The first book I remember reading where a teacher was a prominent character was ‘To Sir, With Love’ by E R Braithwaite. The film, as many of us know, was also made into a successful motion picture and warmed the hearts of many teachers who had similarly faced the slings and arrows of outrageous students. The popularity of the film brought into focus, for a short while, the teacher as a literary character, leading to increased sales of books like ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ by James Hilton (also a film) and, Muriel Sparks’ ‘The Prime of Miss Jane Brody’ and more recently, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ (N H Kleinbaum) and ‘Music from the Heart’ (Bob Kennedy).
The teacher has also been an important – if occasionally misrepresented – figure in cinema as well, particularly in the Hindi films and other Indian regional cinema. From the impoverished but principled school master (many a time played by Balraj Sahni or Uttam Kumar) in the Hindi cinema of the Fifties to the comic character in more recent Mumbai multi-starrers, there has been no dearth of filmi teachers to cry with, laugh at, ridicule and feel just a little sorry for. But movies are movies, and melodrama is an essential ingredient there; books, on the other hand, are things one can live with and experience on one’s own terms.
Most of us like to read about professions and lifestyles different from our own; we want to be introduced to the strange and exotic, stories not of our own everyday adventures but of things that are unlikely to happen to us. But there is also a part of us that likes to read about the familiar, that finds comfort in identifying with the small battles and compromises of those like us, and when we come across stories where the protagonist “could have been” one of us, there is a definite sense of gratification. They often point us to solutions to problems similar to those we are facing. There’s something else going on here too. When schools and teaching are the subject of a novel, of a piece of work that people everywhere will read and perhaps empathise with, we hope they understand us and our context a little better, that they see something of the pathos – and the joys – of our daily grind. This is perhaps why children enjoy school stories so much. Remember how much we enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St Clare’s series, or the Chalet School books? Of course, in these books, meant for children, teachers were painted to cater to students’ perceptions – they were either benevolent, kindly matrons or stern, sharp spinsters with few shades in between! Books for older readers, on the other hand, have a whole range of portrayals that offer a richer, more nuanced understanding of a teacher’s life.
So why not arm ourselves with a selection of books that feature our ilk and sit back and enjoy our down-time with them? Better still, why not create a short book list that you and your colleagues can all read and then share ideas on? You could begin with old favourites that are easily available (perhaps your school library would have a copy or one of the teachers in your group) such as R K Narayan’s ‘The English Teacher’ or O V Vijayan’s classic ‘Legends of Khasak’ (the original Malayalam ‘Khaskinte Ithihasan’). In some of these stories, the fact of being a teacher is woven tightly into the character’s identity, making him what he is and influencing what happens to him. In others, teaching is something the central character just happens to do.
The most recent book I read that talked about a teacher’s life from the inside out, and all the everyday politics and practicalities of teaching, much of which have little to do with learning in the conventional sense, was ‘Teacher Man’ by Frank McCourt. An Irish immigrant from a working class family, McCourt did time unloading bundles in the New York dockyards before being certified as a teacher. McCourt talks about the fears and insecurities that follow him into the classroom and the ways in which he deals with them as he builds an equation with his students, as individuals and as a group. He finds that what the students remember and what they take real lessons from are not the lectures on grammar or poetry but the stories from his life, his own admissions of success and failure, his doubts and fears. He becomes more of a real person to them as he shares his life with them, and from being “Mr McCourt” he becomes “Teacher Man”, a real person with a real life. McCourt also talks about how he deals with popular perceptions of the school teacher, facing as he does the derision and lack of understanding of university professors, lawyers and businessmen.
Another book that has been discussed in recent times is ‘The Abstinence Teacher’ by Tom Perrotta, which tells the story of Ruth Ramsay, a high school health teacher who juggles issues of religion, faith and politics while she tries to introduce her students to the idea of safe sex and the ramifications of risky behaviour. Indeed, the teacher has always been looked to as the keeper of culture, as the one who transmits societal values from generation to generation, and whose own moral degradation or compromise often symbolises that of the entire culture. Take Chinua Achebe’s ‘A Man of the People’. Here, the central character is a parochial politician, but his story is told through the voice of a teacher, Oditi, who is witness to the gradual decline of principles in politics and in life. Also set in Africais Nadine Gordimer’s ‘A Son’s Story’, which talks of a teacher’s son and his awakening to the politics of apartheid and the attendant radicalism.
Often the stories are tales of transformation, of teachers who have been able to create critical change in students, teachers who have been able to open doors for children who were trapped within walls built by poverty and prejudice of different kinds. Some of the books mentioned earlier belong to this genre (Music from the Heart, Dead Poets’ Society). These are always uplifting and good for those days when you feel defeated by the system!
So look over the shelves of the school library and any other collections you can access and find some of these books or others you may have heard of, and start reading! As a follow up, you could rent a video of a book-turned-film and watch it with your colleagues at the next opportunity. Some of the stories will make you laugh; others may bring a tear to your eye, and yet others will make you sigh and perhaps rue the unfairness of life… of a teacher’s life. But they will all give you the sense of sharing something with many others, all over the world, and in a way that is the best part of reading – it allows you to travel through other minds and lives and feel connected with ideas and events that in some way become a part of you.
Write to us and tell us about the books you have enjoyed, in this genre of what we might call ‘teacher-centric fiction’!