On a sunny Saturday morning during my first volunteering stay in South India, I had to change buses at Sarjapur, a small town a few kilometres from Bangalore. While waiting for the next bus, I took a stroll through the dusty streets surrounding the station and stopped at a small shack serving chai.
Directly across the sidewalk was a public school, where an old, hunched-over caretaker was beginning to remove the locks from the entrance gate. The building's walls appeared recently painted, their bright colours starkly contrasting with the urban landscape dominated by ash-gray and the ochre of suspended dust. The facade was adorned with drawings of animals and two complete alphabets: English and Kannada. On Saturday mornings, Indian schools are open, and in a few minutes, this one would fill with children.
Several women, presumably teachers, arrived and entered the courtyard. One, however, dressed in a saree of soft pink hues, paused for a few seconds to look at the ground by the gate. More a patch of earth than a sidewalk, it stretched from where the asphalt ended to the school wall. The woman, about my age, eventually crouched, turning her back to me, took something from her bag, and began making small movements with her hand. I imagined she was drawing a kolam, the beautiful designs women create with rice powder at the thresholds of their homes, and I approached to see.
It was something else. She held a sugary sweet in her hand, breaking off tiny crumbs and carefully placing them on the ground, following an incomprehensible pattern. Suddenly aware of my presence, she looked up and started slightly. It's quite unusual to see a Westerner in Sarjapur. I apologized in English for startling her and, driven by curiosity, couldn't help asking what she was doing. She hesitated for a moment, then simply said, «Ants!». Seeing my continued perplexity, she offered a slightly longer explanation in English sprinkled with Kannada words. She had noticed a long column of ants right in front of the school's entrance and was trying to attract some with the sugar crumbs, thereby diverting the entire line's path. Her intention was to prevent them from being trampled by the onslaught of children's feet soon to arrive. As I took minutes to finish my chai, she remained wholly focused on her mission, and I watched, astonished. Surprisingly, she was succeeding, and the line of black dots began to slowly shift. I approached again and asked her a rather silly question, but her response is one I've never forgotten.
– Do you love ants a lot?
– Yes, very much, but I do this because I love the children –she smiled at me.
As she spoke, two girls with shiny braids and blue uniforms arrived, asked what she was doing, and instantly crouched down to help her. I had no more time to talk with her, as children began appearing from all directions, running towards the entrance, and I was afraid of missing my bus. I'm not even sure if she was a teacher. Years later, I returned and couldn't find her. Nonetheless, the thought of a teacher diverting a line of ants to prevent them from being trampled by her students, and more so, to involve them in saving the ants through her example, utterly charmed me and has often occupied my thoughts since then.
At the time this story took place, I was a computer engineer who had trained in development cooperation and decided to volunteer in India, ending up at a very innovative rural school: Shanti Bhavan. This project provides quality education to boys and girls from the lowest castes of that country. Then, I knew nothing about education or pedagogy, but suddenly I found myself immersed in the task of teaching children, training teachers, and literally living inside a school for months.
Fifteen years have passed since then, and I've worked on a multitude of educational projects in many different countries. Among many other things, I now teach at an education faculty where I have the privilege of helping future teachers find their path. With the perspective of time, the story of "The teacher who loved ants" seems to me a paradigmatic example of what a teacher should be: someone who cares about their students (who loves them), who cares about their environment, who preaches by action, and who at all times thinks about how to create conditions that favour learning, even outside the classroom. This, obviously, is not easy at all, and is both a science and an art.
[Original story published in Catalan (Nov. 18th, 2020): https://comgotes.eduard.cat/2020/11/la-mestra-que-estimava-les-formigues-i.html]