A teacher who happened to be my father – My Childhood nostalgia series – Chapter 10
My father was a secondary grade teacher. He passed away peacefully, on 15th December 2009, at a ripe old age of 85. It might be difficult to judge him as a father because an element of subjectivity and emotional sentiment would invariably creep in. But I can always judge him as a Teacher because I have seen so many teachers across my 17 years of academic life to compare him with and my standards of expectation on teachers, I can confidently say, are rather high.
Mr V.Chakravarthi (My father and a retired school teacher)
42 years ago, I was in eighth standard and my father, a Secondary Grade Teacher, was my class-teacher at the Government High School. It was the first time I was ever learning academically from him. Why? You may ask: Did you not learn from him at home? Was he not available at arm’s length to clarify your doubts in your lessons?’. No, he was not!
Whenever I score high ranks in my class, my bosom friend Viswa’s elder sister would always exclaim- “What is there to boast about? You have a full time teacher at your home!”. She never bothered to listen nor acknowledge my honest protests that the reality was otherwise!
If at all we children were to approach him with a doubt, his sharp retort would always be “What were you doing in the class? Dozing at the desk? Assuming that you weren’t, why did you allow your teacher to proceed until he clarified your doubt?”
But I have seen his teaching prowess at home not to any of his children, but to the students who came to him for private tuition in the mornings and evenings. My elder sister in fact used to hide herself behind a curtain, listen to his teachings to the tuition students and learn rather stealthily! But the process was normally never long lasting.My father belonged to a group of endangered species of teachers who believed that understanding a subject and learning it thoroughly was more important than mugging up answers and vomiting them to score high marks in the examinations.
Normally, the arrival of students for tuition will be in flocks immediately after quarterly- examinations when parents wake up in shock at the sight of their children’s mark sheets, and drive them to join some tuition class. My father, after identifying that the mathematical skills or their English grammar basics were hopelessly hollow in fundamentals, would start his coaching of the boys mostly with their previous year’s portions!
Further he belonged to the generation which believed in the dictum ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. He never hesitated to wield the cane on adamant students. Over grown, egoistic and dull headed boys would normally drop out within a couple of days when they receive a few lashes from his cane!
By the time the boys hone up their hitherto missing skills in basics from my father’s tutelage, half-yearly exams would arrive and they will be hopelessly falling behind in the ‘current affairs’ at the syllabus. Result? The parents who rightly expect a positive hike in the marks of their children, would get disillusioned. Post half-yearly, my father’s strength of tuition students will shrink to a quarter! This of course excluded those who had already run away awestruck at his cane-wielding skills!
Despite being one of the most respected Math teachers at the school, he was too poor in counting the beans. Showing a deaf ear to my mother’s quarrels and warnings on this subject, he would never bother to ask for the monthly tuition fees from his students. If somebody pays promptly, it’s fine. If somebody keeps on coming without making his previous monthly remittance, no problem! If somebody says he can not afford to pay, he was all the more welcome!
But I know, for sure, at least there will be a dozen of boys, who managed to stick to him for whatever reason for a couple of years, would still have a corner in their heart chiseled out for him, remaining thankful to him lifelong for the basics in math and science that he drilled into them for the rest of their lives.
Now coming back to father-as-class-teacher. I can always eulogize his teaching methodologies, capacity to teach mathematics with down-to-earth examples, his command over English grammar etc. But those apart, what struck me point-blank were two aspects in his personality. One was his level of self-confidence and the unhindered flow of words when he taught. It was absolutely contradictory on a person whom I was more familiar with at home. My mother was always the dominating personality at home. She, naturally, as the one managing the burden of a huge family, was always critical about my father’s meager income, his lack of managerial capacity in the affairs of cultivation at the ancestral land at our native place and his charitable mindset towards tuition students. My father always looked defenseless in front of her, stuttering and stammering while talking to her and perhaps as a consequence of it, was not too communicative with us children. That all these traits he left behind at home and taught like a monarch, holding his head high in the class was a matter of greatest admiration for me.
The second aspect that I admired in him was his total disinterest in seeking respect from students or in keeping them under his strict control, unlike many teachers of his time. He never liked us shouting the customary “Vanakkam Aiyyah” (meaning Good Morning Sir’ in my mother tongue Tamil) as he entered the class. “Why make such a noise? Simply get up silently as I enter the class- that too if you want,; If you want to sit quietly, that would be fine!” he would say. His statutory rules were: If you want to go to toilet, go without asking me and re-enter same way. If you want to hand over a notebook to a next-class friend who stands at the entrance trying to grab my attention, you simply go – don’t disturb me! If you want to take leave, why write a leave letter , seek my permission and waste a piece of paper? Simply take leave!”
A third aspect of his personality as a teacher which I did not notice at my young age, but much later in my life was a spiritual one. His activity as a teacher had a strong tinge of a true Karma Yogi. He hardly ever remembered any of his students (except me perhaps!) who came up in life and paid their respects when chanced upon to meet him. My elder sister narrated the following incidence to me a few years back:
“In Mayiladuthurai (a small town in Tamil Nadu, India), we were staying in a newly built apartment for a brief period, Our neighbor was a Doctor, who became friendly with my husband. During the course of our converstions, we came to know that he too belonged to our native place and studied in the same Government school. He came to know about our father and said excitedly, “You are VC sir’s, daughter! How nice! I was his student! Such a great teacher, he was. I was one of his favorites! I would like to pay respects to him, if he visits your home. Never forget to inform me”, he said.
“When our father visited my place last December, I sent a word to the doctor. He came along with his wife, paid his respects and offered a plateful of fruits to him. “Sir, don’t you remember me? I am always indebted to you Sir. A lot is attributable to your contributions in teaching me, to my success in life today!” said he. He looked a bit surprised when our father said that he did not remember him. But in a consoling tone, and with no willful play of words what so ever, our father replied to him:
“Don’ t feel bad that I don’t remember you; During my service, I have seen thousands and thousands of students and I hardly ever remember any one of them. All the words of praise that you showered on me, are nothing but an expression of your affection on me, rather than any merit on my part. I have taught you and scores of students in your class and taught the same, with the same effort to all – and not all of them have emerged as doctors. If you have emerged as a doctor today, it is solely due to your merit and not mine. If I were to take your praise as true, then I am to equally take the blame for the failure of so many students every year in my class! I had done my duty and you have proved your merits. That’s all. Any other statement would only be an exaggeration and contrary to truth”.
When my sister finished the narration, there was an indelible expression of immense reverence in her face about our father who happened to be my teacher.