Unforgettable moments from a “favourite” student

S. Balasubrahmanian

I was invited to write about the lessons I imbibed from my teachers. When I look back, I can think of many teachers who have been exceedingly kind to me. Some, doubtless in their eagerness that I improve, have demonstrated their anxiety using the cane as well. And then there were a few teachers who I just could not get along with. Looking back, I find myself being less judgmental about this latter group. I feel grateful to all of them for the role they have played in my life.

While it may seem unfair to pick one among them all, I would like to dedicate this Teacher’s Day tribute, to my teacher M. M was my ‘tuition’ teacher. In those days, tuitions were not common, and if at all, most of us would go there only in our high school or later. My primary purpose of enrolling for tuitions was to spend time with my friends outside of school. After all, we had all the time in the world after the tuition classes to explore the town on our bicycles and eat street food. No matter that I would later be reprimanded for returning home late in the evening.

In this essay, I choose to narrate some of my most memorable moments with M. I shall try not to sound preachy or be conclusive about the lessons learnt, and leave that for the reader to discern. The idea is to share some joyous moments experienced by a young boy with a teacher who was quite unique.

My first encounter with M was as unforgettable as it was shocking. It was the first day, and about 30 of us had gathered in a small room in his house. M was seated on a stool in the centre of the room. All of us were seated around him, in seats if they were available with many others standing. There was barely enough room for us to move. M said that this was an introductory class, and that he would start his lessons only from the next class. I still remember him as he was seated there, his face calm, a faint smile on his lips and his voice uncharacteristically soft for a teacher.

“You are in your 11th class. You will doubtless want to do well in your Board Exams next year. I am sure there will be many among you who also aspire to do well in the medical and engineering entrance examinations. If this is your primary motive, I suggest you approach teacher P. She teaches not too far from here, and is well known to consistently help her students produce extraordinarily well in the examinations. I will focus on learning physics with all of you. It is an interesting subject, and I love it. I shall hope to share this interest with you all, as we go by. I may not be regular, and will hold classes only when all of us, including myself, feel up to it. If this has disappointed you, I am sorry, but I wanted to make sure you know what you are in for.”

In the next class, there were four students. It was the four of us that would go to him for the next two years, mostly twice a week. It was obvious where the other 26 had gone. Since there were only four of us, we could afford to be flexible. M would casually saunter into the class, and on many instances, he would start by asking us what we wanted to learn. One of us would pick a topic or a question, and he would start off just from there. As he walked to the blackboard, he would admit to his handwriting and diagrams being illegible even though I thought they weren’t as bad as he made them out to be. “If one of you can draw better, please help me,” he would say. I did not understand how he could manage to start off with just about any topic. Many of his classes were impromptu, but rich in questions that we explored, and found answers for with his guidance.

One of my classmates, K, was the most studious among us. He was very regular with work in the school, and was definitely among the ‘top engineering aspirants’. It so happened that he missed a class on electromagnetics. When he returned the following week, he was keen to hear from M himself, and requested him to repeat the class. M didn’t seem in a mood to do so, and asked K to speak to one of us and catch up. When K persisted, M casually smiled, and asked K to speak with me. “Our names (M’s and mine) mean the same things. I am sure he will be able to help you catch up as well as I, and it will help him along with you.”

Hours would pass like minutes for me, in his presence. In those days, I had all but decided to pursue physics. Such was his love for his discipline, that the passion to ask questions and find answers effortlessly permeated the atmosphere in his presence. It wasn’t always physics, for him, though. I remember this one evening, when he was late by a few minutes and apologised. Not that we minded, it allowed us some gossip time after all. All throughout schooling, it was the ‘free periods’ that we most liked. So here he was, starting off his class, but seemingly preoccupied with something. After a few minutes, he paused, and asked us to excuse him. “There’s a cricket match going on downstairs, and all my thoughts are on the cricket ground. Would you mind if we did our physics another day? You can of course join me to watch the match if you like, or go home if you please.” I couldn’t believe what I heard, but I remember that in his honesty, he had made himself a lot more real and somewhat fallible. And that made me like him all the more.

Towards the end of class 12, he had moved to a more ‘professional setup’. Along with a few other professors, they were setting up a coaching institute. I doubt if he was really keen on it, but he did join them for his own reasons. The Board exams results had been declared, as well as those of some important entrance examinations. Some of my classmates had secured ranks in the Board exams and places in prestigious colleges. I had neither. The coaching institute called for a small get-together, inviting those who had to be felicitated. I was however, invited too, and I wondered why. I remember sitting there, feeling somewhat embarrassed, as one by one, names of my friends were called out and they were handed out prizes. I was clueless as to why I was invited in the first place, and just sat about fidgeting. When all names had been called, M finally rose and walked up to the dais.

“All the students here have secured one or the other distinction. I am happy for you all and congratulate all of you. I now want to call someone who has been special to me. I would like to introduce you to my favourite student,” he said, and looking straight into my uncomfortable eyes sitting in the last row and announced my name.

I had tears in my eyes. I don’t remember much else, except walking up to him fighting my tears, trying to smile and feeling overwhelmed. When I walked up to him, he shook my hands and wished me the best.

I remember M for all the wonderful moments we’ve shared together, but mostly for creating the love of learning in me. He made complex ideas look simple. He would often say, that if you cannot explain it to someone who knows nothing about it, then you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself. He made us feel that learning can be interesting, and it always was, in his company. I have unfortunately not bothered to stay in touch with him, and I dedicate this as my humble tribute to my favourite teacher.

The author works at Chrysalis, a Chennai based education research and innovation organisation and can be reached at bala@chrysalis.world.