After school one day, early in my stint as a teacher, I walked to a restaurant nearby for lunch. Utterly drained and exhausted after another challenging day with forty five boisterous and violent fourth graders, I was looking forward to drowning my sorrows in some good food. As I began my meal, a face with an impish grin perched on a frail body popped up at the entrance of the restaurant and made its way towards me. It was one of my students, Karan, and I began to question what wrong I had done to deserve this. All I wanted was some peace and quiet away from my students, and here was one of them happily strolling towards me!

Karan was ten years old at the time but could have easily passed off as seven. He sat down next to me and began recounting his school day – what he found hard in class, why he decided to pick a fight with another boy, which game he played during the sports period and so on. Surprisingly, it felt great talking to Karan informally outside the boundaries of the school and the foundations for a special bond were laid that day.

Karan was my student for two years while in grades four and five. I was his class teacher throughout that time and got to know him and the community he came from fairly well as his home was a five minute walk from school. He was an emotional child prone to mood swings; on some days, he was a gem in terms of taking interest in learning and being on his best behaviour while, on other days, he was a difficult and disruptive child with the ability to make a lesson go awry rather quickly. Being intensely curious by nature, he used to push himself out of his comfort zone if something caught his fancy and, at those times, the class and I would see an enthusiastic learner come to the fore. For instance, in grade five, he enjoyed staying back for extra classes after school as we were covering a different higher level storybook. His interest in exploring a new story and eagerness to express himself in the small groups that made up the after-school classes made him a pleasure to teach. The challenge was to give him the individual attention he craved during regular class when there were so many other kids to pay attention to.

Karan was one of the most street smart students I ever taught. He instinctively knew his way around people and, even though he had a limited vocabulary, could be very disarming and persuasive when he wished. While conversing with an elder who he respected or with a peer who he wanted to build a rapport with, he demonstrated a confidence and willingness to interact that was normally absent from his nature inside the classroom. Though young, he used to actively participate in his community’s activities and had connections with influential members much older than him. Thus, he learned how to organise events by being a part of such groups. 

In Hindi, the national language of India, there is a word जुगाड़ (pronounced jugaad) that means coming up with innovative and resourceful solutions to problems in both legal and not-so-legal ways. Karan symbolised this mentality and was extremely resourceful when it came to planning and organising processions and festivals in his community. As mentioned earlier, he was proactive in his neighbourhood and picked up local knowledge in areas that helped him work around systems to run these events. His fearlessness and confidence in such settings made people sit up and listen to him.

The drawback of this fearless spirit and propensity to explore was that Karan began getting involved with a fair number of shady elements in his community. By associating with young adults in their late teens and twenties, he was introduced to a number of harmful practices like smoking and drinking at the tender age of twelve. Being within the school set-up for around six hours a day (eight hours on days that he had extra classes) was insufficient to counter the powerful influence that his community had on him. Both his parents were out of the house throughout the day and unaware of what Karan was up to outside school. When teachers (including me) spoke to his family about these disturbing facts, they refused to believe it and seemed to be completely ignorant (or consciously turning a blind eye) to the evils that existed inside their community. Family investment in upbringing is vital to any child and this was reflected in the fact that other students of mine who were from the same neighbourhood but with involved parents made smarter choices about their social circles and performed better academically.

Interacting with such peers brought out some negative streaks in Karan’s character – he developed the ability to be extremely cunning and manipulative when it suited him. While many of my students came from communities where cursing and swearing was commonplace, Karan’s language became crasser as he got closer to the older boys in his community. Many of his older friends would bully and tease him as he was thin and slight for his age; he began to accept that as part of his life and, as he grew older, started meting out similar treatment to children who were smaller than him creating a vicious cycle that was hard to break out of.

When Karan was in grade three (prior to my joining the school), there were multiple instances where he made his class teacher cry out of sheer frustration and helplessness. Slowly but surely, he developed a reputation among all staff members of being difficult, naughty, poor in academics, violent and, simply put, a “problem child”. As the years rolled on, this reputation became larger than life and coloured every day of his existence in school. There were times that he did nothing wrong in class but was blamed if any chaos erupted around where he sat. If there was a ruckus when there was no teacher in class, Karan was the one to be caught and taken to the principal’s office. This resulted in any improvements that he made being largely ignored by teachers and peers and he was generally perceived as a child who would do no good in the world.

An unfortunate combination of this growing reputation and the negative community influences was that Karan began to take a strange kind of pride in his reputation. He started wearing it like a badge of honour and seemed to believe that, if everyone thought about him in poor light, then they must be right. A part of him realised that this behaviour was detrimental to his overall growth but a larger part of him wanted to project a carefree and disruptive attitude similar to that adopted by the older boys in his community.

All these challenges and negative elements were powerful factors in shaping who Karan was as a person. Going through adolescence is a challenging time where a child is exploring who he is, becoming more independent and learning how to function effectively in society. In Karan’s case, there were very few consistent positive role models that he could look up to for guidance. His community was fraught with thugs and violence and it proved hard for him to stay away from these elements. Thus, he lacked a sense of identity – who he was as a person, what he valued about himself, what were his ambitions and desires and what were his faith and belief systems based on. Without this anchor and moral compass to guide him, he was left to float aimlessly in the sea of life – an ambitious child with immense potential but utterly directionless.

