On 5 September we celebrate Teacher’s Day in India and one is familiar with the traditional images – students doing a role-reversal and teaching to classes having teachers in the audience. It is interesting to note that we celebrate the birthday of our second President, Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, as Teacher’s Day since 1962. It is as per his wishes in response to requests by his well-wishers wanting to celebrate his birthday after he became the President.
It also brings back recollections of Teacher’s positively influencing blighted young lives across nations – Braithwaite’s ‘To Sir, With Love’ and Booker T Washington passing the ‘White Gloves Test’ to get admission in a college and then founding The Tuskegee Institute.
I was a good student and had little difficulty in making progress as a Science student at High School. And at this stage, I was more interested in English than in my elective subjects. My English teacher made all the difference by her unique approach towards teaching. Till then I only knew the ‘rote’ method that our schools were so notorious for, the tests would amount to credit your ability to memorize and reproduce the subject and not show any application of either intelligence or creativity. Indeed the approach only changed when I started studying my graduation and PG courses.
My English teacher took a very different approach in teaching us – she preferred to interact rather than deliver a sermon. She appreciated questions and encouraged debate in the class. She wanted us to go beyond the syllabus and read more of the authors and writers featured in the textbook. She was unconventional enough to use the daily newspaper as a tool to teach English. Her assignments were rarely theoretical, she tried to give us practical exercises while setting the typical assignments of writing a letter or a short essay.
I would spend time reading novels at the school library and once she saw me reading Saki short stories. We had one story by him in the textbook as well. She stopped by to have a quick chat and suggest a few other books I might enjoy in the same oeuvre.
She was not a disciplinarian in the conventional sense but kept things under control by use of her gift of repartee and mordant wit. I remember in one of our lessons the grandmother is supposed to show her love by giving the child stale chapatis and some Mango pickle. I was adventurous enough to make fun of the stale chapatis and she shot back saying that even in our own homes, our mother would not let food go waste, instead would creatively concoct some recipes wherein it could be used.
I was not really enjoying my studies and Maths in particular was proving irksome. We had a temp teacher taking classes and she just could not control us. Once in sheer despair, she made a few of us wait after the class to complete our work. Just for fun, in reply to a question asking us to write a sentence using the phrase ‘no rhyme or reason’, I wrote -, ‘For no rhyme or reason our Maths teacher made us stay back after her class’. Not one to miss a trick, she wrote back, ‘Are you sure?’
She wanted me to take part in an essay competition on road safety. I initially tried to do it but then just lost interest. She was a bit upset but did not say much. She goaded me to take part in the English Story Writing and Essay Writing competitions. I easily won the First prize for both. She then chose to deliver her homily, ‘Talent is a rare gift and to see it go waste for want of application makes me sad.’
Our relationship found depth only after I finished my schooling. For once I had not shone well in my exams and was very clear in my decision about not pursuing an Engineering degree. I was tempted to shift to pursuing English Literature but my father was adamant that I at least should pursue the Science stream. She could sympathize with my angst, but knew that there were practical difficulties in turning ones choices upside down.
In the meantime she chose to accept a foreign posting and moved abroad. I found courage to start exchanging letters with her and we wrote to each other regularly for the next five years. It was the time I took to complete my graduation and PG degrees and she became my confidante and sounding board. I did better at college, opted to work as a field sales rep during my vacations, started writing small articles for local newspapers and eventually moved to Mumbai to stay away from my family and pursue my Management degree. She took keen interest in my progress and bolstered my self-esteem and confidence in a crucial phase in my life.
Unfortunately my father had some medical complications post his retirement and his health concerns occupied our energies and attention. For me it was important not to lose focus of my studies and make sure that we took good care of him. He would be edgy and there would be occasional flare ups on trivial matters. I needed the counsel of someone who could understand and was sensitive enough to commiserate. I was fortunate to find the required solace in her missives. The letters used to be routed through the Embassy and usually we would be able to exchange about 1 or 2 every month. Imagine a world where the digital revolution was still to touch our lives – internet, email, mobile technology were all in early stages and certainly not meant for mass consumption.
I have stayed in touch with her though the nature of our relationship has indeed changed with time. I was preoccupied with my Corporate career in the initial years after completing my education. Even she was moving roles and cities. Eventually we have settled to a stable routine – email and Facebook has replaced the old-fashioned letters. But the intense phase that lasted for nearly five years is over and I do cherish the memories of the past. I recollected some of the same yesterday as yet another Teacher’s Day celebrations touched our lives.