Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Training to be Peer Guides

In every human being’s life, there are some ordinary, forgettable days, and some days that stand out because something unusual happens. And then there are days that get etched so deeply in one’s heart, that whenever one closes one’s eyes one gets transported back to those days, and relives it in its entirety. The details do not fade with time; if anything, they only become brighter and sharper, and one can think back to individual incidents that made the days as incredible as they were. It has just been two days, but I can safely claim that 28th, 29th and 30th November were three such indelible days of my life, memories that I shall cherish forever.

All of this began sometime last week when our History teacher informed us about a peer guide training workshop for an international travelling exhibition organized by the Anne Frank House of Amsterdam in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation for the Arts in Bhowanipur, Kolkata. The workshop was voluntary, and interested students had to submit their names. It sounded quite interesting, and History being my favourite subject, I instantly put my name down for it. A few days later, we were informed that three of my classmates and I had been selected from school to attend the workshop, which was to be held on 28th and 29th of November, from 10 am to 5pm.

On Thursday, the four of us reached the venue from school. They were depending on me for directions because I had looked the place up on Google Maps, and fortunately for us, we managed to reach the place without getting hopelessly lost on the way!

The first thing that struck me when we reached the place was that it was an old-ish, ordinary house. I felt a little let down, but my spirits quickly revived when on entering we were ushered into a room full of books and paintings. It had a wonderful smell so characteristic of new books and fresh pages, that no book lover could possibly remain gloomy in such an ambience. There were chairs laid out for the students. There were four participating schools: La Martinere for Boys, Lakshmipat Singhania Academy, one boy from Calcutta International School, and the four of us from Modern High School for girls.

After all of us had settled down, we were welcomed by members of The Seagull Foundation, and introduced to the two ladies, Ms Priya Machado and Ms Louise (I never caught her surname!), who had come down from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to organize the exhibition, and to Mr. Aaron Peterer, who was to conduct the training workshop. Aaron took over from there. The first thing he told us was that he was not a teacher, and we should address him as just Aaron, no Mr. Peterer or Sir. I mention this as though it was a seemingly insignificant incident, I kept feeling distinctly uncomfortable addressing someone years my senior by his first name, since by Indian custom I usually refer to someone his age as kaku (uncle) or at least dada (elder brother)!

Right from the beginning, the workshop was conducted in a very interactive manner. The first round was the introductory round, where Aaron divided us into groups according to our birth dates and made us share our names, their meanings and funny anecdotes about our names. It was while we were doing this that he reminded us of something very important, something that was the crux of the exhibition: whenever we come across a stranger, we can safely assume one commonality between each other, a name. No matter how different the other person is from you,she or he is bound to have a name, so why not concentrate on finding out more common threads between each other, rather than differences?

After that we were taken to the actual spot where the exhibition would be set up. Aaron showed us how to make the stands and set up the exhibition panels, and then we ourselves put up the exhibition. It felt wonderful, knowing that it was our own labour that would finally bring the exhibition to the visitors. The four of us Modernites worked swiftly and efficiently, and very soon we had set up all the panels in the last room. We were praised by Ms Machado and Louise for our work, and felt all proud and happy.

After we were done setting up the exhibition, we went back to our room. Then began the actual discussions about the subject matter of the exhibition. Aaron began by asking us the name of the exhibition, and it was extremely embarrassing because not one of us could recall it! The name was “Anne Frank- A History for Today”. That day, we concentrated mainly on Anne Frank’s life and the world war. We were shown a documentary film on Anne Frank’s life which showed us pictures from her childhood, her time in the Secret Annexe and the one video recording that there is of her: a chance video clip of her leaning out of her window overlooking a newly-wed couple whose video was actually being shot.

Afterwards we discussed the Second World War as the background of Anne’s story, and why her diary was considered to be one of the most important accounts of the lives of Jews during the Third Reich. We were then given a catalogue of the exhibition that contained details about the pictures used in the panels. Then, we were randomly grouped and asked to look at some of these pictures and select the favourite of the group among them. We had to prepare our own poster with the selected picture as the focal point, and think of questions we could ask regarding that picture. Later we realized that it was actually an exercise to introduce us to the methods used while guiding a group of visitors around an exhibition, but at that point none of us were too sure what to make of the whole exercise. We were given chart papers, colours and other art material to use for the posters. Aaron kept going around, inspecting each table. I say inspecting, but he was in no way strict or authoritarian. In fact, he seemed to be amused by our work. He kept hovering around my group’s table and smirking at our progress, and occasionally teasing us about our creative skills! He finally named us “the artists’ group”, because we were too busy drawing a border to the poster to actually come up with proper questions regarding the picture of our choice! The first day ended with our discussing the posters in front of the other groups, and Aaron asked us to arrive half an hour early the next day, which we Modernites were all too glad to do.

