure you’re the therapist, but I feel fine.”
Nitin nodded and again the game of staring at each other began. Divya tapped the floor with her foot, counting the taps. It reached fifteen before Nitin spoke. “Okay then. We’ll end this session now. I just wanted to be sure if you’re fine. If at all you need any help, we’re here for you.”
“Thank you.” She got up and offered Nitin a handshake. Her grip was firm and so was her voice when she walked past Simran at the reception and said goodbye.
The next day she arranged for a projector inside the classroom and dimmed the lights before displaying a picture of a kitten and a cat beside each other. The next picture had a puppy and a dog side by side. The students made sounds of ‘Awww’ and ‘Wow’. She turned to them and put a finger on her lips. The students aped her action and made loud sounds of ‘Sssshhh...’
Next she showed a picture that had a baby penguin and an adult one. It was Divya’s turn to say ‘Wow’, but decorum forced her to only mouth the word as she stared at the penguins for a few seconds before going to the next picture of a calf and a cow. She used these pictures to discuss the idea of Future tense.
She then turned on the lights and faced the class. “Future means what will happen,” she said. “A kitten will grow into a cat. The future of a kitten is a cat. Past is what has happened. The past of a cat is a kitten.”
Throughout her class, the students made animal sounds. Midway Bittoo climbed on a desk and pressed his nose with the thumb and index finger of his right hand, and swayed the other hand making elephant sounds all the while. Divya walked to him to bring him down but he shook his head.
“Miss,” said Vishal tapping her from behind.
“What do you want?” asked Divya.
“My favourite animal is dog.”
“Nothing. I just wanted to let you know.”
She narrowed her eyes, and then the wall in front of her shook as if it would crumble. An earthquake! she thought and opened her mouth to tell everyone to hide under the table when a sharp pain ran down her neck as something pulled it back threatening to snap it into two. Her feet shivered and two small arms crawled around her neck.
“Hi Miss,” said BIttoo in her left ear. “Look at me, Vishal, I am taller than your brother now.”
“Get off me right now,” cried Divya. She lost her balance and was about to topple backwards, but grabbed the bench and regained her stance, afraid that if she’d fall on her back she’d smash Bittoo. She grabbed his arms and pulled them away from her neck, then gently pushed him off her and made him stand on the desk from where he had climbed on her. With an aching back, shoulder, and legs she turned to him, but was too tired to say anything. He tapped his head against hers then jumped down and ran to the board where he wrote a big seven under the column of Cheetah.
For the next two days, pain resided in Divya’s back. She was glad Bittoo had injured her on a Friday. The weekend gave her time to rest. The thought of taking a leave the following week crossed her mind, but she didn’t want to lose out on the fun the class gave her.
On Monday she took two pills for pain before heading for school. The back pain faded a bit but it returned as she climbed the three steps to the entrance. The Principal came beside her and walked with her.
“Good morning, Divya.”
“Good morning, Sir.”
“Are you all right? You seemed like you were in some pain as you climbed the stairs.”
“It’s just a little back pain. Nothing much,” she replied.
“How did it happen?” asked the Principal. “Did you fall somewhere?”
“In my house.” She shifted her handbag to the other hand away from the Principal’s side.
“Did you consult with the doctor of the school? We’ve got a good doctor inside the campus.”
“I’ll think about it. Right now, the pain has almost gone.”
“If you want you can take a leave.”
“I’m fine,” replied Divya.
“That’s good. It also looks like you’ve taken Andrea’s class very easily. No more complaints, right?”
“No, no. It’s very easy to teach them.”
“Good.” He patted her shoulder. “See you around.” He took a turn toward some corridor, which Divya couldn’t care much about. She increased her pace to the staffroom.
Inside her cubicle, the back pain jumped a little when she sat on her chair. She reached in her handbag and removed the small bottle of pills. She washed two more down her throat and pressed her back to the chair. From tomorrow I’m getting a pillow, she thought.
She removed some pages from her handbag. The study material for today’s class included different types of sentences. Then she turned on the computer and browsed through the internet to search for Superheroes beginning with A, B, C, D, and E. It was time for some different team names, she thought. After writing down the names in a notebook she grabbed the arms of the chair, got up, and headed for her class.
