Gita Varadarajan: Teacher, Author, World Changer
SAVE HER A SEAT: Gita Varadarajan, second grade teacher at Riverside School, has co-authored a book, “Save Me a Seat,” that Rhode island selected for this year’s Kids Reading Across Rhode Island initiative. She looks forward to her ongoing career as an author and educator.
Rhode Island celebrated “Save Me a Seat Day” on May 13, 2017 in honor of a recently published book co-authored by Riverside School second grade teacher Gita Varadarajan.
As part of the One State, One Book initiative and Kids Reading Across Rhode Island 2017 for students in grades three to six, the special day included an event at the state house with the authors, writing workshops, book signings, family activities, and even Indian dance and cricket demonstrations related to the cross-cultural theme of the book.
The story of two fifth graders — Joe and Ravi — struggling to find their way, Save Me a Seat, published by Scholastic Press, “is about adventures between cultures, it’s about fitting in, it’s about diverse voices, diverse authors,” said Ms. Varadarajan.
“It was a very happy moment for me when they announced that May 13 would be ‘Save Me a Seat Day,’” Ms. Varadarajan added, pointing out that it was on May 13 seven years earlier that she, with her husband and two young sons, first set foot on American soil.
But the stories of her life, her teaching career, and the development of her creative imagination started much earlier, in India, where she was born.
“I grew up with my grandparents,” she described. “My dad worked on a tea plantation in a remote part of the country where there were no schools, so I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was a professor of engineering in the military and a master storyteller. I listened to a lot of stories when I was growing up.
“Every Sunday afternoon we would gather around him, my brothers and cousins and I, and listen to him tell about worlds that we could only imagine: big white mansions, lavish balls, ladies in white gowns dancing, and butlers serving them. He took us back to the British Raj. He had a fascination for that kind of life.”
The seeds of Ms. Varadarajan’s career as a novelist were planted early. “So I started to see the world through stories. I saw a lot of stories around me, and I created a lot of stories in my head,” Ms. Varadarajan recalled. “I was very shy and quiet in school. I read a lot of literature that excited me at the time.”
Ms. Varadarajan started her teaching career in the Middle East, moving to Dubai with her new husband to teach in a Pakistani school where she was one of only two Indian teachers. In the classroom, she readily overcame her minority status. “I found that the relationship between the teacher and the student was sacred. The boundaries created outside withered away in the classroom.”
Almost immediately, she realized she wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her career. “Ever since then I’ve been teaching,” she said. “I went back to India, had my two sons, and I continued to teach.”
Then, in 2010, a new chapter began in her life. Her husband, working for a technology company, got an opportunity for a new job in the U.S., “so he said we should go and discover a new land, a new culture,” she said.
So with about 15 years of teaching experience and a flourishing career in charge of curriculum for a number of schools in Bangalore behind her, she headed to America. “So I gave up everything, very sadly, but I went to the U.S. very excited for a new life and a new beginning,” she explained.
Earning her master’s degree in literacy education from Teachers’ College at Columbia University, Ms. Varadarajan, who now lives in West Windsor with her husband and two sons — one a junior at Rutgers next year, the other a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North — was delighted to find a position teaching second grade at Riverside. “I wanted a place where I thought my voice could be heard and also the voices of all the children that I teach,” she said. “I like Riverside a lot, because it’s a small school and it has a family feeling. We’re able to do some excellent things because of the small size of the school.”
Noting the significance of being the only South Asian teacher in the school, Ms. Varadarajan went on to point out, “A diverse teaching staff is something that America definitely needs at this time, to reflect the diversity in our country and ensure that we do not make assumptions about each other’s cultures. We’ve seen the demographics of the students change overnight. Now it’s time for the demographics of the teaching staff to also undergo change.”
Changing the World
Teaching and writing will both be important in Ms. Varadarajan’s future career. She looks forward to another collaborative endeavor with Sarah Weeks, co-author of Save Me a Seat, and she has plans to broaden her teaching experience.
“I’d love to write more,” she said. “I hope I can partner with Sarah again, and this time write something about girls. It can change the world. It’s a safe space to open up the conversation about change. There’s a whole conversation about diverse books, but I think diverse authors is important too.”
In the fall of 2017, Ms. Varadarajan also plans to teach a course to prison inmates through the Princeton University Prison Teaching Initiative. “I’m interested to see how writing can actually help alleviate the pain and lead to a more reflective person,” she said. “I’m hoping to teach a creative writing course. I’ve always looked to do something that is meaningful beyond myself.”
And whether it’s second graders, prison inmates, or others, Ms. Varadarajan maintains her vision of the “sacred relationship” between teachers and students.
“It’s very important,” she said, “that we as teachers help to make them more empathetic, more sensitive citizens of the world. It’s not just their test scores. More importantly, we need humane education, and literature. We have beautiful literature in this world and it’s our job to use that as a safe space to open up conversations. That is one of my aims as an educator. That’s why I went into education. Reading and writing can change the world. Especially in a democracy.”