When I was a child, a wee little tyke, with a flair for striking up conversation with virtual strangers, anytime I was asked that standard “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, I would reply without batting an eyelid: “A teacher”. It would make sense of course. With both parents in academics I guess it was taken for granted that I would naturally be drawn to that line. My parents never read too much into it. They thought it was cute, the way I would clumsily drape Mamma’s saris and pretend to teach an invisible class. Or how I would mark my own old notebooks because the very act of putting a red “tick” mark on paper would fascinate me. How a tiny slate hung up on the wall would be my blackboard and how I would constantly reprimand my particularly noisy invisible class to keep quiet and listen to me, shaking my head in disapproval, rolling my eyes wondering what they could ever amount to if they were this naughty in class.
It’s been decades since then, but in all honesty, I don’t think for once in my life, I thought I could be anything else. A writer, yes. But writing was more like an extension of myself, and not meant to be a profession because truth be told, I never thought I would be good enough to get paid. I still don’t, but that aside, I always knew that if there was a profession, one profession I had to pick, it would be that of a teacher.
How could I not, when one of the first memories I have of my father is him huddled over a table with six-seven students around him, poring over textbooks at our place because college was closed for the holidays and the syllabus hadn’t been completed? My mother would make tea and goodies every evening, and the students would be a constant fixture in that make-shift classroom for over a month. It was much longer before it occured to me that he didn’t do it because he was getting paid for it (he wasn’t) but because he was responsible for the students and their education, and he took it upon himself to complete the syllabus. My father’s students loved him. They became a part of our family, and even now, after all those years, we still know his students as our “brothers” and “sisters”.
My mother, on the other hand, was the science teacher everyone was scared of. She had built a reputation of being strict, and she was one of those teachers who could silence a class with one glance. Despite the fact that her belly laugh could be heard from the staffroom loud and clear even four classrooms away, the girls (ours was an all-girls school) were terrified of her. And yet, I have heard her have hour-long conversations, counselling teenage girls, being compassionate and understanding, crying for them and laughing with them and being their best friend. I have seen her hold a student in a tight embrace and tell her everything was going to be okay. I have seen her defend her students in front of demanding parents.
Times changed, like everything else. My father went into administration and moaned about how students took to coming to his office only when there was trouble. My mother became the principal of a school which, at that point, only offered classes till Grade 3, and became the motherly figure who would give company to little ones who refused to walk into class. My father became that ominous figure who walked through the campus every evening and refused to let latecomers appear for repeat exams. My mother once let a four year-old pat her tummy because he thought it was cute and cuddly. The tables had turned, and my perspective changed. Not for once though, did I ever think that I could find better teachers than my parents even if I scoured the entire world.
I’ve been blessed with amazing teachers who left an indelible impression on my life. Like my science teacher who taught me the importance of spelling regardless of the subject and made sure I never, ever forget the spelling of balloon. Or my English teacher who lent us P.G.Wodehouse and introduced us to the delicious feeling of having our bellies ache in laughter. Or the coolest professor I came across in university, the one who made being in class feel like the most fun thing to do, ever.
Which is why when I prepared myself to become a teacher, I told myself that this was my one chance at living my dream. Having made one dream come true, it was time to focus on the second one. J.K. Rowling, I reminded myself, was a teacher when she started writing Harry Potter. I could definitely wing it, this being writer and teacher at the same time. It simply felt right.
Everything I knew about teaching told me that your students make their first impression in the very first class, which is why you go in as an authoritative figure, or they’ll never take you seriously.
Me, I ended up humming notes from Closer in my first class, right after discussing the summary of The Solitary Reaper.
From that day started this brilliant roller coaster ride that I call teaching. Each day I walk into class I feel the same enthusiasm pulsing through my veins that I used to feel as a kid playing pretend “teacher-teacher”. With the younger ones, I tell them stories that used to fascinate me and I listen with all attentiveness to theirs. I learn their ways, whether it be “doing the dab” or teaching myself the steps to “Juju on that beat” or hear declarations about the most successful bottle flips in a row. With the older ones I talk about the songs on my playlist and the books I want them to read. I even started a so-called “class library” where I lend out books on the condition they keep them intact. I find myself aspiring to be the teacher they talk about years down the line. I want to be to them what my English teacher was, and still is, to me. I want them to fall in love with words, and for them to find out that there is nothing in this world, no sorrows or tragedies that can’t be cured with words. I find myself laughing along with them at inside jokes, wondering the very next moment if I am crossing that invisible line that separates teachers from students. Which is when I realise that sometimes, being a teacher and being a friend are not mutually exclusive. You could very well be both.
To close the circle of life, I offered to lend a student a P.G.Wodehouse today. And I find myself thinking of Mrs. Gopalan. Thank you, Ma’am, for starting it all.