One Good Teacher

Siva Raj

My first memory of going to school was sitting on the floor in the hallway of a pre-school near my home in Chennai, India. It was right outside a room packed with students learning the English alphabet and math. I think I was around 2 and a half at that time and I was sitting outside because there wasn’t space inside. We were rote memorizing a whole bunch of things — the teacher would call it out and students would repeat it. That was school.

Good schools in Chennai all had entrance exams for kindergarten entrance — my next distinct memory was doing exactly that after a few years of kindergarten entrance prep. I walked into the principal’s office with my mom, he a catholic priest in a white frock coat and big black boots silently pointed to pictures of fruits, veggies and animals. And I said their names in English, aloud.

I did great — the years of prep worked, my mom was really proud and I was admitted into one of the best schools in town — after we put down a sizable *donation*. All good schools in Chennai were (probably still are) private, so we paid stiff quarterly fees. (Government run schools were free but pretty bad — many didn’t have desks / chairs). Plus we had to buy school uniforms, and books from the school store, that didn’t come cheap. School was the single biggest expense my parents had to cover.

I don’t remember particularly enjoying elementary school nor did I hate it either. I had many friends, the school had a big playground, I really enjoyed cub and boy scouts. My grades were great.

My dad lost his job a few years into elementary school and we went from comfortable middle class existence to living on top of a factory, where after years of searching he finally found a job as a security guard. I was now a boy from the slums who went to the posh school in town.

Those were tough years for my parents — they were still paying off debt accumulated during my dad’s jobless years. I remember going to bed hungry for months. Yet through all those years, they continued to pay my school fees (which probably took practically all their earnings & more), in the hope that I would have a better life than them.

But of course private schools keep wanting more — school fee increases and donation demands were relentless. And if my granduncle hadn’t visited from the US and offered to cover my education, I would have had to drop-out. I was one of those who got lucky.

The irony was that we were paying through our noses for a school where teachers had stopped teaching entirely by the time I reached 11th grade. The last two years of schooling in India is all about prepping for the extremely competitive school leaving exams. Your grades mark you for life.

And when grades get competitive, tutoring takes over schooling. Pretty much every kid in my class (except me, cause I couldn’t afford them) had a tutor. And many of my teachers were tutors — they saw the same kids in tutoring class a few hours later. Which meant teachers had little incentive to teach.

My 11th grade maths teacher would walk into class, turn his ample back to us, scribble on the blackboard non stop for about 40 minutes only occasionally turning around to throw chalk at kids he heard talking. And would give us a test every Friday. My physics teacher once slapped a classmate open handed on the cheek (I can still hear the sound of that slap), ostensibly for talking. Later I learnt it was because the student had rejected him and signed up with a rival tutor.

By now I hated school. I’d prop a novel on my knee and pretend to listen. Many other kids did the same thing — but they also went to tutoring class, I couldn’t afford to. So except for maths and commerce, I scored poorly compared to my peers. Maths I learnt on my own by reading the textbook.

For commerce I had an awesome teacher — class was actually fun, he took time to explain concepts instead of thrusting knowledge down our throats. I had a perfect score. (I would end up acing economics / econometrics in college). It’s remarkable the difference one good teacher makes, for the rest of your life. Remarkable.

Fast forward ~20 years, when I walked into my older son’s pre-school orientation in Pittsford NY, I was amazed. Amazed that teachers cared about making it fun, amazed at the color and light and books and fun stuff hanging on the walls in class. Amazed that they had toys in class. Amazed kids were allowed to speak in class. I remember thinking “Wow I wish I could go back to school all over again”. And grateful that my kids would have an experience so different from mine.

And all through the years of failed marriage, failed startup the one thing that gave me hope was seeing my two sons flourish. As a newly single dad, this gave me purpose and a sense of achievement that the rest of my life didn’t. I might be struggling but at least my kids were thriving.

And then the pandemic hit — the first few months of distance learning was fine. But as the new school year started, my teenage son started to struggle. He was sitting through zoom class after zoom class, silent. His teachers lectured without a stop, students all had their cameras off. His daily tasks were all about finishing assignments on time.

He struggled, his grades fell rock bottom, he had lost the desire to learn. There was absolutely nothing remotely interesting about school. All the joy of learning had been wiped out. He’s now one blank blinking screen in a sea of blank blinking screens. His school notes his attendance and assignment completions.

He’s trapped in the same nightmare I thought I had escaped from.

Siva Raj is a father of two sons in SF public elementary and high schools. He’s an immigrant from India and moved back to San Francisco last year. Siva’s volunteered at his son’s many schools — most recently serving on the school site council where he led an effort to make it easy to walk or bike to school. He previously worked in healthcare, where he helped develop a smart glucometer and most recently ran a fitness startup. He writes poetry and is co-leading the campaign to recall the SF school board.