I must have been 7 and in second grade. I was in a different classroom than all my usual friends and at that age; you feel the separation at a much deeper level. But after a few weeks, I was ok and thriving because of Ms. Reena, our class teacher. Now Ms. Reena was new to our school (and teaching, I suspected). She was young, very slender, and had a pretty nose, very much like my mom’s. I secretly fantasized that she was my “School mother” and delighted in being a total teacher’s pet. I would help her with arranging the chalk and watering the half-dead plant in the classroom. On one occasion, I even packed an extra “Gems” pack for her, because I thought she might like the sweetness after her daily lunch of Upma. I loved her like only a 7-year-old can and looked forward to Monday mornings when she’d walk into the classroom, trailing a scent of sandalwood behind her.
Now I may have been a teacher’s pet, but I was also a decent kid. Until then, no big earthquakes had hit my steady life of school, vacations, and friends. I knew the world could be big and bad, but in that disconnected “rough things happen to other people” way.
It was a warm morning in August, a week after my birthday. We were sitting in class, fresh from recess, and Ms. Reena walked in with a scowl on her face.
“Spelling Test!” she barked, and we all scurried to open our notebooks.
“I will speak out 25 words. Write the correct spelling for these words and when you’re finished, please put your pencils away. And remember, no CHEATING!”
There was an uncharacteristic ugliness in her voice, or maybe that’s just my sadness misremembering. At any rate, 63 of us sat there in that warm classroom, agog, with our pencils poised an inch above the notebooks.
She recited the words. All 25 of them. We jotted down our versions. I wasn’t too worried, because I loved words and knew all about putting the “I before E, except after C.”
On closer inspection, however, two of my answers felt wrong. I peeked around and my classmates were still writing. So when she turned away to wipe the blackboard, I erased and corrected my responses, making sure that my cursive G did not look like a Y. Satisfied, I leaned back and looked up.
Ms. Reena was standing right at my desk. Glaring, her nose (so like my mom’s) twitched, and she screamed four words that still hurt me decades later.
“I SAID NO CHEATING!”
I felt 62 pairs of eyes boring into my back. Confused, I glanced up, hoping I wasn’t the target.
“Show me the page, Pavithra! SHOW ME!”
I pushed my notebook forward. Ms. Reena bent over and glared at my work. As she straightened up and adjusted her pallu, I felt the sandalwood fragrance clog my nostrils.
“Here! These two words! Did you change your answers?”
Terrified, I nodded.
“Why?!! Why did you cheat?”
“Teacher, I didn’t cheat. I just changed my words, so the spelling was correct.”
“You expect me to believe you? If you knew the right spelling, then why didn’t you write that the first time? I saw you look around. WHOM DID YOU COPY FROM?”
Her pretty face was an unhealthy shade of red now. And that’s when I suddenly realized something. There was no actual logic behind her rage and to my 7-year-old self, somehow that was worse. She’d walked into the classroom fuming and she needed something (or someone) to dump it on.
I knew I couldn’t reason with her. She would send me to the Principal’s office or worse, home.
Ms. Reena wasn’t done talking.
“You know what happens to cheaters? Huh, Pavithra? I’ll show you!”
She whacked me on my palm with two wicked swings of her Gopal Foot ruler. And then she added a couple more for good measure.
My eyes were leaking now. I tried to stop blubbering, but with one manicured nail in my direction, she kicked me out of the classroom. Wiping hot, confused tears, I stood outside the door while she spoke to my classmates.
That day, during lunch break, and for the three periods after, no one spoke to me. Not one classmate. Ms. Reena’s orders. I walked up to a few friends, but they looked at me sadly and turned away. Some older kids pointed and whispered, and my heart broke some more.
I ate my roti-jam dabba all by myself, facing the other way. After school, I went home and cried in my room. My mom hugged me and tried to make sense of my sadness, but I was too proud to tell her anything. More than the false accusation, the pointlessness of it all hurt me.
The rest of the week went by much the same. Ms. Reena ignored me but gave some pointed lectures on cheating. Some classmates spoke to me, hesitantly at first, and then in “gosh-I-missed-you” squeals! A month passed and then two. I no longer sat in my usual spot. Ms. Reena came to school looking sourer by the day. We overheard rumors she’d fought with her husband/secretly a man/hiding from the police. Primary school gossip can be so bizarre. However, one morning in January, she quit altogether and a pleasant, older teacher took her place. I stayed at my last bench and kept a low profile. Once bitten, twice shy, and all that jazz.
Long story short?
Children are resilient. Very resilient. But they’re also very fragile. A cruel word at the wrong time can shake them to their core. Especially if it comes from someone they hold in high esteem. And especially if they’re in the middle of someone else’s drama.
I don’t know why Ms. Reena brought all that anger into our second-grade classroom. Maybe she was going through some family issues. Maybe her rent was due or her husband was grumpy or her grandma had died. Or maybe she woke up that day and decided she hated teaching. It’s not my business to know.
All kids like to win the approval of their teachers. And across the country and the world, primary and middle school educators hold so much power in their hands. The ability to help children who need that extra support. To put joy into reading and math and help spark curiosity in young, delicate minds. The power to show kids how to succeed, but also how to fail with grace.
And when educators misuse this raw power and instead taunt and scream, they hurt the children of today and the adults of tomorrow. There is no situation that needs a teacher to raise their hand on a student. No.90% of problems can be successfully solved without even a raised voice.
Make sure your children are loved and valued at school. They should respect and be respected because they’re human beings. A student + teacher collaboration is always better than a student vs. teacher conflict. If your child seems unhappy or worried about their class, make sure their needs are being met. Don’t brush their concerns away. It may be a trifling matter to you, but to them, it can be an enormous deal. And no matter their grade, stay in close touch with the teaching staff. A good teacher includes their students every step of the way, but an outstanding teacher includes the parents, too.
I survived just fine. To their credit, my classmates rallied around me after that first week. We spent the rest of our school life amidst much fun and laughter. Two of those classmates have grown up to be lovely, warm women who’re still close friends with me. And over the next ten years, I found many more teachers to worship, and they tolerated my goofiness with an indulgent smile.
But I still carry some scars from that August morning, many years ago. The smell of Sandalwood repulses me, and I have never copied a single answer in my entire life. I’m terrified of public humiliation and rejection by my peers and friends. I’m sure many of you have similar stories of your own.
But I promised myself something too. I would always consider myself worthy of respect. No one will needlessly disrespect me or my kids without consequences. Now my kids’ teachers are a wonderful bunch, and we’re a team that values each other’s ideas about education and academics. But respect and love for children will always be our priority.
Wherever you are, Ms. Reena, be well. I loved you in my little way, and I wish we had parted on better terms. But I learned something that day. Something valuable about my worth as a person.
I only hope you learned something too.