I must be the most ungrateful student in the world.
As my various social timelines rapidly fill with kind wishes and outpourings of love and respect for teachers around the world who've, quite literally, changed lives, I find myself digging through memories trying to locate at least one teacher who may have set me on this path that I am on today. Unfortunately, I can't.
And that, I think is where part of my problem stems from. Amma (my mother) was (actually in many ways, still is) a teacher. Despite the blatant favouritism that she is my mother, I can confidently proclaim that she has always been an amazing teacher - even if she often went out of her way to ensure that she never taught any of the classes that I've studied in. For obvious reasons.
The reason I know that she's fantastic is because even now, she gets messages or calls from students whose lives she's managed to change for the better. In fact, the other day she received a text from a student she taught over 20 years ago. This capable young man had been in a rather freak accident and lost about 90% of his vision in both eyes (or might have been 95% - I was only about 11 at the time). He approached my mother, who at the time was at the peak of her teaching career, for some lessons in English.
Amma was initially quite reluctant. I can't remember verbatim, but I remember her talking to Achan (my dad) about not being sure how to approach teaching a visually impaired person; especially since she'd not had any previous training with similar students. And I think part of her reservation also lay in the fact that he was a young adult - about 20, I'd assume. She'd never actually taught anyone in that age group.
But the young man was persistent. I can't quite remember how he discovered my mother - but he said that he knew that she was the only one who could help him. Perhaps it was the unexpected compliment that swayed her, or maybe it was the subsequent conversation with my Achan who "convinced" her to take on this seemingly herculean mission. Whatever the reason, I vividly remember the first day the young man came home for private lessons.
I think it was mostly the inherent curiosity of a 11yo who had never met a visually impaired person previously, but I remember observing his every move. Since the place was new to him, Amma and I guided him from the front gate to the dining table where the lessons would take place. I noticed Amma struggle during the initial days. And looking back, I suppose it was to be expected. Technology was yet to take over ever facet of our life and access to additional resources like Google was limited.
The important thing is she persevered. And so did he. He brought along a Braille typewriter of sorts to take notes - which frankly I was very eager to try out. And within days he'd learnt to recognise noises, voices and even the sound of Achan's car. We'd be sitting there, him and my mom deep in conversation about literature, and me with my head buried deep in books (I think I may have hidden a story book within the large science text) pretending to study while actually eavesdropping on their conversation, and suddenly the young man would say, 'Balu sir is on his way.' And within a few minutes, we'd all hear the familiar roar of my father's white sports model Mazda (yes, that was a phase!) revving up the hill and into our garage.
It's the first time that I realised how the human body really worked. That when one of your senses shut down the others were more amplified. In a way, they stood up and supported one of their own who had fallen, so to speak.
I probably haven't told this to Amma yet but I'm deeply proud of her for having taken this student on. I won't lie - there was certainly a financial aspect to it, the young man was from a quite well to do family. So I won't blanket it as a solely virtuous endeavour. But it was also miles outside her comfort zone. As a teacher, Amma belongs to that elusive tribe of people who go to extreme lengths to prepare themselves in every possible way before embarking on their journey. And I've seen the incredible results it has produced first hand.
But with this young man, I often felt that she piled a lot more on herself. At times much more than what one person could handle at times. And I was privileged enough to be there to see her transformation. Also credit where it's due, this young man was quite inspiring, even to a 11yo me. Aside from his zest for learning and life, and that desire to not let a seemingly (crazy) accident affect his future, he also inadvertently taught me many things. To be compassionate. To be more aware, tolerant and understanding towards the differences that exist between all of us.
I even learnt little nuggets of information that I remember to this day. For instance, did you know that the dots on the number 5 button on a traditional telephone (landline) keypad are there for the visually impaired? This then lets them know the order of the numbers and helps them dial correctly. Of course, now we'd probably just use Siri to dial the number. But back then, I was surprised and inspired in equal measure to see this young man casually stroll across to the landline one day, pick up the receiver, feel around the keypad for a few seconds and then dial his father’s number. Think that might be the point where I realised that in life, you can really do whatever you want to do, as long as you really want to do it. Of course me being the privileged arse that I am, it would take another decade or so for me to apply this to my life. But I still remember being awed by his determination.
Anyway, the reason I brought up this story today was because across South East Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent, we celebrate September 5th as Teachers’ Day. A day to honour, remember and acknowledge the work that teachers do. And as I mentioned, I've been trying to figure out why I've never felt as grateful as some (actually most) people on my social media timelines have felt. Was it really that I've never had a good teacher in my life? Or maybe I'm just a tough nut to crack - stubborn, insistent and not good at acknowledging others for their hard work.
As I typed this out today, I realise that it's perhaps not so much about me being an ungrateful little prick, which I probably am to some extent. It's probably the fact that I've always had someone to show me the way at every turn of my life, and those "teachers" have actually never been academic ones. They've been my wife, parents, friends, colleagues, strangers and even my 7 year old.
So in the (moderately tweaked) words of the illustrious Sheldon Cooper:
“I have a very long and somewhat self-centered speech here, but I’d like to set it aside. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for some very important people in my life,”
Thank you for everything. For the support. For being persistent to the point of annoying. For putting up with my many mood tantrums. And for just being yourselves. I’ve learnt a lot from every single person I’ve interacted with.
Oh and Happy Teachers’ Day.
PS: There's another reason why I told you that little story about the young man. Achan received a text two days ago from him - perhaps after many years. And he's wondering if Amma would be willing to teach his little daughter. I think that truly shows what good teachers are all about.