American Classroom

by Sayantani Dasgupta


The first time I saw a teacher cry, I was already in America. It was inside a brightly-lit but otherwise boxy and windowless classroom, from which I could see nothing—not the red-brick walls of neighboring buildings, nor the always busy library plaza nor the dirty gray snow on the ground.

The class was on travel writing. It was a good day to be indoors yet dream of travels and escapes to warmer spaces. I rubbed my hands as I longingly thought of hot cocoa and sausages with charred bits, and the sun, not the watery one outside our classroom but others, more luminous and toasty, watching over far-away places.

Something broke the spell. It was either a student’s question or an answer to one already suspended in air. It prompted our professor, a tall white man with the kindest voice and bluest eyes, to start talking about Vietnam. He gripped the sides of his chair, his words trembled, and his sobs, loud and full of sorrow filled up what had been until then just another regular classroom of my life. I imagined him as a young man, white hair replaced by dark, but the smile just as generous. I saw him spectacled and earnest, appalled and wounded, warring not in far away Vietnam but against his own.

We, his fifteen students, froze to our seats. We stared at the grey carpeted floor, flicked off imaginary dirt caught in-between our fingernails, we glanced at our open notebooks and flipped through the pages of Best American Travel Writing 2007. But we all heard him when he said, “This…this war was not supposed to happen. We failed you. I am sorry. I am so sorry for the way my generation has failed yours.”

I, a recent entrant in America, sat stunned by his apology. Why had none of my teachers from back home ever broken down like this? Were they made of sterner material? What did it take to teach day after day while outside the windows of our New Delhi classroom, one event after another violently wheeled into motion: the Hindu-Muslim riots after the demolition of Babri Masjid, the murders of Naina Sahni and Jessica Lal, the self-immolations of Rajiv Goswami and Surinder Singh Chauhan? Did our teachers not mention these incidents to shelter us, their young students? Or did they do so for themselves, knowing that all they could control existed within the four walls of our classrooms, within the pages of our books holding forth on isosceles triangles, verses of Kabir, the history of India’s freedom struggle? And that everything outside of that was chaos, a stack of kindling.

Born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, SAYANTANI DASGUPTA is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between (Two Sylvias Press, 2016), and the chapbook, The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood (Red Bird Press, 2016). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Phoebe, Gulf Stream, India International Quarterly, and others. She edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review, and has won fellowships from Centrum and Artsmith. She teaches creative writing and South Asian literature at the University of Idaho and has also taught writing workshops in India and Italy.