Aquaman and Batman were two teams. No one wanted to be in team Catwoman, so Team three became Superman. Daredevil was Team four. The last team was named Elektra.
Elektra won the game, and Divya wished she hadn’t changed the names of the teams. In some other world, Emperor Penguin would’ve won today.
After the class she returned to her cubicle. She checked her mobile and saw three missed calls from Andrea. She placed her notebook and other pages on her desk, took her seat on her chair, and called Andrea.
“Hi Andrea, how are you?” asked Divya.
“Fit as a fiddle,” came Andrea’s soft voice from the other end. “Thank you so much for substituting for my classes all this while.”
“In that case I’ll be stealing your pleasure away from you.”
Divya’s back pain evolved to a nervousness that increased her heartbeat. She leaned toward the table and asked, “What do you mean?”
“I’m returning to school tomorrow, and I’ll be taking over my class.”
The nervousness exploded into fear which made Divya remain still as moments passed. Her grip on her mobile tightened.
“Hello?” asked Andrea. “Are you there?”
“Yeah...” Divya’s voice broke. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Are you okay? Your voice is cracking. I guess the network in the school is still bad.”
“Yeah it’s very bad,” said Divya. “I’ll call you later. It’s time to take my medicines.”
“Medicines for what?”
“Some back pain. I’ll talk later.”
“Sure,” replied Andrea. “See you tomorrow and thanks again.”
“Welcome,” replied Divya and hung up. She put the mobile a little away from her on the table. Her shoulders and hands hurt now. She covered her face with her sweaty palms as the back pain spread to her heart and strangulated it.
Don’t be silly, she told herself. Stop overreacting. It’s Andrea’s class after all, and I’m just a substitute. This had to happen someday.
She got up and headed to Andrea’s class. The History Class was in progress. She looked at her students from the door, and when her eyes met with the History teacher, Divya returned to her cubicle. She checked the date on her mobile to make sure Andrea hadn’t played an April Fool’s joke. The date displayed October. The call history verified the number was of Andrea, and that no one had played a prank.
But how can she be better so soon, thought Divya, then turned to the computer on her desk. She typed in the search bar ‘How many days it takes for Malaria patients to recover’. The internet said ten to twelve days. Andrea had been on leave for twenty days.
This can’t be happening, thought Divya. She typed for any possibility of a relapse of Malaria. Hopefully a mosquito bites her again, she thought. Mosquito. I could make a game on insects for the class and teach them about types of sentences.
The notes of today’s class lay before her. It had taken her two hours to create questions on Conjunctions using Superheroes as examples.
The first sentence read: Superman and Batman save the world, but only Superman can fly. The question that followed asked the students to identify the conjunctions in the sentence. Divya picked up a pen from the desk and put an X across the page. No, she thought. This can’t be happening.
After finishing her regular class, she called the Principal and asked for permission to go home.
“Sure you may go,” the Principal replied. “If you want I can ask someone to accompany you.”
“No, I’m fine,” replied Divya.
“Do you want the school nurse to take you to the hospital?”
“That won’t be needed. Thank you.” This conversation was more exhausting than the back pain.
“Any injury in the back can be very serious, Divya. Please don’t take it lightly.”
“I’ll take care,” replied Divya. “Thanks.” The sound of a click from the other end gave her slight comfort. She put her mobile in her handbag and headed home.
The mattress on her bed comforted her like an old friend. No thought came in her mind nor did any hunger bother her tonight. She drank water more often than she felt thirsty. With each passing hour the sky became darker. She had to close the windows less mosquitoes enter her house. If only Malaria was more serious, she told herself. She’d get to teach the class five students for a few more days.
Back pain and sleep stayed away from her. The mattress crumpled because of her constant movements. She got up and grabbed her hair, not knowing what to think or do.
With Andrea returning there was no reason for her to make notes for the class. No reason to buy essay books or search for new Team names. The night felt idle. She wanted time to stop. It won’t happen, she told herself. God, I’ll miss them so much. She tried to sleep again but failed.
