By Soumashree Sarkar
Teachers in school are the Gods of all things: bringers of all sorts of doom and delights.
I grew up in south Calcutta and went to a 60-year-old all-girls convent school run by the sisters of the Apostolic Carmel. At once austere and at a gigantic remove from the elite schools of the city, my school nonetheless subscribed to the atmosphere of dogged attention to academics and displeasure at any activity that took time away from books – including reading ‘story’ books. In the humid Calcutta heat, a band of women in sarees laboured through the day to make us into ‘ladies’ – a word that would be used to signify the ultimate goal of attending school – while we resolutely picked our noses.
The teachers, whom I worshipped, were all women and I have kept in touch with most of them after school. Not only has communicating with them as adults made it possible for me to see them as humans, it has also made it possible for me to make sense of some of their behaviour that left a younger me in tears.
In the limited scope of the secular convent school culture, there were people who emerged as anomalies. One of the best examples was the principal of our high school. Our transition from primary to high school took us not just across south Calcutta, but also put us under the care of a headmistress who was both fierce in her stances and simultaneously taught us the importance of being laidback. While other teachers went into frenzied paroxysms when a student was caught scrawling a boy’s name in the back of her copy, Sister Ann Imelda patrolled the corridors in her biscuit saree uniform and spoke at morning assemblies on the importance of being yourself at all times. She talked about the fact that sanitary napkins need to be disposed of properly not because they are taboo but because they pose a threat to hygiene and on how we need to be kinder to our mothers. As I grew closer to her through my years progressing through high school, I realised that she valued extra-curricular activities more than the tradition of the school allowed. She gave students numerous chances and made school captains out of girls who were notorious in their indiscipline. She made concessions for our absences when my friends and I roamed the town performing street plays and participating in every play competition available. She introduced the concept of ‘assembly programmes’ where a particular class would put up a ten-minute cultural show in interpretation of a topic she would give them. And she rang a little bell while she patrolled the corridors as if to say, “I know you are ruffians who are jumping from desk to desk and I also know you would not like me to see you like this, so here I am, giving you a moment to collect yourself before you meet your principal.”
Sister was a nun. She had been a servant of the Roman Catholic Church for most of her adult life. But hers was a free-thinking soul. Of all the things that she taught me and my friends, the one incident that I will never forget is when I went to her office to speak to her and she off-handedly asked me what I was reading. I replied that I had just finished Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I realised immediately that I was treading tricky ground. The Church had entered into open warfare with Brown and news of this was making daily headlines at the time. Sister said, “Will you give me the book? I’d like to read it.” I agreed readily and brought it to her the next day. A day later, she called me to her office and returned it to me. I assumed that she had not read it, so I asked her if she had been too busy. She replied, “No. I have finished it. I know what you are thinking, but I always believe that I should try something for myself before forming an opinion.”
Imagine the resolve it took for a nun to say this about a book that had hurt the sentiments of the house that had been her life. I certainly did not, then.
When she retired from our high school in 2009, six of us gave her the complete works of an author we loved. She took the present and said, “This is my favourite kind of present to get.” She now spends her days touring the villages of the country, and I imagine her making every woman she speaks to feel a little more at home with herself.
I think it is fair to say that every teacher finds himself or herself to be partial to some students. And the truly beguiling part of this phenomenon is that it is neither academic excellence nor any other aspect identifiable by a student that goes into the unexplained fondness a teacher feels for a particular student. My aunt, who has taught for 26 years once told me that she liked a young girl in one of her classes because she mispronounced a word the same way I did.
I have been on the receiving end of both, a teacher’s overt love and protracted hatred. I have been fortunate that the hatred felt by a teacher towards me has not culminated into me suffering deeply for it. However, I did notice that a few of my friends who were favoured by teachers felt burdened by it to an extent that this affection held sway over their entire lives.
In a class of fifty, if you are the one carrying the notebooks behind the teacher as she makes her way to the staff room from the classroom every day, it makes you feel special and at the age of 13, you would probably go to any lengths to make sure you continue to be the chosen one. This is great as long as teachers who are particularly fond of you do not begin to make assumptions about who you are, while you yourself are only just beginning to figure yourself out. One of my best friends was a perpetual teacher’s pet. During our years in the same class, I have seen her dissolve into tears because a teacher told her that she expected a certain kind of behaviour from the whole class but not her; because another teacher told her to join her private tuition and when she did not, began cold-shouldering her; because yet another set of teachers held her responsible for a feud between them. She was in standard eight when the last incident took place. I remember the ice-cold tension in the class and to this day, none of us know the reason behind the feud or the pronouncements. But I can only imagine the effect it would have on a teenager when they are told, “Your actions drove me and my best friend apart” by an adult social studies teacher.
