Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Empathy begins at home

Another original post on Facebook, September 5th:
Teacher's Day has got me reminiscing...

My mother passed away 5 years ago this month. While she formally trained as a teacher (for kindergarten and then middle school Maths and Science) and worked for some time, she did not enjoy the test-driven, regimented curriculum of most traditional schools. For her, sharing the joy of learning was most important. She enjoyed babysitting and tutoring and, with patience, was able to help 'difficult' children improve their performance and enjoy learning. When I was unable to grasp some concepts, she would ask questions and lead me to clarity even though she was not familiar with the subject/topic herself.

And she taught me empathy. I don't remember specific incidents from my childhood, but I can clearly recall one from about 7 years ago. By then, she was already ill and increasingly turning inward. I was telling her about the deepening communal and religious divides in India and how the 'other' is being dehumanized. Generally, when I have talked to my relatives about such issues, they either say 'oh, how great that you work on this' (again making me the 'other') or ask me why I'm wasting my time and not working in IT.

My mother, instead, related to me her conversation with a maid who worked for us in the 80s: When this young woman came to meet my mother the first time, she set her terms and then said 'I should let you know, I am a Muslim. Please decide if you want me to work for you'. My mother said that it was fine and Saira went on to work for us for many years. Recounting this incident, my mother said, "I felt so very bad - why was it even necessary for her to have to say this, to anticipate rejection?"

My mother wasn't a scholar or a radical. She wasn't as brave as her dreams and aspirations needed her to be, and so was dissatisfied with her life. But she gave the best of herself to guide others, as any good teacher does. And today, in the midst of so much indifference to human suffering, I wish more people could have her basic decency...

No comments: