“Let’s read,” I told the students in my writing class, trying to invoke the authority of my own high-school literature teacher. I was hoping they would unzip their backpacks, pull out the books and start reading. I had become a visiting teacher at a university in Karachi, Pakistan, a couple of years before the pandemic, and I was struggling. It felt nice to be called a professor, but I was reluctant to call my students, “my students.”
After a lifetime in journalism and of writing books, teaching seemed like a proper grown-up job. If you get something wrong in a newspaper article, you try to do better the next time. When your novel’s plot goes wonky, you can try a different approach — or repeat the same mistakes and give them another title.
But when I started teaching, I realised that I wasn’t likely to get a second chance with the mind of a 20-year-old.
I tried to make up for my inexperience with grey-haired authority. I wanted students to read what I loved, but I wasn’t quite ready for how they read it.
That day two years ago, instead of opening their bags, they pulled out their phones, as if they had just received an important message or needed to call someone to tell them about the confused man in their class. Noticing the panic on my face, one student pointed out that they were doing their reading on their phone.
It took me a few more classes to accept the fact that they had our whole damn syllabus on their phones and were actually reading, not watching TikTok videos.
My son’s teachers seem to know what they are doing. They make sure to address everyone by name. They are very, very patient. They realise that some people might have a slow internet connection.
I did well in high school, trying to be the teacher’s pet, the first one to raise my hand when he asked the classroom a question. I had the same instructor for Urdu literature, Pakistan studies and Islamic studies for those four years, and at the beginning of every class, he would ask me to go break a branch from a mulberry tree in the school compound.
He would then use the branch to beat up any late-comers or students who hadn’t done their homework. Many of them were my close friends.
Mulberry branches are not easy to break, and I felt guilty about being our torturer’s little helper.
Can I be a real teacher today?
Occasionally, I would be slow to bring the branch and would find myself included among the boys who had to be thrashed. I’d go from being class monitor to another random bottom my teacher needed to thrash so he could feel like a true teacher.
With that kind of education, can I be a real teacher today? My experience was outdated long before the pandemic disrupted our class routine and sent us all online.
I struggled with the university’s biometric attendance system: Instead of answering a verbal roll call, students marked their presence by pressing their thumbs on a little glass square. Halfway through the semester I realised that even though I couldn’t do anything about the fancy glass square, I could still do a roll call, say students’ names out loud and let them answer, “yes,” raise their hand or just nod. That two-minute routine made me feel like a proper teacher.
Education, I started to think, was a process of exclusion. There are a few students who get their internet connection right, know how to fill out all the applications forms, are sharp at writing personal statements. But what about all the others?
And just when I thought I was on top of my teaching game, in March, the coronavirus came to Pakistan and suddenly there was no classroom, no campus, no roll call.
My cluttered desk at home became my new campus, my classroom, the staff room and sometimes the campus cafeteria, too. Tiny circles with students’ initials appeared on my laptop’s screen.
They stayed on mute because if everybody switched on their cameras or mics, the system might crash. When students did unmute, I could hear a mum calling from another room or a vegetable seller hawking from the streets. There was always a bird chirping outside my window.
A roster of absences
After the class moved online, my roll call became a roster of absences. Some students completely disappeared without giving any reason. I tried to find out why. Some had gone back to their hometowns and were lost because of bad internet connections and no electricity. Some of their parents’ livelihoods also were lost, and the students got busy helping out.
A very bright student wrote to me asking for an extension on an assignment because her father was suffering from COVID-19 and in critical condition. Then came another message for another extension: Her father had passed away.
The students who did turn up taught me about online learning: “Press that button, Sir”; “scroll down, Professor”; “please unmute yourself” — finally that old cliché came true, and I was learning something in every class.
Sometimes teacher should leave the kids alone: Students, locked up at home, sometimes need to let go and scream
The stories they wrote were increasingly about confinement, fantasies of escape. Some dug into their pasts and came up with tales of spectacular assassinations or little adventures about wanting to attend protests, about being assaulted at crowded holy places.
I reasoned with myself that the heart of my class was reading and writing, and that moving that online should make no difference. Surely, by teaching online you saved on the commute time; you saved on all those random gossip sessions and the administrative chores.
But the spontaneous drama of a live class — when a discussion about a piece of writing suddenly makes us confront our deepest prejudices, about what our families have taught us — was gone. Online, we were somehow more guarded; as if we were being watched. I had to be reminded to press the record button on the screen.
From our online classes I also realised this: What’s the point of going to university if you can’t get away from your parents, from your siblings? You go to a university to choose a family of your own, to try something new, away from watchful eyes, and when you fail, you try something else until you arrive at that magical moment when you realise, “Yes, I can do this. I can do it better than others. Maybe I can do it for life. Maybe this is my calling.”
Does that possibility exist in Microsoft Teams or Zoom classes? Can a new life begin when you are housebound and confined with your siblings and parents, who probably are suffering economically?
Why education is a privilege
As in real-life class, online some students did better than others.
It made me happy to find out that one student got a scholarship to a good university, but I also kept asking myself about the others. I had doubts. Education, I started to think, was a process of exclusion. There are a few students who get their internet connection right, know how to fill out all the applications forms, are sharp at writing personal statements. But what about all the others?
Should the world really be run by the kids who have reliable internet access? I saw pictures of students in remote areas trekking up mountains with laptops, hoping to catch an internet signal so they could attend their classes. How were they going to compete with someone sitting in their own bedroom with their own electricity generator?
Sometimes I felt I, too, was wielding a mulberry branch, thrashing at the unknown.
Today, as I prepare for another semester online, I am acutely aware that education is a privilege. In my case, that privilege involves attending my six-year-old’s online classes: A parent has to be with every child, so as of last month I have been attending Class 1, starting my education all over again.
My son’s teachers seem to know what they are doing. They make sure to address everyone by name. They are very, very patient. They realise that some people might have a slow internet connection. Maybe some students are distracted; maybe they need to go to the loo. Maybe there’s a competitive parent in the room giving them useless prompts.
I am in awe of my son’s teachers and their enthusiasm. Some have had their pay cut because of the pandemic.
One day, my son’s teacher announced that she’d be gone for a minute, to go from our virtual classroom to another. As soon as she left, there was pandemonium: Everyone raised hell, shouted each other’s names, remembered old feuds. Sometimes teacher should leave the kids alone: Students, locked up at home, sometimes need to let go and scream.
My teaching semester starts next week, and I hope I’ll be able to use some of the lessons from my son’s class.
— Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.