The manner in which he was treated by his peers, teachers and community made Karan distrustful of authority. He began to feel as if these systems existed simply to make his life more difficult than it already was. This revulsion towards any kind of power made him appear defiant and stubborn to staff members and senior students which did nothing but worsen his already negative reputation and make them react angrily towards him creating yet another terrible cycle.

There are some concrete things that could have been / can be done to turn his life around and make Karan succeed and feel confident about himself as an individual. First and foremost, feeling secure, accepted and trusted by the people who he cared about. Karan was closer to his mother than father (this was when I was his teacher) but she did not take an active interest in his life. Being a first generational learner, his family was content with the fact that he was going to school and did not invest much effort in getting to know the details of his life inside and outside school. There were times when he changed his behaviour with constant reinforcement and belief that some of us teachers had in him. However, these changes were not sustainable as the ratio of the time spent by him with the people who cared and believed in him to the time he spent with people who treated him as an incorrigible was small.

If teachers and peers had given him more of a chance to shine in a role that he was confident in, then Karan might have developed a sense of belief that he could prosper at school and gain something of value from it. For instance, as alluded to earlier, he was great at planning and organising events – so, giving him responsibility to work in teams to manage class and school activities might have brought out a wonderful side to him which was unknown to his teachers and friends. This could have led to him developing an identity, understanding his own strengths and weaknesses and progressing towards building his personality in a productive manner. However, because his past behaviours loomed over every aspect of his school life, he was rarely given a chance to be more involved and assume leadership/responsibility inside the classroom.

When Karan was provided with unbiased mentoring in an environment different from school, he responded positively to it and was keen to create a fresh image of himself in the eyes of someone who was not acquainted with his past misdemeanours. There were some changes for the better in him including a self-driven eagerness to learn when he participated in this individual mentoring class. Once again, the duration and frequency of these sessions was grossly insufficient to counter the negative surroundings at school and in his community, so the changes, while encouraging, were not lasting and he reverted to his old self once the effect of the sessions wore off.

Perhaps, the most powerful factor that could have helped Karan succeed and become a better child was if he was treated with respect by his community and school (classmates and staff members). Children are extremely perceptive and I am sure that he could easily read and sense what people thought about him and, after a point, simply given up trying to change people’s opinions about him. Had he received consistent and genuine respect and care from those that he cared about, the picture might not have been so bleak today.

From the above anecdotes and understanding of Karan, there are some clear elements that caused him to fail and feel inadequate. Getting stereotyped and cast out as a failure and someone who is good for nothing over a period of time has definitely played a large part in the way he sees himself. His physical features – he is short, thin, and frail and not considered handsome/attractive – have added to his insecurity about himself and reinforced his lack of identity. Negative community influences and low investment from his parents further aggravated the situation.

By some distance, Karan was the child who took up most of my mental space during the two years with my fourth and fifth graders. At the start, his moods perplexed me – there were days when he was a dream child in class, helpful and engaged but, more often than not, he was disruptive to the point where conducting a lesson was a challenge. I recall a time when he, along with two other classmates, came to my house on Independence Day. He enthusiastically tried his hand at my flatmate’s piano and, to a layman, would appear like a happy child with no issues. I vividly remember that day as I wondered what it would take to have this version of Karan in the class every day. What made him tick and what upset him? What did his mood depend on? Being new to full-time teaching and having over forty children in class meant that it was impossible for me to give each child a lot of attention. So, while I did realise that I needed to spend time with Karan, I was always aware that my other students needed me too and this continuous conflict was a daily part of life for two years. There are regrets and I do fear what kind of path his life will take now that he is growing up fast and in grade eight. Multiple instances of misbehaviour and violence over the last two years and threats of suspension/expulsion seem to have had little effect on him and, to this day, he remains a child that has simultaneously intrigued and disturbed me. Karan is one of the reasons I began thinking about children deeply and opted for this course at graduate school. He will always hold a special place in my heart.

~ ~ ~

This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU H382 - The Challenges Kids Face: Developmental, Cultural and Contextual Perspectives on Risk & Resilience completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The main idea of the essay was to give a nuanced account of a child who had intrigued and/or disturbed me in the past. The child's name has been changed to protect his identity.


  1. Reading this post truly took me back to my days as a Fellow. I was suddenly flooded by images of some of my students, with some lingering longer than others making me wonder what each of them were up to these days.
    Thank you for sharing this post Shreyas!

    1. I'm so happy to read this, Ananya!

      I think anyone who has stepped into a classroom and built bonds with their students over a sufficient period of time will probably resonate with this post on some level. Writing this essay was not easy as I kept thinking about what more could I have done for Karan while also not neglecting my other students. It was a tension that was a key part of my fellowship experience.


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