WRITTEN WORK
OPENING THE CLASSROOM WINDOWS
GAYATHRI LAKSHMI

Artist Bio
Gayathri likes spending her days and nights obsessing over the Irish Musician, Hozier, except on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, she obsesses over herself and the colour Blue. You can find her reading, writing, and being curious about all that is under the sun. She wants to be a super genius villain like her favorite teachers and has an affair with the sun and the rain, and since it doesn’t snow in Bangalore, nothing is going on there. Her aim is to read, write, and speak at least eleven languages.


Window 90, Alwar Balasubramaniam, c.1997, Mixed media on paper, Image: H. 53.5 cm, W. 32.5 cm; Support: H. 70.5 cm, 50.5 cm, MAC.00099. Courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru. 

The classroom has always been my least favourite place. Whether it’s the unsettled chalk dust that floats in the air or the room full of familiar and unfamiliar faces, everything about a classroom terrifies me. I have tried tracing back this fear to its source. But like all fears, this one too has a fibrous root that spreads in various directions. One of the directions that the root branches strongly and with an embarrassing ease is to one particular day during the 4th grade.

I don’t remember which day it was exactly, but I remember wanting to pee. It was a new school. I had shifted from the state board to CBSE. The school was fancy in a lot of ways. Everyone in my class had watched Mr. Bean’s holiday while I was still stuck at Mr. Bean's TV show. Every girl in my class knew the lyrics to the ‘Highschool Musical’ when I didn’t even know of its existence. It was the year that I was forced to abandon my trustworthy pencil and learn to write with a pen. I was still getting used to calling teachers “Ma’am” and not “Miss” when it happened.

I know I should have gone to the toilet during lunch but I was playing and forgot all about it. I really couldn’t hold it in. I know I should have asked the teacher but I didn’t because I was scared. But it happened. I peed in class in front of my classmates and my seniors. Imagine my luck. I humiliated myself the very day that my teacher decided to call my seniors for practice along with our class. All I remember doing was crying and peeing.

When poets and romantics idealise children, they forget how mean they can be. Peeing in class was my one-way ticket to getting bullied. I didn’t want to go to school the next day. I pulled the blanket tightly over me when my mother tried to wake me up. I told her that I wasn’t feeling well but she refused to believe. I told my parents that my body hurt here, there, everywhere. All my complaints fell on deaf ears. I stopped cribbing after my mother threatened to visit the school to check on me. With great effort, I buttoned my shirt and tied the blue nylon ribbons on my ponytails.


The walk from the gate to the classroom was always the longest. I wished other paths or places would magically pop up where I could run off to. I wished that I was someone else. I wished that school would be destroyed or at least that I could time travel. None of my wishes came true that day. And I had to show up and face the music.

Walking into the classroom, I recognize the eerie silence that hung over the place like the smell of urine. I refused to look up and meet anyone’s eye. The boy who sat next to me recoiled when I put my bag down. The silence broke with someone’s giggle, and the fish market that class is once again came alive. I didn’t know what to look at. So, I opened my history textbook and stared at it. Giant tears formed inside my eyes and fell on its pages. I refused to look up even when the teacher came and began the class. It was only when the teacher was taking attendance and called my name that some kind soul voiced out what was hanging in the air.

“Ma’am, she peed in class yesterday,” said this kind soul who will one day hopefully find a cockroach in a juice he drinks, and turn into a cockroach himself and be squashed by a long Hawaiian slipper.


I never really got over this humiliating moment. My school life was heavily marked by it and all the name-calling assured me that I’ll never forget it. When I enter a new classroom, I try to find a place distant from everyone and everything, including knowledge. Love, joy and desire became things that I couldn’t have because I was that girl who peed in the class. Every time I tried to break from this definition, I was shown my place. It reached a point where I didn’t need somebody to voice it. My brain had learned to mimic those voices and held me prisoner in that 4th std classroom.

British writer Neil Gaiman once said “I like stories where women save themselves.” For the longest time, I didn’t know how to escape my prison or save myself. I believed that suffering was my natural state of being. But all this changed when a heroine walked into a classroom that I was sitting in. This heroine is one of those women that Neil Gaiman is talking about. She doesn’t wait around for a hero to come and save her. She writes stories, and that is how she saves herself. Her hair often reminds me of a waterfall. When she smiles, she looks like a cat. She is my favourite teacher.


During the 18th century in England, classrooms were designed so that windows would be placed beyond the eye level. It is positioned in this fashion so that students don’t get distracted by the world outside. When my favourite teacher talks about a line she read, she opens a window that I didn’t know existed. When she writes that joy is anti-caste, she breaks those walls that shroud the room and lets the sunlight in.

Her classes are uncomfortable. They are invitations to look at oneself carefully. The broken glass shards that lay all around you, you learn to pick them up. Some days, she brings a poem and an orange to the classroom and tells you to eat both like you are tasting it for the first time. On other days, she writes shamelessly about everything under the sun. It is in her class that I learn that love, joy, and desire are work. A work that demands your attention. A work that is pleasurable because it is work. It is in her work that I noticed that classrooms have windows. This transformed my relationship with classrooms.

July 18th, 2023, is a special day for me. It was the day I entered a classroom as a teacher. Maybe because I am grown up now or maybe because it is a sweet memory, I remind myself of this day often. I never let myself forget this day the same way people never let me forget that day in 4th standard.


I remember walking into a crowded room full of kids who were a couple of years younger and infinite times cooler than me. Forget butterflies, forget crows, there was an entire zoo stampeding inside my stomach. Looking back, I have no idea how I did it. How did I do it even though I am a disaster? How did I do it even though I humiliated myself in a classroom very much like the one I am teaching in? 

I think the answer lies in the fact that I faced my worst fear at a very young age. I had learned to pull myself together and live with myself despite what happened. I had learned to find escape routes in stories and music. Mostly I think it is my favourite teacher who time and again shows me that your writing, your work, and your art sustain you. Stuck on her cupboard is that Neil Gaiman quote that I often return to “I like stories where women save themselves.”  What you are reading is one such story where a woman saves herself by writing her own story.  

  
Artist Note
I see writing and working as a way of finding oneself when everything crumbles. Writing as a continuous work in progress.

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