The next morning, she entered school, looking for Andrea as she walked to her cubicle. If Andrea looked unwell, Divya could convince her to take a leave. If Malaria were contagious, she could convince the principal to not let Andrea teach for a few more weeks, at least for the sake of the students.
Two steps later, Andrea came in her line of sight. A group of teachers had huddled around Andrea, all listening to her.
Divya’s gaze went to Andrea’s feet. They weren’t red, nor was her hand taking any support from anyone to stand. Her waist was thin, but weight loss is normal for any disease.
“There she is,” said Andrea, smiling at Divya. “The woman who held my fort all this while.” She spread her hands for a hug.
Divya hesitated then gave in, hoping for a weird stench to emanate from Andrea’s body. With another disappointment, she released herself from the hug then patted Andrea’s shoulder.
“Glad to have you back,” said Divya.
“Glad to be back,” replied Andrea, with a bow.
“I have some work,” said Divya. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Why later? Even I’m heading toward the staffroom.” Andrea turned to the others. “See you guys around.”
After exchanging farewell to the others, Andrea and Divya walked to the staffroom. It was a long corridor, and Divya increased her pace to stay away from Andrea.
“What’s the hurry?” asked Andrea.
“Nothing,” replied Divya, in a whisper.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Nothing,” said Divya. “I just have some back pain that’s all. It hurts when I walk.”
“If you want, we can walk slowly.”
“I just want to go to my cubicle and sit down.”
“I’m so sorry.” Andrea increased her pace. “It feels so good to be healthy again.”
“I can see that,” said Divya, raising her eyebrows.
“By the way thanks again for taking my class.”
“Not a problem.”
“I’ll handle it from now on.”
“Sure... But if you want, I can do it.” Divya stopped and turned to Andrea. There were a few auburn curls on Andrea’s otherwise black hair. Divya wondered was she ever fall ill or did she go on some vacation.
“No, no, it’s fine,” said Andrea. “And if you ever need a substitute let me know. I’ll do it for you.”
“That’s okay,” said Divya. “But don’t you think it’d be better if I continue with your class since I’ve already been teaching them for twenty days and they’re exams will be coming up now?”
“That’s a good point.” Andrea gestured Divya to continue their journey. “If any problem comes up, I’ll let you know.”
Divya smiled in reply. When they entered the staffroom, she wished Andrea would trip and fracture a leg or two. The more the merrier.
Sitting inside her cubicle, Divya went through the syllabus of her regular class for the third time. Five minutes were left before Andrea’s class would start. Divya got up and turned around. Andrea’s cubicle was right behind hers, and the partition between was shoulder height. Andrea was putting some papers in a file. Her cubicle looked much better when it was empty, thought Divya.
“Ready to go?” asked Divya.
Andrea nodded. “Can’t wait to meet my students again.” She got up, put her purse in the drawer, and locked it.
As Andrea left the staffroom, Divya’s eyes were fixed on her shadow. She envied it for being able to enter the class and see the students. When the shadow went away from her sight, the finality of the situation hit her. Slowly she sat on the chair and stared at the computer where she had searched for a relapse for Malaria. Embarrassment surfaced in her conscience as she dragged the mouse icon to the icon of Internet History and erased its contents.
She opened her drawer and pulled out the stack of notes and essays she had made in the past twenty days. The essay book on Animals was her favourite. She went through the pages again till her gaze fell on a syllabus copy on the floor. The page contained the list of topics that the students of class five had to study for their English course.
“How could I forget it?” She grabbed the sheet and got up triggering her back pain. She shook her head as if refusing to entertain the discomfort then headed to the classroom. Midway she realized she hadn’t locked the drawer. Nevermind, she told herself. This is more important.
A few steps before the class her pace reduced. Silence reeked from within. What’s going on? Then Andrea’s soft voice came. “This is an example of Present Continuous Tense.”
Divya felt glad that the students weren’t left alone. From the threshold she waved at them. Some of them waved back. Vishal gestured his neighbour to look toward her. Divya’s excitement peaked until Andrea followed the gesture and turned to Divya.
“Hi,” said Andrea. “All right, students, please revise the sentences we’ve studied till now.” She walked to Divya. “What brings you here?”
“I’m so sorry for interrupting, but you forgot this syllabus copy. I thought you might need it.” Divya showed the page to Andrea.
