A quiet classroom corridor on a windy afternoon. The students long gone, their school bags packed, off home in Mum’s capacious 4 wheel drive, the latest model equipped with leather seats and bluetooth and all the additional extras, every comfort for the school pick up, no walking required, drive through, jump in, how was your day, good thanks.
I open up the classroom and survey the scene, the litter around the bin, carelessly discarded at the end of the day, left for someone else to pick up. The desks look forlorn, casual, out of position, in need of a clean and polish, strewn seemingly at random across the room. Scribbles on the board, papers piled on the teacher’s desk, control panels on the wall for the air conditioning, screen and data projector, the flick of a switch to ensure the perfect temperature or to show that carefully prepared presentation of regular verbs in the present tense, colour coordinated of course.
Not my usual classroom, I share it with the history department. They like to work in groups a lot, particularly when studying the older civilisations, big maps of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire adorn the walls, butcher’s paper filled with notes and drawings and doodles here and there atop the groups of desks. Looks like fun, an afternoon brainstorm of ideas and facts, battles lost and won, territories redrawn.
I start to set the desks up for the test the next morning. I don’t always have the time but now, in the quiet of the late afternoon I can line the desks neatly, one behind the other, like soldiers in a row. I’m lost in thought, or not much thought at all perhaps, when I hear a voice. “Excuse me Miss, do you mind the noise of the vacuum”. It’s the cleaner, one of an army of workers who move quietly through the school after hours, vacuuming, polishing, picking up, making our school look bright and shiny and neat as a pin. All ready as the 4 wheel drives roll up in the morning.
She vacuums and I rearrange desks for a while. We work companionably side by side. Then, she cuts the noise and looks up at me. “Do you have exams at the moment” she says. I smile at her and she smiles back. I explain about the Year 9 end of term assessments, explain why I need to separate the desks, tell her that there are a few naughty boys in the class. We laugh. She starts to tell me about school in India, the land of her birth. “We have wooden desks”, she says, “wooden desks that seat two together but for exams there is a system of different coloured stickers so we don’t need to move the desks. Very complicated”, she says, “but the teachers don’t need to move the desks, they just put the stickers”. “Oh” I say, “that sounds really interesting.” She goes on “In India, we really respect teachers. Without teachers we don’t have doctors or lawyers or any other professions. It all starts with the teachers.” I smile at her again. “That sounds good. I don’t think some of the students who will be doing this assessment have much respect for me”, I say wryly. Term 4, French, Year 9; not a good combination when students have decided to give up learning a language, if they ever really tried. Some work hard to the end, trying their best. Others escape me, slip through my fingers, I fail to ignite any fire in their brains, fail to convey my passion for language and culture and learning and difference and travel and possibilities, for communication and curiosity.
She speaks again. “What is your name?” Sue, I say.” In India, you would be Miss Sue, out of respect.” “I know that I say,” I have been to India. I tell her a little about my trip to Kerala, how I loved it, how it healed me after some troubled times. She tells me I should visit her part of India, further north. I’d like to one day, I say. I’d like to go back to your beautiful land of colour and fragrance and warmth and smiles. And gentleness. I found India very gentle. Gentle but strong. I speak slowly, she understands me well, but her own English is heavily accented with the tones of her mother tongue. We speak about language. She speaks Hindi at home with her husband and child. In India they learnt English at school. All Indians learn English. I’ve noticed that. Indians often use the English language far more expressively than many native speakers.
She changes the subject. “And in India, the parents really respect the teachers. They tell them to do anything to the students to get them to learn. Children will be punished if the teacher tells the parents their child is not doing the right thing at school, or isn’t trying hard enough. Here it’s the other way round – the parents think it is OK to criticise the teachers, to call the school and complain. It is not how we do things in India”. I smile again. That would be nice, I think, not to have to constantly justify and explain and be accountable all the time.
“How long have you been in Perth”, I ask her. “Not long. A couple of years. We were in Melbourne first but couldn’t find jobs so we came here”. “Do you like living here”, I ask. She does. She misses India but she is happy here. She loves her husband. Her face beams when she speaks about him. He has degrees in various sciences but works as a supermarket manager for one of the two big ones in a leafy western suburb. He loves his job, likes being in charge, enjoys being the boss. We laugh. They work hard but are creating a life for themselves and their young child here in the west of this land girt by sea. “Why did you leave India,” I ask. “Because people didn’t want us to get married. We didn’t have the same surname”, she says. “Is that to do with the caste system”, I ask. “Yes”, she says, “our families didn’t want us to marry. They were very unhappy. We didn’t argue, we leave it to God to decide what is right, but we left to make a new life. They didn’t speak to us for 6 months, our families. But now they do. My mother is going to come out and visit us soon.” “That’s so good” I say.
Another cleaner comes to the door and they speak in their own language. “That’s my husband’s best friend” she tells me. “Well, I’d better get on and finish these desks” I say. “It was great chatting to you. Have a lovely evening and I’ll see you again soon, I hope” And I will. I want to talk more with this softly spoken woman, who cleans my classroom and goes home to her lovely husband and her toddler. I think about her again the next day when the students are sitting in their neat rows and wracking their brains as they try to remember the right verb conjugation or select the correct preposition. I think of the peace and contentment she radiated, the sense of fun and gratitude, the gracious way she carried out her work, the serenity and acceptance I sensed between her words. Tell me more, I will say next time. Tell me more about your impressions of Australia and your life in India. Tell me more, I want to learn from you.