Yet another incident endures from the time when I was seven years old, in class two, and enjoyed the egalitarian approach of one of the most interesting teachers I ever had. Young and full of stories to complement our learning, our class teacher too had favourites but she was wise in her displays of love for them, taking care to not hurt others. One day she was teaching us degrees of comparison in adjectives and was drawing up examples from the props and people in the class to show us how Shreya is ‘taller’ than Ishani and how Souravi is ‘quiet’ but Joyita is the ‘quietest’. In time, we reached the adjective ‘beautiful’ in our workbooks. Everyone raised their hands up asking to be one of the three chosen subjects of the sentences that would incorporate the adjectives. Our teacher eventually chose three girls and told us that we need not think that they were beautiful, more beautiful or most beautiful at all. That we were all beautiful. But after the lesson was offer, she went up to the girl who was ‘most beautiful’, squeezed her cheeks and whispered, ‘You really are the most beautiful.’ She really is, especially today. But back then, quite a few of us heard this whisper and what I remember most is the girl in the middle – the ‘more beautiful’ one crying helplessly after the lesson. We gathered around her and asked her what the matter was and she could not say, and neither could we, but we all knew.
As adults inhabiting the world of children, teachers – underpaid, overworked and in charge of introducing you to the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – wield a lot of power. You can be turned off geography forever because of a particular teacher’s attitude towards you or develop great fondness for American musicals based on another’s efforts towards teaching you old tunes. I once jumped up in class in a leap of indiscipline and an English teacher with an unnaturally soft voice told me with a lethal softness, “I know that you are a very energetic person. But this is not the place for your energies. Please go to a government school, girls there are most like you.” At 14, I did not know that this was one of those multi-faceted and seriously misguided insults which you’d struggle to get to the bottom of, even as an adult. It only stung that she had lampooned such an intrinsic part of my character that I could not possibly have reigned in, even with her scolding. She taught literature, was very demanding of a particular kind of feminine primness from her students, and one of the few times when she generated interest in her subject was when she called a classmate a ‘nincompoop’ and we all went to the library to look it up in a dictionary. I hated her and her passion for lady-like behaviour. She was, as I found out later, a great source of solace to students who would come to her with their personal problems. This was a facet of her that I struggle to reconcile, but it is not that surprising in the light of the story of how I received my first lesson in feminism at the age of 9, from my then class teacher.
Cruel and cloistered jackasses that we were then, we used to routinely heckle a friend of ours for having a male friend that she was very close to. Word of this reached our class teacher. One day, in front of the whole class, she asked us if we had been speaking about this girl’s male friend during lunch breaks. We replied meekly that yes, indeed, we had. Then she said something that I have never forgotten. She said, “If she has a boyfriend, then she has a boyfriend. You have to leave her alone, it is not something that you can annoy her about.” In our all-girls school, pronouncing the word ‘boyfriend’ was in itself scandalous, well into high school, but here she was, a woman standing on the dais in the year 2000, and telling us that we had no business shaming a classmate for having a boyfriend. It was scathing and a lesson we all carried forward. It helped us become less bigoted and, at least in me, it embedded the seeds of feminist thought and theory.
Growing up, I often thought of her fondly and as a flagrant radical amidst all the people who were living in our fourth standard blindness.
Last year, I discovered her on Facebook and added her. In time, I noticed that she was aligned with the Right. Her shared posts reflected a faith in a loyal Indian nationalism that I have grown to be suspicious of in the light of the atrocities committed everywhere by the state’s machinery. She was neither a fanatic, nor was she frothing at the mouth with her pronouncements. They were as quiet and perhaps as deeply held as her belief in not shaming a girl for a boyfriend had been. To my left-liberal mindset, it was surprising to find that she was a believer of all that I held as the opposite to my feminist thinking. But I was discovering yet again the closed nature of my own thinking, and the particular variety of hers. I may not agree with her political opinions but what she started in me made it possible for me to have mine. She may be a right-winger but as a human and a teacher, she was undoubtedly great.
So, at the age of 26, here was yet another new lesson to be had from an old teacher. What can I say? Some people never stop teaching.
The writer lives and works as a journalist in Calcutta.