Along the back roads of memory

Sunanda Ali

When I look back on my school days, a series of fragmented images come to mind. Maybe it was because of my discontinuous schooling (my father had a transferable job and we shifted every two years, which meant that I went to seven schools in total!) but I cannot remember one or even a few teachers who influenced me or changed the direction of my life. However, I do remember a few things about a few teachers, which now, when I think about it, may have influenced my teaching to some extent.

I do remember my English teacher in the 11th Grade. She was a nun, a cool, competent and dignified person. She never raised her voice, but I remember that there was never any occasion when the students were indisciplined. She taught her lessons with extraordinary clarity, and everything she taught has stayed in my mind with the same hard-edged brilliance. I remember the poem ‘Ode to Autumn’ by John Keats and the novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the way she taught it, and I am sure that now, when I teach these units, I am influenced by her example. I also remember her detachment from all of us students in class; she never made personal remarks or reached out to us at a personal level. Her approach was intellectual, and this stimulated our minds. Somehow, at that age, in our adolescence, her approach seemed to give us the space we needed.

The other teacher whom I remember is another nun, who happened to be the headmistress. I remember her because of her bad temper and her lack of patience. She seemed to not try to find out the reasons behind a student’s misbehaviour but reacted immediately to censure or punish. Her actions seemed arbitrary and unjust. Now, as a teacher, I often wonder how often as adults, our actions are seen the same way. It is possible that if students are frightened or worried about communicating with us, that we do not come to know how we or our actions are viewed by the students. That is a frightening thought.

So, when confronted with the question as to whether I as a teacher have been influenced by my teachers in any way, my immediate reaction was ‘No, I don’t remember any of my teachers much.’ But on further reflection, maybe my teachers have affected me in some way. And as teachers, we need to remember that similarly we will affect our students. However, the tricky part is that we never know what we will leave behind with them. It is likely that all our homilies and good advice (given with the best intentions) is completely forgotten, and something else entirely is remembered by our students even years later.

The author teaches English and is currently the principal of The Peepal Grove School. She can be reached at

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