Pilgrimage, no less…


A happy coincidence occurred in my life recently. My friend’s daughter set me a questionnaire for her summer holiday project. One of the questions was ‘Name five people who have influenced you and why!’ I didn’t have to think much when I wrote the name of my class teacher. One of those five people, who has been most influential in my life is my class teacher of 5 years, Miss______. Guiding and inspiring a class full of hormone imbalanced teenagers must not have been easy, but Miss (that is what we called our teachers in India) did it with an ease which amazes me now.

A few days after writing the answers to the questionnaire set by my friend’s daughter, I found my teacher back in my life after 23 years, thanks to Facebook and efforts of a very dear girlhood friend, who kept on searching for her. Her efforts paid off, Ms _____ was found. We were told in her excited status update, to send in friend requests. After my initial doubt of is she the real one, I sent in a request and got accepted as her friend right away. From student to friend. Life has come to a full circle. I have grown up! I instantly wrote to her as I excitedly told my family,

‘I can’t believe it, I found my teacher on Facebook. I am messaging her right now! This is surreal!’ Yes, I am one of those people who overuse the term surreal.

Her influence in my life has been twofold. The first one being that of what educators dream of – instill the love of learning. She ignited in me the love for languages. She taught us Bengali for five straight years, and in those five years she held open the door of Bengali literature for me. I peered in and saw the treasure. And then there was that point of no return. She let my imagination soar, she waved the magic wand and opened my blind eyes so I could immerse myself in the prose and poetry of Bengali literary stalwarts. She taught me to think on my own, she gently let go of my hands, stood back and watched as I took hesitant steps towards appreciating literature. Appreciation of literature transcends language barrier. Love of Bengali literature paved way for love of English literature and translations of literature in other languages. She taught me to express my ideas coherently while writing. Well expressed ideas got kudos, a satisfied smile and a nod of the head. Badly written assignments got this rebuke,

‘Eki mudir dokan er bhasha? ‘ (This type of language belongs to grocery stores)! Why grocery stores? Don’t ask. 🙂 !

Some of the phrases she used for us have become legends in themselves. I will not even try to translate them in English (they were delivered in Bengali, of course) except one. As she asked us Bengali grammar and each of us gave wrong answers and kept standing, she said to us, ‘Bokader jodi kono building thake, tumi tar chile kothay thakbe’ (if there is ever a tall building for fools, you will be given the penthouse suite!) Since 20 of us stood in the class somewhat shame faced at our failure to provide the right answer, this statement caused considerable mirth. But we dared not bring any smile to our lips, so as not to be disciplined further. All the laughter was reserved for after the ringing of the bell. As we filed out into the corridor to go back to our classroom, laughter erupted like a dormant volcano. We imagined 20 skyscrapers of fools built next to each other and all of us looking out of our penthouse suites. It was a collective shame which turned out quite humorous at the end of that period.

Educators have one of the most difficult jobs, I think. They have the responsibility of inciting in their students this love of learning which is (or should be) the primary goal of education. And they have to do this within the strict parameters of set curriculum, standardized testings and the numerous other set of rules that different boards of education dictate for them. Miss had to stay within those parameters, she had to finish the curriculum, despite all the rules, she inculcated in us the love for the language that she taught.

She never had to raise her voice to bring the class under control. Her personality was such that before she entered the class, we sat up straighter, looked attentively towards the front of the class and made ourselves ready to listen and learn. We tried hard for her. I remember, our class got the trophy for being the best class in whole school. I have a proud picture of her holding a trophy with all of us around her, a thin, bespectacled me all the way at the back, peering at the camera. She encouraged us to participate in dramas, public speaking, debates, music. We went out and won inter school competitions in those. She was the wind beneath our sail. She pushed us so we could soar and reach our potentials. I am unsure of how the child psychologists would rate her method of disciplining us, but I, her student, would attribute her disciplining to that what Rabindranath Tagore talks about when he says,

“Shashon kora tarei shaaje
Shohag kore je go”

(The discipline that is infused with love is the best form of discipline)

It certainly worked for us. We felt her love and carried the love with us as we moved on and grew up.

I have so many happy memories of play practices and performances under her leadership. After 23 years, she remembered. Her first lines in my inbox was “Kemon acho? Ekhono natok koro?” (How are you? Do you still act?)

Her one particular advice came back to me after I became a mother and my children started going to school. She had said to us, when we were in eighth grade, ‘Do me a favor. When you are parents and your children go to school, instill in them a love of learning. If family and neighbors worry about the grades they are getting, lock yourselves in a room and throw the key away. Do not participate in the race for good grades but teach them to think for themselves, make sure their curiosity and thirst for true knowledge is satiated.’

Whenever my children truly enjoy a book and excitedly tell me the new information that they learned in school, I see their glowing faces and think of the advice I heard at age 14. I admit I haven’t been able to step out of the race completely, I have partially given in to societal pressure. Yet, I try not to. I try to talk about what went wrong, what they could have done better and most importantly, what did they learn?

All this happened a couple of weeks prior to my short trip to India. And I knew right away that going home would remain incomplete if I didn’t visit Miss. As two of my friends and I rang her doorbell, we became 13-year-old for a few moments, slightly unsure, apprehensive. There she was smiling. Our beloved teacher, now our friend. Three of us went to meet her with our children. The young ones sat silently with a grin on their faces as their mothers dissolved in laughter, again and again. There were, of course, a lot of ‘remember when’s! There were 23 years of life to catch up, so many laughs to laugh, so many memories to remember! My two childhood friends, who went with me to meet Miss are now educators themselves. I sat there quietly listening to them discuss their profession with their teacher, who perhaps, had some influence in their choice of career. They certainly have a wonderful role model to draw inspiration from. As we headed home, my daughter looked at my glowing face. ‘Mom, you are so loved!!’ She said with wonder and admiration in her voice. As I drowned in a beautiful feeling of contentment, I realized I am. I am so blessed to have been loved so.

Now all my visits back home would include a visit with my teacher. It is a pilgrimage, no less. After all, we are ‘her girls’! Every single one of us in that class.

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13 Responses to Pilgrimage, no less…

  1. Krishna Roy says:

    Thanks Piyali for doing this. Reading this- brings back days that we all cherish but never have time to celebrate.

  2. mahuya ray says:

    samay nicchilam Piyali…….just felt emotionally overwhelmed!……phone’s ringing from the morning……still i have not opened my facebook wall…..mobile is receiving sms…..I still live in your minds…….. etayi aamader akmatro paoaa…..i am proud of my child for her rich language & style of writing…..at least i could not hold my tears…..bhalo theko….

  3. arunima says:

    chokhe jol elo re Piyali… You are blessed.

  4. madammommy says:

    I am indeed, Arunima. Tuli’s project started it.

  5. spunkybong says:

    Reading this makes me realize what a wonderful writer you truly are. You bring tears to my eyes. (I’ll have to sue you for emotional distress). 🙂

  6. Anuradha Sen says:

    What a beautifully written tribute! It was heart-warming to read

  7. Gautam Datta says:

    School life is a golden life for every student. Some teacher impressed students in their way of teaching which is unforgettable for whole life.We knew about this miss and feel now her love for students other than teaching. Keep in touch with her whenever you come to India.

  8. reshamblr says:

    Asadharan. Can’t say any more. Keep penning.

  9. Debjani says:

    I too feel overwhelmed, like Ms. Ray. Can’t say more..
    Please write more of what you remember of our school and teachers..

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