Readers Write In #259: Oh Teacher, Where Art Thou?

Posted on September 4, 2020

7


(by G Waugh)

‘Jeeva what do you want to become in future?’

‘I want to be a teacher da’

 This was me when I was not older than 5. I studied in one of the most expensive schools at the heart of Chennai where a child belonging to a middle-class family like mine would be hard to find out. My father reportedly was chastised by his colleagues for enrolling me in such a ‘costly school’. I still remember the aura I enjoyed in my neighbourhood of being the only child who studied in such a great English medium school and who could give out the correct spelling for any English word longer than 7 letters. Trust me, for all the money my dad shelled out towards educating me and for compulsorily ‘donating’ towards school improvement, I turned out to be a bright student, a consistent first-ranker in the class and most importantly, a disciplined and well-mannered kid in the estimation of aunties and uncles in my neighbourhood.

During the early part of my schooling, I had a great fascination for teachers. They were the only ones whom I assumed knew ‘everything’ in the world, those who could never make grammatical errors while speaking and those whom I thought would never give in to temptations of love or marriage and floated around as ‘saints’ in civilian outfits. I fondly remember an eight-year old me covering my wide-opened mouth when one of my friends revealed that our Miss had a bulged belly because he knew she had a baby inside. On another occasion, when I asked my Maths Miss what the correct word for a female horse is, she replied that she did not know because she was a Maths teacher. I ran back to my friends to announce to them ‘Dei Miss ke theriaadhaam da’ (Even the Miss does not know it!!). We used to laugh out merrily whenever our teachers lecturing in English suddenly broke in to Tamil and made references to Rajnikanth-starrers they saw the night before on television to lighten the grimness in the class.

***

Why did I, like many friends of mine want to become a teacher at that age?

Possibly because I wanted to scribble an additional star in the answer-sheet of one of my students and send him back to his place with a face filled with pride and joy. I wanted to add one mark for the 6th two-mark question and 8th five-mark question and cheer up a teary-eyed failed student to help him clear a mid-term paper. I wanted to be like my Poonguzhali miss who would caress my head with her left hand seating herself upon my writing desk and lecturing students whenever she was in a good mood. I wanted to enter a class in the fifth period of a day when children are bracing themselves for another gruelling class of mathematics, declare it a ‘free period’, invite them to the middle of the classroom and encourage them to narrate stories or sing Carnatic songs.

I remember a perennially serious Sasikala Miss, who once furiously summoned me to the blackboard when I had scolded a girl with a ‘bad word’ on a case of a missing pen cap. I was anticipating nothing less than an hour of kneeling down outside the class and my eyes began to swell with tears. Before I opened my eyes to render an unconditional apology, she broke into laughter and set me free. During another occasion when some of my bench-mates were standing on the bench for not completing an assignment on time, our headmistress came for rounds and asked Sasikala Miss what was wrong with them. She told her that they had come five minutes late to the class after the lunch break and that she had made them to stand on the bench for another five minutes as a punishment. Our headmistress, disappointed at having missed a plumb opportunity to lunge at those hapless kids, walked away calmly. May be I had wanted to emulate my Sasikala Miss and be a kind teacher to all of my students.

***

As I grew up into the teens and changed school, all sheen on the surface was getting eroded and teachers no longer captivated my imagination. In Plus Two, I remember reading the name ‘simbu’ on the board and when I asked my Miss what Simbu was doing in a Differential Calculus class, she replied,‘Don’t know maths-ah? sin bx that is’.

Only one of my eight teachers could speak tolerable English in my high school and only two of them could make me understand what they were trying to say during their classes. If you think it was a very ‘ordinary’ school and that was why the teachers were so bad, please remember that it was my classmate who notched the First Rank in the State that year in HSC exams and our school had the highest number of centums in that district.

***

On the first day of my college, I resolved in front of my dad that I would succeed in becoming a gold-medalist in Electrical Engineering. I admit I cannot suppress a chuckle now when I am writing thinking about it. But let me assure you that it was a sincere resolve as steely as my dad’s who devoted every one of the two rupees he earned, towards my college education, without opting for a loan that would remain tied to me even after I enter employment. I was not impervious then to science and engineering as I am today, and to an extent, some subjects were really interesting to me.

But my Microprocessor Sir had a voice that died the moment it left his mouth; my Transmission and Distribution Sir resembled a Reverend whose head was programmed not to look beyond the book he held in his hand which he read to us verbatim like verses from the Holy Bible; many teachers had horrible handwriting especially when they worked out derivations on the board; many teachers kept secrets of engineering to themselves except those that would feature in the exams.

This is not to say that these teachers were the only ones responsible for wrecking my ship that was cruising towards my medal-winning ambitions. May be I had some issues as well.

My dad at the end of my third year in Engineering, one day looked at my semester marks and was fuming.

‘Why are the marks so low? I pay for your education more than any other parent in Tamil Nadu does. Don’t you listen properly to your classes?’

I did not have an answer. Why was I scoring low? How will I propose to our college-beauty Sithara in the final year if I fail in one of my exams and don’t get a job? Was it because I was not listening to my classes properly? In a moment of stirring epiphany, I realized suddenly that I had stopped listening to classes ever since shoots of black hairs started developing beneath my nose.

No, I don’t mean to say that adolescence had a role in my decreasing interest in listening to classes.My indifference to classes could be attributed to only one factor – the declining quality of teaching which only intensified as I grew up and reached a nadir when I was in the all-too important Higher Secondary. Right from Plus One, it must be acknowledged that I was my own teacher who handled all the subjects, who made proper, neatly laid-out monthly plans for completing the syllabus on time and getting the student in me ready for exams. I remember my dad asking me sometimes whether I was studying in a school or pursuing a correspondence course, for me and my books were inseparable entities for most part of the day during my teenage.

***

I recently happened to see one of my college lecturers seated across me in the local train, whose name and the subject he had handled I could not collect immediately from memory. I instinctively wanted to introduce myself and inform him that I work for a renowned software company. But I checked myself. I did not feel like talking to him at all and had no mood for taking a trip down memory lane. It was not just that we did not have a great relationship in college. Probably, it had something to do with me. When I reached home, I realized what it was – it was because I no longer had respect for my teachers. It was if I look back, never a coincidence that the worse the teachers were in terms of knowledge and their skills in articulation, the more condescending and arrogant they were towards their students as a result of which most of us barely had good impressions about them.

***

I am suddenly reminded of a random incident that happened a couple of years ago. We visited one of my mother’s friends and the lady of the house was a teacher working at an expensive private school for more than ten years.

My dad in the course of a conversation, I could not divine why he asked

“How much are you paid in the school?”

The old woman twisted her lips and after a pause,

”They pay well. Not a problem for us”

My dad should have understood and dropped the subject right away.

“Why don’t you tell us? I really want to know”

She concealed her irritation and spoke out.

“Nine thousand rupees a month”