Andrea went through it. “Thanks, but I have it with me. After all I am their original instructor.”
“By the way thanks again for substituting. You’ve surely done a wonderful job.”
Divya looked around. She waved again at the students, then turned to Andrea. “Did they ask about me?”
“Of course.” Andrea nodded. “I explained to them that you were a substitute, and that I’ll be teaching them from now on.”
“Okay. I’ll say it again. If you want, I can teach for you, it’s totally fine with me. You can take rest.”
“I can handle it, Divya.”
“That’s good,” said Divya.
The two stared at each other for a few moments. Divya looked at the board. There were sentences under two columns of Past Continuous and Present Continuous. They weren’t as fun as teaching with essays. “Maybe teach them essays and put the students into teams as if you’re laying a game. I have a new way of teaching that’s more fun.”
“I’m sure it is,” whispered Andrea, and patted Divya’s shoulder. “And we’ll discuss it after class. You can bring it up in one of the meetings.”
“Sure,” said Divya and turned around. An urge stronger than the pain Vishal gave by climbing on her back, tempted her to ask the students to vote between Andrea and her.
“All right students, let’s get back to studies.” Andrea’s soft voice muted the urge and Andrea trudged back to her cubicle.
The class is hers after all, thought Divya. The stack of papers lay idle on the desk. One by one she put them in the drawer before locking it. She pressed her palms to the desk contemplating whether to call the therapist or no. It’s a little embarrassing, she thought, but she didn’t want to live in this misery anymore. Maybe the therapist could provide an alternative perspective. He could also give an idea as to how to replace Andrea for life.
A smirk appeared on her face as she dialled Simran’s number. How can I think like this! thought Divya and shook her head.
“Hello Divya, how are you doing?” said Simran from the other end.
“Not good,” replied Divya. “I need to book an appointment right away.”
“I’ll just check... I’m sorry but, all appointments are booked for the day. The earliest appointment I can give you is—”
“This is an emergency. Please.”
“I’ll talk to the therapist and let you know.”
Divya hung up. A few minutes later she got a text from Simran asking her to coming to the clinic now. Divya wrote thanks in her reply.
A few steps before the clinic, Divya remembered how opposite the situation was the first time she came here. Back then she couldn’t stand the students and now she can’t stand not seeing them.
She knocked at the glass door of the clinic before entering. From behind the desk, Simran nodded. The familiar sounds of waterfall and flute welcome her. The words ‘Look after your mind like you look after your body’ were written on the wall behind Simran.
“Hi,” said Divya.
Simran raised her diary toward Divya. “I’ve mentioned your name over here as an emergency appointment. This is just for our records.”
“Okay. Can I meet him now? I’m feeling very low.”
“Please have a seat in the waiting room. The therapist will be with you shortly.”
“Thanks,” said Divya, and then headed to the waiting room. She nudged open the door as if the glass were loosely held by the frame and would crack on slight contact. When she sat on the couch her descent was slow, careful not to disturb the fabric. She intertwined her fingers and pressed the palms to her knees. Her spine was erect, and the moment the door opened she stood up.
“It’s okay,” said Nitin gesturing her to stay seated. He sat at the other end of the couch. “Sorry but I can only spare ten minutes before the next patient comes. What’s going on? You said there was an emergency.”
Dryness crept in her throat, soaking away all energy to speak. She opened her mouth but instead a tear ran down her left eye. “I’m sorry.” She dabbed at it with her sleeve, and the dam broke.
“It’s all right,” said Nitin.
“No, it’s not,” she cried, not bothered if her sobs reached outside. Some threads of spit stretched from one lip to the other. She didn’t care. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked at Nitin with helplessness and tears in her eyes.
Nitin opened the door and asked Simran to bring some water.
Divya accepted the glass of water from Simran. “Thanks.” She turned to Nitin. “I’m just—”
He gestured her to wait. When Simran stepped out of the waiting room, he closed the door and asked, “What happened?”
“I just want to talk.”
“Did something happen at school? Did the students not listen to you again? You had mentioned they weren’t troubling you anymore?”
She nodded throughout his questions.
“In fact, you had called Simran to cancel the appointment.”
