The School That’s Transforming Minds of Malayali Students

Back in February 2020, when life was still normal and “social distancing” was an unknown phenomenon, I was in my hometown for a short visit. It would have been a pleasant but rather ordinary vacation if I hadn’t said yes to my cousin sister.

“Where are you going?” I asked, seeing her getting ready to leave early in the morning.

She was preoccupied with a text message, but then looked suddenly, her face brightening.

“Ooh, you’re free right? Wanna come with me to Haroon’s school?”

Before I could laugh and say there was no way I’d be wasting a morning in a high school, she smiled mischievously and said those words that ensured I got into the car with her.

“You’ll probably get an interesting article for your Lungi site!”

*

I wasn’t very close to my cousin sister Fathima. We talked whenever we met each other, but I mostly missed out on the periodic updates that my parents heard every other week. As we pulled into the small school that was nestled between rows of houses on S.T. Road, I vaguely remembered my mother talking about the new school Haroon had joined.

The fellow was in 7th Grade and for some reason, my relatives had been discussing his school. As we got out of the car, I wondered if they were complaining about how shockingly small the institution was.

“There are only 300 students,” Fathima said, reading my mind. “Right now there’s just 2 Grades. 6th and 7th.”

We walked into the two-storey building that looked like a commercial retail complex. There were other parents in the corridor, and many of them greeted my cousin sister and smiled politely at me.

I still didn’t see the angle for my PinkLungi article. It was a good thing I hadn’t messaged my editor yet. Maybe I should watch a Malayalam movie and try reviewing that instead?

A woman who looked like she was the teacher stepped out of a class and ushered us in an adjacent room. A smartly dressed man joined her almost immediately.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” he said, with a bright smile, in Malayalam. “Please, take a seat.” 

There were about 10 couples and a few women like my cousin sister in the group. Plus me, dreading an hour-long debate about cursive writing.

“We’re very happy to have all of you visiting us. Like we’d mentioned in the email, we’re hoping to schedule such parent visits at least twice a month so that you can get a better idea of how we’re taking a new approach to education.”

All of the parents nodded, though I could detect a slight sense of apprehension among some of them.

The woman spoke up. “The class you’ll be attending is our new ‘Civics Studies’ class. We’ve arranged for a camera so you’ll be able to watch the class here itself.”

The man moved over to switch on the projector video, and the woman dimmed the lights before leaving the room. A few seconds later we saw her enter the class room, with all 30 students straightening up in their chairs and looking attentive.

“No getting up and saying ‘Good morning Ma’am’,” one of the mothers chuckled, exchanging a look with Fathima. She glanced at me with an expression that asked if I was okay. I didn’t know what to answer. Watching a live video feed of students on a projector screen felt weird. I was pretty sure my parents had never experienced it.

“Good morning everyone!” the teacher said cheerfully, nodding her head as she reached the front of the class. I realized there was a projector screen in front of the white board. Suddenly I was starting to understand where the funding for a school building had been diverted to.

“Everyone ready for the ‘Social Media Analysis’?”

The students responded enthusiastically. I leaned forward, not sure I’d heard her properly.

Sure enough, she tapped a key on her laptop and all of us were looking at an Instagram photo. I wasn’t sure what surprised me more: the fact that an Instagram photo was being shown in a Civics class, or the photo itself.

A few of the parents around me stirred as well, but no one made a comment.

It was a great video feed. We could see and hear some of the girls in the class giggle shyly while the boys glanced at each other slyly.

“Okay, okay, less noise and more words everyone,” the teacher said, smiling politely. “What do you think of this photo? Arthi?”

Arthi looked at the photo of a young Malayali woman, laughing wildly as she nursed a drink in her hand. She was sitting next to a group of men and women, most of whom were out of focus. It was clear that the photo was taken in a bar.

“Ah…she’s,” Arthi began, trying to choose the right words, “she’s…very modern, Ma’am.”

A few of her friends laughed, as though to imply, You could say that again!

The teacher nodded encouragingly and typed on her laptop. The words Very modern showed up on a text document below the photo. “Excellent, very good Arthi. Anyone else? Come on, speak or someone else’ll give the right answer.”

She was a good teacher. Hands began springing up. And the text document was filled up with increasing rapidity. Drinking alcohol. Looked fit (a cackle of laughter broke out and the boy’s face reddened as he clarified that he meant the woman looked drunk, and not physically attractive). Out late at night. Who are the people with her? What time is it? Her parents might be angry?

As the answers came thick and fast, I looked at Fathima in bewilderment. She grinned widely and mouthed the words: I told you. Yes, this was a PinkLungi article. But I still had so many questions.

“Okay, so we have a list,” the teacher said, raising her hand to silence the now talkative class. “Now let’s see the comments one by one.”

Fathima chuckled as I whispered under my breath, “Oh boy!”

“This is the first one. FreakFollow887 said: So sad to see women forgetting their culture and simply seeking attention! Okay, what are your thoughts on that?”

I can’t explain what I felt for the next ten minutes. One by one the students raised their hands and gave their opinion. “He’s angry that she was drinking?” one of them asked. “Or that she was wearing that type of clothes?” another boy ventured.

“But drinking is not illegal, no?” one of the girls replied immediately, turning in her chair to face her classmates rather than the teacher.

“No, it’s not. She wasn’t doing anything illegal,” the teacher answered. “But focus on the meaning of the words. Remember what we talked about? Words are important. They convey not just meaning, but beliefs as well. What are some of the words this person has used?”

