Every year on Teachers’ Day, we dressed up like our favourite teachers and mimicked them while the teachers laughed. We decorated teachers’ tables and bought them bouquets. Looking back, this token appreciation, however sincere, seems to fall short. Many of our teachers remained our lodestones and compasses far beyond classroom walls. Textbook lessons may have gotten us through board exams, but the life lessons imparted by some of our teachers have stayed with me, and with many women who won autonomy through the many exams of life, with no one but themselves to grade them. They made us feminists.
S Chandra, a 72-year-old social worker, credits a lot of her courage and autonomy to her college professor Mary. Having grown up in a lower middle class family in Mumbai, Chandra had to fight to be educated. Her parents didn’t see the point of her pursuing a Commerce degree or even finishing graduation back in 1963. “They wanted me to be married,” she recalls. “But I had no intentions of marriage.” During this time, she’d confide in her department head, professor Mary Thomson. Prof Mary personally went to Chandra’s home to convince her parents to let her graduate.
“She was my first lesson in learning to stand up for myself. She did it with kindness and assertion. She was my only role model and gave me the courage to lead the life I do now,” says Chandra. Taking cue from prof Mary, Chandra learnt to stand by her dreams over the years. Against all opposition, she decided to stay away from marriage and dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights. For over five decades, she’s worked with numerous NGOs and social outfits to fight for women affected by violence.
To this day, she credits prof Mary for being her ethical backbone. “When my family failed me, my teacher’s lessons stood by my side,” she recounts.
Decades and decades later in Mumbai, 25-year-old Shanti Yadav also credits her high school teacher for being able to puruse a career . For Shanti, her graduation was her ticket to a new life. Her mother was a domestic worker and had strived her entire life to get Shanti, an only child, educated. She enrolled her in private school with great difficulty. But life in a private school was anything but easy. She says, “Everyone came there from rich families and had lovely looking uniforms. I had no friends in school because I didn’t speak English like the other kids. I couldn’t go to their birthday parties because I didn’t have nice clothes to wear. It really affected my performance in school. But in class 8, Vanita ma’am became my class teacher and that changed everything.”
Vanita encouraged Shanti to speak up in class and made her feel accepted. Unlike other teachers who tried to make Shanti feel ‘special’ for coming from a lower-income group to study in a private school, Vanita treated her like any other student in class and personally coached her after school. This double pronged approach helped her feel confident that she deserved to be there like every other student.
Over the years, Vanita encouraged Shanti to pursue her education without being apologetic about her roots. She says, “I was told to study commerce because that’ll be ‘enough for my background’ but Vanita ma’am encouraged me to pursue my area of interest, biochemistry. On the day I graduated from Mumbai University, she was sitting next to my mother in the auditorium.” Shanti’s education helped her lead herself and her mother out of the grind, thanks to her work as a research assistant in a biochemistry research lab in Mumbai.
Financial autonomy is not the only thing that teachers have helped women find. For Chennai-based nutrition consultant, Jayashree Srinivasan, her college professor helped her find emotional independence, years after college.
In 2007, Jayashree found herself in an abusive marriage. The first few months of the marriage were, in her words, a ‘living hell’. But her family asked her to bear it for the sake of ‘dignity’ and ‘shame’. Jayashree, too, believed this was the only way to be. “I was a very timid child and was always protected by my family. I never had to deal with any problems on a large scale. So getting emotionally and mentally abused for the first time was highly traumatic.”
One day, her college teacher, Professor Seshadhri approached her to conduct a nutrition workshop in SNDT College, Mumbai. Meeting her mentor after ages was a rebirth of sorts for her. She says, “That day changed everything for me. Hiding my plight from friends was something else but I couldn’t hide it from my teacher. I told him everything and broke down.”
Over the next few months, he became a singular source of support. He encouraged her to file a divorce and was with her through every step of it. He helped her fight stigma and helped her get therapy for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Today, she enjoys a happy, single life with a career she’s proud of. “I am the woman today because of Seshadhri sir,” she exclaims.
Unlike many teacher-student relationships, Delhi-based Malvika Prasad has one that isn’t based on reverence. It is based on friendship. Malvika lost her mother when she was in class 7. Her English teacher Nirmala looked out for her mental health and counselled her periodically. “She was like an older sister to me,” says Malvika. “Plus, she very young. Even after school, we would meet often and I would spend time with her in her home with her dogs. It was almost therapeutic.” For Malvika, it was strange being friends with her teacher at first. But she eased into it over time.
Now pursuing her graduation in Delhi, she says, “We’re still very good friends. Being friends with my teacher has helped me study better and manage my part-time job too. I didn’t want to depend entirely on my dad for my college fees. So Nirmala encouraged me to work at a café alongside my education.”
If Nirmala helped Malvika overcome the loss of her mother, Dyuti Shetty’s teacher helped her become a writer. Funnily, it was her science teacher in school who encouraged her to write. “I was terrible at science but great at English,” recalls Dyuti. “But instead of getting angry at me for scoring terribly in science, Rachel teacher encouraged me to attend essay writing competitions and writing workshops. She was practically the reason I could even pursue my dreams against my family’s wishes. My entire family is full of doctors and I’m the only journalist and fiction writer in the family.”
Dyuti still maintains a great relationship with her teacher and has turned to her counsel over the years.
For a lot of independent women, life is more or less like a classroom, with never ending lessons to learn. We may or may not have friends to share our dabbas with, families to go home to and recess periods to breathe easy in. But having a teacher who scribbles lessons beyond the blackboard and the fourth wall; a teacher who tells us how to continuously learn and grow without losing a sense of sovereignty is the real treasure of a life’s education. For a lot of women standing on their own feet, the affection and respect for the teachers who strengthened their legs goes beyond playing dress-up on September 5th. It’s a lifetime of emotional bouquets and Teachers’ Days.
Co-published with Firstpost.