“Yes, I know. It was very unprofessional of me.” She knew it wasn’t unprofessional. “I’m a hypocrite, a horrible person. I have no manners.” These were the words she had used for Simran earlier, and she felt relief in whipping herself with them now.
Nitin looked at his wristwatch. “I’m sorry but it’s time for the other patient’s appointment now. We can reschedule it for your sake though. Just a second, I’ll talk with Simran.” He got up and opened the door. Standing at the threshold he asked, “Simran, when is the next free slot?”
“Just a minute,” said Simran.
Inside the waiting room, Divya twiddled her thumbs remembering how upset she had got when a patient had extended her session and made Divya wait.
“Day after tomorrow,” replied Simran.
“Thanks.” Nitin closed the door and retook his position on the couch. “The next appointment is day after tomorrow.”
I heard that, thought Divya. A small smile crept on her face.
“Will you be fine till then or should I cancel the next appointment for you?”
Divya shook her head. “Please cancel the next appointment. I don’t feel well. I’m really sorry.”
“That’s okay. Please go to the therapy room. I’ll ask Simran to reschedule the next person’s appointment.”
“Thanks,” said Divya, and got up. As she walked toward the therapy room, voices of Nitin and Simran came from behind. Perhaps Simran was gossiping about her. Could be the next patient doesn’t agree to cancel his appointment. Divya felt tired to think of this. She opened the door to the therapy room and closed it behind her.
A few moments later Nitin joined her and took his seat. “The other patient has agreed to come at another slot.”
Divya opened her mouth to say thanks but the effort seemed herculean.
“How are you feeling now? Anxious?”
Divya shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Sorry.” He leaned to her. “Could you speak up?”
“Just a minute.” He walked to the switch board next to the door and turned on the tube light. The illumination brightened the room, but Divya felt indifferent.
“So,” asked Nitin, sitting on his chair. “What’s the matter?”
Divya cleared her throat. “Yesterday I got a call that Andrea, the substitute teacher—”
“The teacher whom you are substituting?” Nitin began writing in his notebook.
“So she’s returned. That’s good.”
“Yes, I got a call from her. She said she’s better now and that she...” She stopped so he could finish writing. She wished he weren’t making notes right now and that they would start discussing her situation. “Well, Andrea said that she’s fine.”
Nitin turned back some pages. “She had malaria, right?”
“Yes,” replied Divya. “She’s fine now, and she rejoined school today.”
With the pen hovering above the page, Nitin asked, “And then what happened?”
“Well today I met her...” She stopped so Nitin could write it down. “And I broke down.”
Nitin looked up at her and gestured her to continue.
“I’ve been feeling uneasy since yesterday after the phone call. I want to continue teaching her students.”
Nitin wrote down and said, “Wants to continue teaching the same students of class five.” He placed the pen and file on the table.
Thank God, thought Divya.
“But earlier you said you didn’t—”
“That I didn’t like the students, that they are monsters.” She covered her mouth thinking of the words she had used for Bittoo and Vishal. “I know. But when I incorporated the new techniques to teach them, it started getting fun. For them and for me as well. I looked forward to going to that class. And now when Andrea has returned, I felt like the kids may forget me. I don’t know, I mean I went to the class today.”
“But you said Andrea has returned. So why did you go to today’s class?”
“I know I shouldn’t have. It was unprofessional of me, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was at that class, and the students waved at me. But they didn’t laugh or run to me. I was slightly hoping that they’d run to me. That they’d insist on me continuing as their teacher. That they’d prefer me over her. But nothing happened and everything seems waste now.”
“Please speak softly,” said Nitin. “I don’t want Simran to hear this.”
“It’s okay. Go ahead.”
“I just wish the students would give me some attention. But they’ve forgotten me. And Andrea was so rude to them.”
“What do you mean rude?”
“I mean she didn’t play any games with them. Those poor kids were scared to death in her class that no one spoke a word.”
“Did you see her shout at them?”
Divya wished Andrea had given her a chance to say yes. She shook her head then said, “I lied. She has the softest voice and is a good teacher.”
“You wish that the students would miss you?” asked Nitin.
Divya nodded. “They were my emperor penguins.”
