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Reading into the minds of teenagers

When teens of various backgrounds meet for writing sessions, amazing stories of truth are born

brunch Updated: Dec 02, 2017 23:20 IST
Zuni Chopra
(Photo Illustration: Parth Garg)

Libraries are wondrous places. The home of books, of inspired children; sanctuaries from the darkness outside that we spend most of our lives evading.

Teenagers – several articles have tried to define us; several movies to morph us into people attractively reckless; several scientific journals to analyse us down to a single defiant neuron. But you know what I see in teenagers more than anything? Faith. Faith to the point of foolishness.

Most recently, the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal Public Library in suburban Mumbai has been a home for the A.S.S.C. (Andrean Social Service Centre) and their students. It is here that I’ve been teaching English and writing classes for the past two months. It isn’t so much grammar and essays as it is the art of storytelling and a pure, distillated love for books. The kids I teach are all teenagers like me, who study in municipal schools. And today, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about what I’ve discovered in them.

You’ve gotta have faith

Teenagers – several articles have tried to define us; several movies to morph us into people attractively reckless; several scientific journals to analyse us down to a single defiant neuron. But you know what I see in teenagers more than anything? Faith. Faith to the point of foolishness. ‘Yes,’ we think, ‘I know that could happen. But it can’t happen. Because I’m me, and I’m young, and I’m oh so alive. So to even dream of it happening is a ludicrous suggestion.’

And you know what’s different about these students? They don’t have that. Whatever could happen has happened already: to a friend, to a sibling, to a neighbour, to them. Their universe is the birth of news articles, of controversies, of all too plausible nightmares. And yet, their faith burns brightest of all. Their hope is so powerful, their joy so intense, that to know them is to know another kind of human entirely. Their purity of emotion is what amazes me.

People have told me it’s a little silly. There’s no chance of any of them growing up to be Rowling, right? It’s not about that. It’s about showing them that learning isn’t always memorising a formula.

I asked them to recall their happiest memory of a friend, but to tell it in third person and describe it as though they were an onlooker. A standard writing exercise, really. Fatima spoke up. “Can a stuffed toy be a friend?” I smiled and nodded, a little surprised, happy to find another 15-year-old with a love for fluffy companions. When she told her story, it touched me in a way I can’t quite describe. “A little girl passed a shop with a Minion stuffed toy in it every day,” she began. “She wanted it really badly, so one day, when they were walking together, she asked her mom if she could buy it. Her mom said no. Later, on her birthday, her mom surprised her with the Minion. And her and him have been best friends since.”

That was it. The happiest memory of her dear friend. Something so beautiful in its simplicity and so subtle in its grace that I felt like hugging her right then and there. And I thought, if only everyone could see life that way. If only I too could recognise joy for what it was, rather than giving a small, patronising smile and turning away. If only we could realise that we have so much to learn from those we deem the ‘underprivileged’.

Unity in diversity

Melvin hung back after class last week. My first thought was that he hadn’t understood something and, like I often do, he’d waited for some privacy to ask his question. But all he wanted to know was this: “What’s your favourite book?” A pause drifted in the air. “Mine’s Goosebumps!” “Oh wow!” I responded immediately. “I love that book! I’d have to say my favourite’s Harry Potter though.”

So why was I so nervous? Because I felt that ‘whatever I did’ wouldn’t be perfect. I owed something to these kids. Something they deserved. I couldn’t name what.

I really can’t find words to describe how pleased he looked with my answer. It was something I’d said, then, to tell him that we were the same. That I was just like them, and, in truth, not a snobbish, wealthy student coming for another impressive line on a resume. In that moment, the barriers separating us all grew a little weaker.

Indeed, an amazing thing happens when they are told to imagine. When they are told to create. It’s as though you’ve opened a locked door in front of them, and immediately, they start off, wondering, laughing, growing without even knowing it, ivies no longer in need of the wooden fence.

People have told me it’s a little silly. There’s no chance of any of them growing up to be Rowling, right? It’s not about that. It’s about showing them that learning isn’t always memorising a formula. It’s about making them believe in the power of stories, the politics of fairy tales, and in the joy and the change they can bring. It’s about inspiring them that tomorrow, with them and their open hearts, will be better than today. In truth, it’s about keeping alive that little glowing piece of childhood that the world seems bent on tearing away from us all.

On my first lesson, I had been shaking and nervous. “Whatever you do,” my mother had said, “Will be perfect.” She believed in me and in my work, and she knew of my tendency to randomly hyperventilate.

It’s about inspiring them that tomorrow, with them and their open hearts, will be better than today. In truth, it’s about keeping alive that little glowing piece of childhood that the world seems bent on tearing away from us all

So why was I so nervous? Because I felt that ‘whatever I did’ wouldn’t be perfect. I owed something to these kids. Something they deserved. I couldn’t name what. Perhaps it was that I was taking their time or asking their focus or perhaps it was because the world had taken too much from them already. But I needed to give them a lesson they would remember.

And when I called them back the week after, they came. Maybe this will change nothing. Maybe their grades won’t move up. Maybe they won’t even remember me by this time next year. But at 10.30 am every Sunday, we meet in that room filled with worn books and we make each other’s lives a little brighter. To me, that’s worth more than anything in the world.

Do wave when you pass by. It’d make our day.

The author is the daughter of filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and journalist Anupama Chopra. She debuted as a novelist with The House That Spoke and has also penned two poetry books.

From HT Brunch, December 3, 2017

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