The next day we spent more time discussing the relevance of Anne Frank’s diary in today’s world, because that was the whole point of the exhibition. We discussed why Anne Frank should be called a history for today, and why our generation would do well to learn lessons from the past. We were shown another documentary called “Eye Witnesses”, where we saw the interviews of Anne’s father Otto Frank, and Miep Gies, one of the four of Otto Frank’s employees who had helped hide the Frank family and four other Jews in the Secret Annexe. Also, throughout the day we were given practical advice about being a good peer guide, and at one point were asked to make another poster and jot down all the qualities essential in a good guide. We were taught how to deal with “obnoxious students” who made it a point to disrupt the tour, and how to keep the audience engaged and interested. We also learnt that we should not simply lecture the audience about the panels in the exhibition, but rather ask them to participate by asking relevant questions and encouraging active discussions. Aaron told each one of us to mentally create a red thread with about fifteen to twenty five pictures in the entire exhibition to have a connecting line between the different panels, which would help us carry on guiding in case we lose thread at any point. He once again divided us into groups and asked us to practise guiding each other. By the time it was five in the evening, all of us were feeling quite confident about guiding. Just before dispersal, we were given certificates from the Anne Frank House for having successfully completed the training session.

The workshop had officially ended, but the exhibition was to be inaugurated on the next day, at five in the evening. All the Modern High girls volunteered to come. Out of us, the Anne Frank House representatives randomly chose me to read out a passage from the Diary for the inauguration ceremony. I was supposed to be there by four thirty, and accordingly I reached Bhowanipur around that time. Then, like the certifiable dolt that I am, I managed to lose my way and reached the house twenty minutes later! The Dutch embassy had already arrived for the inauguration, and Ms. Machado quickly showed me which passage I would have to read out. I practised a couple of times, and then went to look for my classmates, who I found guiding our school’s director Ms. Devi Kar around the exhibition. The inauguration started at around five thirty, and continued for about twenty minutes. I was called to read my part, and was greatly praised by many people. Then an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. Among other things he asked me where he could buy a copy of Anne Frank’s diary in Kolkata to gift his grandchildren, and I gifted him an extra copy that I happened to have bought on the way to the Seagull Foundation that very evening! Afterwards there was a violin recital, and lots of tasty snacks. A boy from La Marts and I even had a glass of red wine each, much to the amusement of the adults present! The evening ended on a sweet note with me getting a picture clicked with Aaron, and one with Ms. Machado and Louise. The time had passed all too soon, and though I was happy, I felt more than a twinge of regret when I left the building for the last time.

This post will not be complete unless I dedicate a separate paragraph to Aaron Peterer. I have not attended many workshops, but instinctively I can feel that it will be difficult for anyone anywhere to conduct one as perfectly as Aaron did. Right at the outset he had made clear that he was not an official teacher of History, but in spite of that the two days with him gave me some of the finest History lessons I have ever attended. In fact, his training was second only to my father’s History classes, and that is saying a lot. The most wonderful thing about Aaron was how easily he made all of us feel comfortable dealing with him. He was cheerful and friendly, but not overly personal. He gave me the feeling that he was addressing me individually, and the wonderful thing was that all of my friends felt the same way. What better sign can there be of a fantastic teacher? He had this subtle way of instructing us without ever seeming to deliver lectures. And the best thing was, he taught us by example, and while listing the qualities of a perfect guide, many of us felt that we would have to add “like Aaron” at the end of our posters.

Aaron, if you are reading this somewhere, I would like to thank you with all my heart, and on behalf of all my friends, who no doubt feel the same way. The workshop would never have been a tenth as good as it was if you were not there to train us. Thank you, and God willing, may we get the opportunity to train under you many more times in future.

Aaron and I

Louise, Ms. Machado and I