We were in school that morning, but not studying in our classrooms. There was a buzz in the air. The school Annual Day function was scheduled at 5.30 that evening. All the students were busy with the final rehearsals of their performances that evening. It was an exciting morning and our enthusiasm was palpable through the school corridors. Students hurried about discussing nuances of their dance steps or details of their costumes.
For a change that year, I wasn’t participating in either a dance or a drama. Rather unusual for me, as I was always at the forefront of all these activities. But as I was in the eleventh standard, perhaps not wanting to disturb our studies, our teachers had kept me away from activities which would require several hours of practice. But I couldn’t resist my love for the microphone- I was to compere the programme that evening. It was my first chance at compering a major programme. I was also School Pupil Leader that year, so the onus of delivering the welcome speech on behalf of the students also fell on me.
Around 11 that morning, a peon entered my class and told me that I was being summoned to the Principal’s office. I rushed down the stairs to the Principal’s room and saw that several teachers were huddled near the main entrance of the school. As I walked ahead, I noticed rather hostile glares from them. I found it very strange as I was a favourite student for many of them, and they would usually be encouraging and friendly to me.
Incidentally, the Principal was also my father. As I walked into his room, I was surprised to see my mother sitting along with him. Now I was certain that something was terribly wrong, as I had never ever seen her in his office during school hours, although our home in the staff quarters was just five minutes away. In the past year, my father who was a diabetic had almost succumbed to his complications twice, and we lived with the unspoken fear of losing him before time because of his disease. My mother’s presence most definitely meant something was affecting his health. Nothing else could have brought her here.
I looked at my Dad and he looked severely stressed. “We will have to cancel the Annual Function this evening”, he was saying. I could scarcely believe my ears. “I know we have sent out invitations to everyone,” he said, “and this will be embarrassing. But all the teachers have decided to boycott the function. We cannot conduct the programme without them.”
“Who said we can’t?”, I heard myself saying. “We students will perform on schedule. The programme cannot be cancelled.” To this day, I don’t know where I summoned the strength and conviction to say those words, without a pause. But in my head, I knew I could not let someone blackmail us after weeks of hard work. My father looked at my fierce face and asked me to confer with the other students before I made my decision.
I remember walking up the stairs to my class with a determination I have never known I possessed- all the time thinking of the words I would use to address my classmates. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to convince them. Nobody wanted to fail in the eyes of their parents and family. The show would go on. The decision was conveyed. We might not be perfect, but we would perform to the best of our ability.
The group of students from my class led from the front, and in the next few minutes we distributed tasks that were initially allotted to the teachers. And throughout I remember my heart beating loudly, praying that all went well.
Later, I would discover that the reason for the boycott was a miscommunication issue. Something my father had said in colloquial Hindi as feedback to a rehearsal, had been taken as an insult by a teacher from Tamilnadu who wasn’t well versed with Hindi. And he had triggered off the crisis by inciting other teachers to boycott the programme.
By lunch, I got another message. The teachers had withdrawn their protest and would participate in the Annual Day as per prior plans. A truce had been attained. That evening, all went well, without a shadow of what had happened that morning.
Some days I wonder what if I had listened to my Dad and accepted his decision quietly. Would the school have cut a sorry figure in front of the scores of parents? Where did that sudden surge of adrenaline come from? If the students hadn’t risen to the occasion, would the teachers have withdrawn their rebellion? Had they continued with their boycott, what would the quality of our programme have been?
It was perhaps my first experience of speaking my mind, even when all the odds were stacked against us. And even today, when I feel all alone, I derive strength from the words a sixteen-year old school girl uttered, without a clue of what was coming. Sometimes, you simply need to listen to your heart and summon the strength within. No one can help you, unless you help yourself.
(The featured painting “The strength within” is by Ashvin Harrison)