The first thing that comes to my mind when I think back upon that big room with high windows is ‘her’, and a pencil horizontally perched between the crook of her upper lip and her nose, eyes crossed in concentratration as she focussed on her balancing act as a room full of giggling pony-tailed, plaited or otherwise eight-year olds looked on in amazement. She was Mrs. Chowdhury, our ‘Miss’ in second grade. Is that balancing act the only reason why I remember her? No, I remember her for her smile, her long, plaited hair, her starched sarees, the way she taught us to ‘pronounce English the way English should be pronounced’ and the collection of rubber stamps she had. Each of us would wait for the end of day, to be stamped. There were days when I had a monkey or a tortoise stamped on the back of my hand, on other days a rabbit and on rare occasion, a lion. By the end of second grade each of us had learned to stop ‘monkeying’ around, stop being a ‘lazy tortoise’, try and be as ‘quick as the rabbit’ and aim to be the ruler, like the king of the jungle, ‘the lion’.
Mrs. Mandel, my Vth grade teacher of English, who loved wearing red nailpaint and loved calling us ‘li’l Samosas’ always said that “the search for perfection begins with detecting imperfection”. And true to her word, in the first couple of months in Vth grade, she made us realise what perfect English was and how far we were from that notional level of ‘perfection’. Days on end we took back exercise books that had more red marks than actual letters and words. But by the end of fifth grade, we had much less red marks in our exercise books and by the end of seventh grade, most of us had virtually little or none: we were told that we could now read and write ‘grammatically correct’ English. I’m sure that I have not been able to attain the exemplary standards she had set for us yet, but the bug named ‘perfection’ had been well and truly embedded in our DNA.
In senior school, Mrs. Sarkar, our Vice Principal, was feared for her acerbic tongue and her desire to waste no time in calling a spade a spade. Nothing would go unnoticed under her hawk like gaze. I remember stiffening every time I would pass her in the corridor, wondering whether the ribbon in my hair was just the way it should be, whether my shoes were polished to a shine or my pinafore looked needlessly crumpled for the monring’s childlike pranks. I, much like many others before or after, would summon just about enough courage to ‘croak’ an apology of a ‘Good morning/afternoon, Miss!’ and off we walked as fast as our legs would carry us.With all the misguided opinions of the teenage years, I remember graimacing and feeling the bottom of my stomach fall out the day when she had walked into our XIth grade class, as our Political Science teacher. But over the next two years, as she helped lead us through the meandering portals of socialism, democracy, governance, capitalism, communism and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Chanakya, Hobbes, Locke and Marx, I slowly got to appreciate that the person behind the iron mask was indeed someone who was warm, endearing intelligent and unimaginably witty.
As I look back on my girlhood, upon my days that I spent in the missionary school that was tucked away in the heart of Kolkata, hundreds of fond memories and many such loving faces flash before my eyes. These are faces of Miss Gomes, our Bengali teacher, who taught us the intricacies of the Bengali vyakaran, sandhi, samas, Rabindranath, Bonophool, Sharatchandra, Bankimchandra, our Biology teacher Mrs. Raha who had a habit of asking ‘What it is?’, Mrs. Majumdar who imprinted the basics of Physical and Political Geography through her flawless diagrams, teachers of Maths, History, Economics, Physics, teachers of all shapes and sizes, most who loved us and a few who loved to cane us. Each of them, in their quirkiness, their loving ways, their strict disciplenes, absurd stories, their poise, grace, demeanour – all had left their marks on the young mind of this girl many years ago, so much so that even after so many years a mention of these names starts a chain reaction and memories come tumbling down. What I may not have realised then, I realised later, when I had started to mature and smarten with age, that they all had played crucial roles in shaping each little bit that has made me the way I am today. From the first day of school upto my days of Journalism, each of my teachers added something new to my life that I cherish now and shall treasure for the rest of my days.
Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame