Fear and Heat

I entered teaching governed by fear: fear of making mistakes; fear of authority and fear of the children.  What if I lost control?  What if they answered me back or questioned what I was doing?  What if they did not like me?  Despite my reading all being about the work of J Krishnamurti, AS Neill together with many other of the writers on progressive education in late 1960s and early 1970s, the reality was that I had serious doubts about my abilities - I was a casualty of the British Public School Regime for Boys, immature, uncertain and isolated.

Instinctively I did not want to separate myself from the children I was teaching, but I had to hide behind something in order to function effectively.  Consequently, I was only able to meet the students through the persona I was adopting in order to conform to the environment I was working in and I was becoming dehumanised.  The strain was considerable and after nine years I was ready to leave teaching.  I was giving and receiving the constant message of separation and that the very action of learning served only to increase that sense of remoteness.  However, things were changing and they were changing through the diversity and immediacy of personal experience and reflection.

It is hot and humid: very hot, and we have been traveling in the bus for some hours.  Now it is time to stop and step outside with the teachers who are familiar with the people and the place.  This is a community; a village off the main road, a community of the lowest cast, the uneducated and, often, still the reviled.  A small group of people sit in the shade of the farmhouse, red-bricked and flat-roofed; they are all, women, children and men - painfully thin.  One man has fresh bandages on his arms and legs; covering the wounds of a motorbike accident we are told.

We are shown round by the teachers, for this is their rural education centre where they bring the children to explore the countryside, plant and grow rice and vegetables and talk with the villagers.  I feel as though I am one gargantuan sweaty, white mound – so uneasy, so ungainly under the stark glare of the sun.  Then a woman is asked to show you round the farm.  She moves away quickly and lithely, her emaciated body swaying rhythmically under her tattered sari.  With a grin she beckons us to follow; so we do. She chatters to us in a language we don’t understand.  But I incline my head sagely as she gestures over the fields and she giggles at our lack of comprehension.  She moves so easily, undeterred by the heat and I lumber behind like an elephant in the desert.  Then the tall, fair headed boy, only just twenty one, who is with us hits his head with a resounding thud on the branch of the tree she has just passed under.  She stops him, gets him to bend forward and rubs his head to take away the pain.  He is embarrassed, she laughs, and he laughs.

Eventually, we return to the farmhouse and sit on the disk of concrete that surrounds the tree, giving some shade from the sun, but no respite from the heat.  Another greedy gulp from the nearly empty water bottle, I am conscious of the people watching and I wonder how they get their clean water. A rat scuttles out of a pile of rubbish nearby and a dog with very little fur and mottled skin stretched over thin ribs comes crawling towards me on its belly, slowly wagging its tail and pleading with its eyes that I will not give it another beating like the one it got when we arrived - to shut up its barking.  I dare not touch it, but it leaps lightly up behind me and sits down to scratch itself.  I see the flies burrowing beneath the skin of its neck seeking to hatch their maggots in its barely living flesh.  My stomach and all my sensibilities recoil in horror; fear and dismay, for I have had dogs at home that I have loved.

It appears that my discomfort has been observed and a coconut is cut from the palm tree, the top expertly removed and the watery-white milk exposed.  I am handed the coconut with a smile and I drink.  But I drink in such a way so as not to touch the nut with my lips and most of the liquid runs down my mouth and forms a sticky mess in my beard – much to the amusement of the onlookers.  They fetch an aluminium cup and pour the liquid from the nut.  But the cup is filthy and the outside is glutinous from previous use and it must harbour every germ and all the bacteria that live on this planet – but they are watching.  So I drink and the cup hovers imperceptibly from my lips and again the milk gently dribbles into my beard.

All the time I am so painfully aware of all I have, how easy life is for me and what taken for granted privileges I experience.  I feel guilty, but I want to leave and I feel ashamed of all my feelings.  I smile as I leave and press my hands together bowing slightly in my goodbyes; for I have been humbled and the arrogance that comes from my upbringing has been replaced forever by an understanding that cannot be put into words and the experience of learning from the heart.
What does it mean - to learn from the heart?