Gauri S won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal essay in the school category this year. Here is what the judge, Ms. Barathi Nakkeeran had to say about her essay — “The voice is about a distressing childhood experience that continues to haunt her in the form of a voice. The essay cleverly suspends the memory of that experience, of which the “voice” is a synecdoche. As a result, an absent character becomes the antagonist. I’m sad that the author had this experience in their reservoir, but I consider myself fortunate to have read it.” Gauri S is a standard XII student Valley School.
– “Write, please, because some stories cannot be spoken.”
In a universe, ruled by stories of people who have prospered, what will I contribute? There lays no fear in my heart, whispering that I will be forgotten. As for pride, it hangs on my shoulder; slipping further with time.
“You used to be outgoing,” my mother would sigh, sometimes in the night when she’s folding clothes, or in the middle of the day when she was making our lunch. “Ask your father about yourself.” She turned her head once to see the business of the house, and the minute she turned back, I was six. My father has funny stories of me, his baby, dropping clips from the balcony while looking him in the eye. Once, my grubby fists had grabbed a Volini packet and shoved it in my mouth, leading to his panic-induced yells for my mother while I calmly chewed through the paper.
If you want to know about me, I will usually recount a story for you that has left its owner’s lips and crawled into mine. This time however, I’ll tell you one that I rarely remember.
Mrs. S was my math teacher in the fourth grade. In all my time in that school, I don’t remember any other classes that I particularly enjoyed or hated. It was just her math class that stuck with me. It was the fear that never left. Mrs. S would start her class with a loud shout, irritation clear in her voice. I would scramble to open my book in time, pen in a shaky hand. I don’t even remember how she taught me. I just remember her mop of curly hair and thick lipstick.
Mrs. S took great pleasure in handing out the results of our examination in class. She’d call out my name and wait impatiently as I nearly sprinted towards her, dreading my results. It was always a look of disappointment, a shake of her head and reproachful eyes. As the toppers took their papers, she’d clap them on their back in congratulations, announcing to the entire class of their success. Twice or thrice, she had thumped my back, but it was not because I performed up to her standards. Flinching each time, I wondered how a teacher could be this oblivious to their student’s fear.
Her beloved pet had stood on a chair and covered the CCTV camera in the classroom while she hit a classmate of mine. My memory is hazy, and the details aren’t very clear, but the girl blurring the camera’s field of view the best she could with her thin fingers was engraved in my mind.
I remember her delivering a speech when I was in fifth grade on how scoring board marks are essential to one’s future. She had boasted about her daughter scoring 91 percent in her math board paper. I was in awe.
To me, her daughter had performed something close to a miracle. Unfortunately, Mrs. S’ story didn’t end there: she wasn’t satisfied with her daughter at all. Her daughter was rewarded with a beating at the dinner table, with a serving spoon. It was with a sick sense of pride that these words left her mouth. Her disappointment was immeasurable, as was her fury. While some in the class tittered, my stomach rolled with discomfort. That is not how a mother should be, I remember thinking. That is not how my mother is.
I remember, I remember, I remember:
PTM meetings, a decent report card but a nagging voice whining that I wasn’t good enough. I thought I was an average student in every subject. I’d let a number determine my intellect. Her fake smiles at the meetings, her sorrowful “She needs to improve much more”, her false promises of help. Why promise something, Mrs. S, when you had no intention of granting it in the first place?
Memories of her still bring me to tears although I tell myself that it wasn’t that traumatic. One teacher was mean to me, and I had decided to let her be the only reminder of my time in that school. The other kids weren’t quite fazed by Mrs. S’ antics, but for some reason, I couldn’t get her out of my head.
Maybe this is why.
Mrs. S had never cared for my honesty. Despite me nearly bursting into tears, insisting that my mother had signed the book yesterday, she was undeterred in exhibiting her anger. I had glanced around the class and was met with faces twisted in disgust.
Had she known that I had no friends in my grade? Had she known that I ate my lunch alone every day? To her, social exclusion was just another excuse to justify a child’s useless communication skills. These were just sugar-coated excuses, flawlessly designed to make her feel guilty. Once a liar, always a liar, is it not?
Calling my class teacher was taking it a bit too far, even if it was to dramatically set an example. Her roars would have been effective enough. It is an obvious fact that a teacher believes the words of their colleague over a student’s.
Not only had she humiliated me in front of the entire class, she tore away the one teacher who had some trust in me. All in a matter of a few minutes.
It may not have been a big deal. I was getting what I apparently deserved, but for an eleven-year-old with no partners in crime, it meant their world being shattered.
Why couldn’t she have let me off with a steel-edged warning?
Joining my second school in sixth grade had me relieved. This campus hoarded trees; like green bits of treasure, a jarring contrast to the cement-grey hallways I was used to. Its classrooms were colourful and illuminated with sunlight, nothing like her dim classroom.
I listened to children converse in classes, ask questions, receive answers one after another. It was unusual that my surroundings were so loud. I was used to a single droning voice, one from each classroom.
As usual, a new school comes with new adjustments. My mother had deemed it necessary for math tuition as she could no longer sit with me for hours, watching me pathetically try to change printed words into numbers. My neighbour was kind enough to help me out with math, my persisting problem, which at last made a difference.
Days went by, but not without an hour of math. It became an obsession; poring over the problems, then jotting down an answer. Flipping the page, checking the solution, finding out it’s wrong. Scratching the entire working and starting again.
I had thought I had finally left her locked behind the old school gates, unable to trouble me. I was wrong.
–Do it again, Gauri.
–Solve it once more.
–Comb through it, yet another time.
–This is why you’re worthless.
Her voice only went away when I blocked out her words with music. I’d jam headphones into my ears and listen to someone else sing of their worries. Finally, after half an hour or so, her voice would have become silent.
As the years passed, my days went from holding back tears while hesitantly attempting problems to whisking out one answer after another. It delighted me to see my progress. My new teachers were equally delighted with my work, their words of affirmation appreciating my efforts.
Her voice didn’t visit anymore, for a while.
Math only increased in difficulty as I climbed up grades, but the thing that made me the happiest was that her voice had gone away. It was when I attempted physics that a voice came back.
Seriously? You can’t even solve one problem without getting it wrong?
What’s so hard about this, Gauri?
Why are you struggling so much? Sixth graders would be able to solve this in an instant. This is stupid. Stop trying.
As I struggled from one numerical to the other, I was transported to the past. Words refused to shape themselves into an answer and obsolete clues made their appearances, adding to my confusion. Every answer I wrenched out of somewhere didn’t match the right solution, and I grew devastated with each step. The idea of having to put so much more effort in this subject, just like I had for math, exhausted me. I didn’t know a teacher who was like my neighbour, encouraging and understanding.
I scraped through the exams, doing as much as I could. It’s worked so far. Over the years, I’ve slowly extended my little finger to my struggling pride. My friends have helped too. Most of the time, my words tinged with sarcasm lets out an unrestrained grin and cackle out of their mouths.
But the voice, I am sure the voice is waiting patiently.