Teaching, learning, and appreciating with Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh

It was the third, maybe the fourth day, of our week-long hike, somewhere in the Himalayas. I was exhausted and grumpy. All of us were. I just wanted to go back. But every time I complained about my aching back or tired feet, they shouted out words of encouragement or tried to distract me. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so optimistic while carrying what seemed to be the heaviest backpacks in the world and wearing soaked hiking boots. But Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh somehow managed to always see the silver lining.

During that week, I, like the rest of our group, grew fond of the couple, who had arrived at Woodstock just a couple of months ago. However, I did not think that our relationship would last beyond that week.

It’s been almost two years since the hike, and here I am, trying to document their time at Woodstock, still getting used to the fact they will not be starting this new academic year with me.

Ms. Leaf Elhai taught middle and high school English, primarily to the sixth and eleventh grade. She founded the Woodstock Thrift Store along with some students and was the staff advisor for The Woodstocker and the Academic Honesty Council. She was also active in the drama department, where she directed and acted in two staff plays.

Being involved in extracurriculars helped Ms. Leaf  “see how self-driven and independent Woodstock students are.” When she had the idea for the thrift store project, she pitched it to a few students, who then led it.

“It was so cool to see students acting on their passions. Whether it was students who loved fashion design, or there were a bunch of kids who were into marketing. It was exciting to provide an outlet for students to explore,” Ms. Leaf said.

Mr. Dinesh Ayyappan taught middle and high school Math and Computer Science. When he joined, he took over the robotics PASSAGE, which he later turned into the Esports and gaming PASSAGE, where he and a few students who shared his love for gaming would get together after school and play video games. Things often got competitive.

“We would practice like a sports team, and then we had these scrimmages with seniors versus 10th graders. It was really high-intensity moments, with lots of joy,” Mr. Dinesh said, “We started getting really sophisticated. We would watch our replays and come up with strategies.”

PASSAGE became an important part of Mr. Dinesh’s life at Woodstock, and during some semesters, he was involved in PASSAGE activities for seven to eight hours every week.

For the couple, the highlight of their time here was the relationships they formed, not just with the students they taught, but with an entire community.

They spoke fondly of their advisor group, many of whom they did not teach.

“The very first day, Swapnil came down to Alteridge and was scoping us out, and texting the other advises — you know, if we were cool or not,” Mr. Dinesh recalled.

They recollected how they immediately grew fond of the group.

“We had never [had students come home before], that is not common at public schools in the US. A lot of teachers are quite protective of their personal space. I don’t think we felt that way,” Ms. Leaf said, remembering the first time they had the group over.

Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh with their advisor group

Before coming to Mussoorie, the couple worked at a larger public school in Boston. Coming to Woodstock, according to Ms. Leaf reaffirmed the importance of relationships in education for them.

“We had never worked at a boarding school before. So in the past, we had good relationships with our students, but it was like forty-five minutes a day in the class and maybe like passing in the hallways. So it is just a totally different experience living and working in the same community as our students, and also our colleagues. That’s the biggest thing I have appreciated about being at Woodstock, is the depth of the relationships,” she said.

Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh’s love for teaching is also accompanied by a passion for learning.

Mr. Dinesh, whose family is from India, was brought up in the States and was the only one in his family who could not speak or understand Hindi.

So, during their time here, the couple attempted to learn the complex language by taking lessons twice a week.

They can now “watch a Bollywood movie and pick up phrases.”

I remember when they asked me and my friends to make them a list of Bollywood movies to watch. Two years later, they have, in fact, watched many of the ones we suggested.

“We love Amir Khan. He does a great job pushing cultural issues,” Mr. Dinesh said.

“Dil Chahta hai,” Ms. Leaf exclaimed, one of their favorites.

For most people who come to Woodstock, living on the hillside becomes an important part of their experience, as it did for Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh.

Both Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh grew attached to the hillside, enjoying the walks down to school from their home at Mount Hermon, the various outdoor activities they took part in, and spending time with the cat they adopted. Mr. Dinesh, unlike most people, also grew fond of the monkeys.

Ms. Leaf and Mr. Dinesh at the annual Inter-house cross-country event

“We’ll miss our neighbors. Mount Hermon is a really nice community. People are always cooking and sharing. We can also just walk up to the Chakkar, if we need a break… We can [also] see the snowy peaks from our house on a clear day” Ms. Leaf said.

“It’s also so quiet. We’re living in a city right now, and we heard a fire truck pass by yesterday,” Mr. Dinesh said.

“There are no fire trucks in Mussoorie, everything just burns down,” Ms. Leaf laughed.

She’s right, I thought.

Mr. Dinesh recalled the couple’s first monsoon hike with their colleagues. This was also the first time they experienced leeches, a staple in the hills during monsoon.

“It was so creepy and so different from anything we had seen before. But everyone was in it together, and those kinds of experiences are the most fun. Mr. [Simon] Paul had just embraced the leeches, and there [were others] who [had] duct tape and salt and knee-high rubber boots. It brought out all the characters in the group really well.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 3.32.55 PM
Activity Week 2018, Ruinsara Tal

However, the couple is returning to the bustling city life, as they step into the next chapter of their life together. After having spent the summer in Boston with their family, they moved to Singapore in July.

They will continue to teach high school students at their new school. Ms. Leaf will continue teaching high school English, and Mr. Dinesh, high school Computer Science and Math.

“Can’t get away from teaching math,” Ms. Leaf chuckled.


Janvi Poddar is the Editor-in-chief of The Woodstocker

Photos courtesy of Ms. Leaf Elhai, Mr. Dinesh Ayyappan, and Mr. Ben Bowling 

Edited by Archita Aggarwal 

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