“Nothing. It’s my favourite animal and I mean we were having so much fun together. The kids were also having a great time.”
“You can have this fun in your current class, too. You can use the same creative teaching methods. You can also ask the Principal to assign you to the next year’s class five batch. I’m sure you must be qualified and capable for it, else he wouldn’t have let you be the substitute teacher.”
Divya bobbed her head to one side. “But I want those kids. I just... I put so much effort.” Her eyes fell on the air conditioner remote on the centre table. The earlier complaint about the room not being cold enough seemed trivial now.
“And you had fun.” Nitin turned through some pages in the file. “In your previous session you said that the class was a delight.”
“I wish they’d appreciate it. I feel like a fool now when they looked at her in the class and not at me. I was hoping the kids to get excited the moment I entered the class. I know it sounds silly, but I wish they’d protest. I don’t know. Yeah it’s silly.”
“It’s not silly.” NItin’s words acted like some soothing medicine applied to an itchy wound. Divya raised her shoulders a bit. “Like I said in your previous session, the kids were just a trigger, the problem is something different. You are very sensitive—”
“No, I’m not.” The shoulders drooped again.
“Please let me complete.” Nitin turned an open palm toward her. “It’s okay to be sensitive, but you want to be seen as someone who isn’t affected by others. You show that you are a strong person but being strong doesn’t mean having no emotions. It doesn’t mean one cannot express joy or sorrow. We are all human beings, and we all have emotions. It’s in our genetic make-up to have emotions.”
“I don’t know—”
“From how much I’ve seen you during our sessions, you have a very fragile personality. You get triggered very easily, and there is some underlying cause to it. This is what we have to find out.”
Divya scratched her cheek to hide her yawn. “If only the students would’ve asked about me, I wouldn’t have freaked out.”
NItin shook his head. “Then some other event would’ve triggered your panic attack.”
“I didn’t have a panic attack.”
“Yes, you had and it’s okay. You don’t have to feel embarrassed about it. It’s very normal.”
Divya didn’t want to get into a debate. She stared at the floor and said, “I wish the students asked about me. But no one cared.”
“Happens many times in life,” said Nitin. “We put effort toward something, and we are not rewarded with success. If you plant ten seeds in the ground, it’s not necessary that all ten of them will grow into big trees.”
Divya nodded. She didn’t know what to say but she also didn’t want to leave the room. “Can I please have some water?”
“Sure,” said Nitin, picking up the bottle from the centre table and pouring some water in one of the two glasses on the table. “This bottle is kept for the patients only.”
Between sips Divya said, “Since morning I’ve been feeling very thirsty.”
“Whenever we feel anxious, we sweat a lot, and so our body loses water rapidly. And about the kids not wanting you, I don’t think they dislike you. It could just be they’re too excited to meet their former teacher after so many days, that they didn’t think about anything else. But I’m sure if you pass by any of them in the corridor, they’ll be happy to greet you. They’re kids, Divya. They don’t mean harm.”
“I just... It feels like they’ve forgotten me. I don’t like...”
Nitin’s eyes were fixed on her. She realized she was repeating her words, but the pain wasn’t subsiding. “I miss the attention. I just... they were my kids now. I don’t know.”
“Have you been practicing the breathing technique that I told you about?”
Divya shook her head. “Can you teach it to me again?”
Nitin demonstrated the technique of inhaling from one nostril and exhaling from the other. Divya did the exercise five times.
“This does help, Divya,” said Nitin. “I know it sounds cliché, but meditation is very helpful to relax the mind.”
“I’ll be more regular from now on.”
Nitin looked at his wristwatch. “Are you feeling better now than you were when you came in?”
“Okay then let’s end this session. I’ve asked Simran to book another appointment for you. It’s after three or four days. Please confirm it with her. If you feel unwell before that, please give Simran a call.”
“Sure.” Divya got up and left the room. At the reception, she asked Simran, “When is my next appointment?”
“21st October, three days from now.”
“Thanks,” replied Divya, and then added, “It’s my birthday on that day.”
“Oh great. I’ll mark it here.” Simran wrote something in her diary.
It wasn’t Divya’s birthday, but she was starving for some kind words.