The cuckoo clock in the living room announces that the last hour of the day has begun. Light seeps into the corridor through the bottom of the door to Amma’s room. Looks like Amma– Sarada Teacher– has not yet retired for the day.
My earliest clear memory of Amma is when she comes to pick me up from the crèche. Toddler-me runs into her welcoming arms and is instantly greeted by the smell of chalk dust lingering in her hair, no matter how hard she tries to pat it off.
Soon, the crèche memory makes way to my first day at school. Clinging on tight to Amma’s index finger as she leads me into a colourful building and I try not to throw a tantrum as she hands me over to another saree-clad woman standing in the classroom. After a brief interaction with this lady, she gives me a peck on my cheek, confirming that she’ll be back for me by afternoon. Anxious, my tear-filled little eyes trace her as she leaves the room. Just as I was about to cry, the woman in the room comes up to me and mumbles soothing words– however, what calmed me was the smell of chalk dust in her hair.
Kindergarten made way to higher classes and I find myself standing in front of the mirror with crisply ironed uniform, complete with freshly polished shoes. 6th grade meant that I was now a big kid and was supposed to act responsible for my age. Unlike what was expected of a teacher at home, Amma was not a stickler for rules; I had my fair share of fun (read: mischief) and all what Amma had asked me to do was to think of her and my teachers before doing something– if it makes them proud, makes them happy, go for it; if not, leave it.
A couple of boys in my class thought it’d be fun to blow up stuff in the junior’s chemistry lab and seeing that I was the teacher’s pet and the one in charge of distributing apparatus to the batch, they decided to include me too. In a rush of adrenaline, I forgot to do my ‘Will Amma be proud?’ analysis and jumped on the bandwagon. Within half an hour, we managed to create Sulfur dioxide in our own flasks in the unsupervised lab. The smell of rotten egg spread all over the school and the first to rush in was my chemistry teacher. Seeing the sheepish smile on my clueless face, her expression changed from worry to disappointment, akin to the poker face Amma dons when I do something too mischievous. I half-expected disciplinary action, with some class-A sermons on responsibility and perhaps physical punishment. However, all what I got was the silent treatment. (Whether or not I received some good spanking at home, was a different story.)
At the end of the academic year, I went around to say thank you to my teachers, when the chemistry ma’am beckoned me to her side and said, ‘The reason why I didn’t say a word on that day was that you’d learn how important it is to be responsible. Chemicals are not playthings- what if you messed up Sulphuric Acid or something? My reprimanding might do temporary effect, but you’ll soon forget it. You are the future- you are to lead your generation. Our oversight will soon pass- it is you who should act on your own and be beacons to the coming generations.’ Somehow, I could not sleep that night, with the face of the teacher coming into my mind. Chalk dust was all around her face, like a halo.
Soon, it was 8th grade, and for the first time, I was going to sit in one of my mother’s classes. She made treating me like any other student look effortless– I had to hold back my tongue from calling her Amma, at least once a week. By now, some of the typical teenage rebellion had kicked in and I preferred going to school in hair that was longer than ideal, and a barely-there stubble. (Not that it didn’t earn any scornful looks from Amma.)
Friday’s last session was an hour of Chemistry, and Sarada Teacher had to handle a bunch of restless hooligans, impatient for the weekend to begin. Teachers themselves were exhausted and were at their wit’s end, waiting for some much-needed rest. However, all I saw in Amma’s dark brown eyes, even in such a tiring situation, was love- the same love that reflected in her eyes when she served me dinner- as she spoke to each and every one of my classmates, troublemakers or not. It was the same sparkle I had seen in each of my teachers’ eyes till then– My respect for all teachers increased manifold that day.
Every human being finds himself/herself at a crossroads at some point of time. For me, the first time I ended up confused was in 11th grade, when we had to choose the directions of our careers. Amma being a chemistry teacher and having stellar marks in science, everyone expected me to take up the science stream. I was tired of doing things just because someone else did, and was in a dilemma as I was tired of being typecast. Seeing my indecision, my favourite teacher, the maths sir in 9th grade, told me to follow my dreams and to become the best version of myself- one that makes everyone proud. I made up my mind to go for the arts– the first major decision of my life. Contrary to my expectations, almost all my teachers–including the science ones- stood by me as I made the transition.
And yes, my sir’s words came true a few years later, when I graduated B.A. History (Hons.) summa cum laude from one of the most prestigious colleges in the country.
I was planning to do my research in ancient Mayan culture and their remains today and the only guide in the subject in India was a 50-year old man. I decided to enrol myself under his tutelage and to widen my horizons of knowledge. However, things were not at all how they looked- the guide was a man reeking of negative energy– something I had never experienced all my life from a teacher. Embittered from years of unfair treatment, he lashed out at us in retaliation. One of his most hurtful remarks was that ‘none of you are ever going to get anywhere’. For the first time, I was fuelled by an emotion, to prove him wrong.
The ‘online classes’ regime has affected teachers and students pretty hard. Parents who previously cared only for the marks on the report card and the performance in routine tests held by various entrance coaching
concentration camps are now sitting with their children as they tune into ‘zoom’ for the day’s classes, due to a lack of better things to do. With upturned noses, they judge the teacher’s intonation, the way he/she dresses, the (in)appropriateness of the background, and how he/she handles the software, with no concern whatsoever about how the teacher is able to impart knowledge to the students, and how good the student imbues the lesson.
What intonation can one insist for in an 8th grade chemistry class where students learn to balance basic chemical equations? Does it ever reach their minds that most of these teachers, now past their prime, use technology only when absolutely necessary, and are not familiar with such contraptions? The poor teachers take it upon themselves and work into exhaustion, burning the midnight oil, for naught– ensuring correctness of their lessons, now with the presence of enhanced ‘scrutiny’.
It is past midnight, and fuelled by curiosity and concern, I push the door open and enter Amma’s room. It seems Amma has fallen asleep into the textbook open at her desk, her reading lamp still on. Her hair is now streaked with grey, and wrinkled have made their way into her once-youthful face. What still remains unchanged, is her dark brown eyes filled with love as she addresses her students onscreen, helping them become beacons of knowledge to the whole world. All that is missing is the ever-permanent smell of chalk-dust.
Much water has flown under the bridge and I earned my Ph.D. in Mayan History a couple months back. The post-doctoral research scholarship offers me to go to Cobá in Mexico, to which I will be leaving, soon after COVID-19 dies down.
Looking back, I realise that my life has been one that was carefully moulded by God, through the gifted fingers of
teachers Gurus. A few bad eggs aside, Life with them was enlightening and they led me to knowledge, rather than spoon-feeding data relevant for passing examinations. Any gratitude I can ever express would be extremely inadequate, for they have been the lamps I followed all my life and are a main force behind who I am today.