What Did You Learn in School Today?

Growing up in Trivandrum, CDS was a fascinating expanse. It was a research institute on the outskirts of Trivandrum where both my parents worked. CDS sat on top of a low hill; the library, its highest point, overlooked much of the city. The campus sprawled over 10-acres, housing both the academic buildings as well as employee quarters. The brick-lined, uncemented walls of the buildings blended into lush greenery.

Besides home and school, I spent most of my time here. My parents had made arrangements for the school bus, which picked me up from Mohan kada in the mornings, to drop me off at their workplace in the afternoons. The kids of several faculty members at CDS went to the same school as I. Most of them lived on the premises of the institute while we lived outside, much to my anguish.

Every afternoon, as we deboarded the bus, my friends ran through the gates leading up to their homes, while I chose the adjacent gates that led to the institute area. In less than thirty minutes, I’d have dumped my school bag at my mother’s office, changed into play clothes, grabbed a quick snack, and met my friends back in the residential area.

Several hurdles presented themselves during these crucial thirty minutes. As I made my way through the gates, I first encountered the friendly gardeners. They asked about my day before proudly leading me to a different patch in the garden each day, as if to explain to me their own day.

Once I managed to wriggle past the garden, I was lucky if I didn’t run into more people before I entered the academic building. At the very entrance sat the receptionist. Her daughter too studied in the same school, but was a year older. As I narrated the events of my day a second time, she’d interrupt me with unsolicited advice – lessons from her daughter’s experiences in the previous year.

On a clear day, I could run from the reception straight to the faculty building through a shortcut at the back. On a rainy day, I took the longer route through the students’ computer labs, where my journey would be interrupted by a barrage of students commenting on how cute I was or quizzing me on my ambition, depending on the turn their theses had taken on that particular day I presume. They sang praises of my parents sometimes, perhaps hoping the six year-old would pass these on to the parents, earning them brownie points.

After this came the faculty lounge. The faculty assembled here for tea at about the same time that I passed by each day. They sat on either side of the lounge on low benches, sipping their tea, discussing what adults discussed.

Now, this faculty lounge was also completely avoidable on a clear day. But on a rainy day, without access to the back door, I had to walk right through the center of this hooha. Once again, questions about my day rained upon me. What classes did I have that day? What was my favorite subject? Was my teacher nice to me? Who was my best friend? Why was she my best friend?

Trudging on, I reached my mother’s office. There I dumped my schoolbag, swallowed a sandwich whole and changed into my play clothes, all the while narrating the highlights of my day for the fifth time. My father’s office was situated just across from my mother’s. Between changing my clothes and bolting to meet my friends, I dropped by to say hello so that he could get the sixth rendition of “What did you learn in school today?”

I sprinted through a different route from the academic building to the play area so as to avoid further human contact until I reached my friends. Of course, the students’ hostels were enroute, and on my ill-timed days, I’d run into those who’d chosen not to be in the computer lab that day. Unlike the former, I didn’t normally get a lot of questions about my ambitions from this bunch. Instead, they’d ask me about the games I played at school or the ones I was about to play that afternoon. They liked to keep abreast of current trends and asked to learn these games.

I’d usually dismiss these requests, sometimes promising to come back with reinforcements. Of all the hurdles I had to cross to get to playtime, I faintly remember being most peeved about this one. Perhaps because they were the last fence I had to jump over to get to my destination. And maybe my patience had waned.

In fact, if I spotted them from afar in time, I’d sometimes take the road less traveled through a thicket of thorny shrubs. At other times, I’d simply run faster, in my attempt to be invisible to the human eye.

As I reached my destination, huffing and puffing triumphantly, I was greeted by my friends strolling languidly out of their homes after a leisurely snack. As we huddled together to debate our game plan for the afternoon, I quietly planned my own for the following day.

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