“Culture!”

“Continue, Shyam. Yes?’

“Maybe he’s saying that….as a Malayali, she is not acting as a Malayali woman should.”

“Why Malayali women can’t drink?” a boy asked. It was clear to me he was being the devil’s advocate.

“They can….” Shyam said. “But…not many do, right?”

“Or maybe he is saying Malayalis is general shouldn’t be drinking? It’s a bad thing for culture?”

I thought I noticed the teacher smile on screen, but she kept the conversation going. “Okay, so that’s one possibility. This is good. Remember, don’t assume, always…?”

“Explore!” the students chanted back.

Another student meekly raised her hand. “Yes, Gayathri?”

“He said about seeking attention?”

“Yes?”

“I think he was talking about her clothes.”

“And why do you think that?” the teacher asked, gesturing for the class to pay close attention to the exchange.

“Er…because…” Gayathri said, pushing her spectacles up as she hesitated. “My uncle says women who wear lipstick are trying to attract men’s attention. He…he doesn’t like that.”

There was a ripple in the audience, and for a moment I was tempted to find out who among the parents was the guy’s brother. But the students were less inhibited than us.

“But he’s right, yeah? I mean, lipstick does attract attention.” The devil’s advocate was playing both sides now.

One of the girls in the front row was offended and immediately turned around in her chair. “Lipstick is something women wear because it makes them feel nice. Just like how I like to have highlights.”

The students laughed and made noises and the teacher smiled. “Okay, okay, let’s talk to me also. Don’t just talk to each other. Stephy, what did you mean?”

Stephy turned around, frowning. “Nothing, miss. I – I was telling my friends how I wanted to have highlights in my hair when I go to college. And he’d asked if I was trying to get attention!”

The boy bowed his head, feeling the smirks and frowns around him. But the teacher simply nodded and moved to the laptop.

“Okay, we are almost out of time. So I’ll just show you this and then you can all work on your assignment.”

She clicked on the profile photo and opened FreakFollow887’s profile. “Now, Ashraf, what are the five pillars of Verification?”

The students burst out laughing as Ashraf reluctantly stood up, scratching his head.

The teacher stopped and turned to look at him. “I don’t believe in imposition, Ashraf, but if you don’t get this after we repeated in twenty times last class…”

“I – I know, miss,” Ashraf said, scrunching his face in concentration. “It’s – err – PSDLM!”

Everyone’s eyes were on Ashraf and the teacher nodded. “Okay, now the full form?”

“Ah…Provenance means is it an original account. Source means who created the account. Date means when was it created. Location means where was the account created. Motivation means why was the account created. Yes!”

Everyone broke out in mock applause and the teacher shook her head with a smile. “Good, now sit. Okay, so these are the photos on this person’s profile. I’ve created a Google doc, and you can check them properly from home. Remember, this assignment should be submitted by Thursday morning.”

One of the students raised their hands. “Word count?”

“100 to 300 words. And don’t try to bluff and reach the word count. Even if it is one line, if it is written well I’ll give full marks. And remember, the question is: Is the comment by this person justified? Why or why not? Make sure you go through his profile. The more you understand the person, the more you’ll understand their mindset. Look for photos, look for captions. Okay?”

*

Five minutes later, the teacher was back in the room with us. The man, who I realized by now was the head of the department, turned on the lights and stood in front of us.

“Any questions?” he asked.

“I really liked the class. It was very interactive. I – I didn’t think my son would discuss so much!” one of the mothers said, looking around with an expression of pleasant surprise. “I’ve also noticed he’s been reading the newspaper more these days.”

“That’s very good to hear,” the man said. “We try to encourage them to read directly from news sources, instead of from social media.”

“Well, now I feel better about letting my daughter use a phone,” a father said, sighing in relief. “I mean, let’s be honest, even if this class wasn’t there, they’d be using them at this age. It’s not like how it was with our generation, right?”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Is there – I don’t know how to put this,” a smartly dressed woman spoke up, looking perplexed. “Is there any way to know if this is working?”

“I don’t understand the question, ma’am?”

“What I mean is,” she said, “is there a way to know if this class, this whole curriculum is making a difference? Will….will they forget the lessons they learn here once they graduate?”

The man smiled and nodded his head in understanding. “It’s a very valid question. And as you all know, this is a pilot program. One of the first of it’s kind in Kerala, and there are just a handful of others anywhere in the world. The truth is, we don’t know if it will make a difference. We hope it will. But only time will tell.”

*

Thirty minutes later, I couldn’t stop myself. “Excuse me, sir?” I said, walking up to the head of the department.

“Yes?” he said, smiling politely.

I had a carefully worded introduction in mind. One that established that I was hoping to write an article for a Malayali centric online portal called PinkLungi. I wanted to express how interested I was in hearing the history of this strange school and class that I’d just witnessed. I was dying to ask him why a teacher was teaching 7th graders about social media interactions, concepts such as misogyny, healthy debate, and the principles of news verification that only journalists seemed to learn anymore. I couldn’t wait to hear how he became a part of this grand experiment.

Instead, all I could say was, “What – how – that – that was amazing! How?”

Thankfully, he wasn’t thrown by my incoherence. Instead, he took the time to explain it all. How it began, and what they hoped to achieve.

“It’s a new world, my friend,” he said later. “Trust me, this is the future. The future we need. The future we can have if we decide to take action.”

In Part Two, I’ll tell you what that future could look like.

You might also like: Why We Need Better Malayalam T.V. Serials

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