She walks into the café, and although we have never met, I recognise her immediately. My instinct is to stand up and say good morning. She’s got an air of authority. When she speaks, she holds your attention. She is the quintessential teacher.
This is a breed I was quite familiar with during my years in school. Ms Puri (the withering-look one), Ms Bhatt (the charming one, the boys and male colleagues loved), Ms Shahi (could have been modeling instead), Ms Mahajan (the no-nonsense air), Ms Mehta (cute, pert and lively) … the list goes on. All these teachers
I refer to had a very distinct personality and were forces to reckon with — some more than others!
Let me explain why I call them “quintessential teachers”. There are certain common qualities these ladies represent.
For one, they had a presence. They were all there. When they entered the room, you noticed. When they spoke, you listened. When their eyes were on you — even from one end of what seemed like an endless corridor — you felt them. You knew you were heading into trouble, if not already there.
Second, they had an aura of calm and gentility. They never seemed harried or troubled — no matter what was happening in the classroom. Somehow, they knew how to make it right again. I’m not sure whether everyone was as cool as they appeared, but there was definitely something consistent and cool about their attire and the general look. Where is this sari shop they all seemed to favour? Between them, they represented every state of India in their selection — Bengali cotton, bandhini, ikat, patola and South silks.
But one thing was for certain: They all managed to look consistently comfortable and unruffled in their crisp saris.
There was also what we called the “big bindi brigade”. This lot also usually had a large distinct red dot on their foreheads — the kind one associates with Usha Uthup or Shubha Mudgal.
were language-agnostic. It didn’t matter which language they communicated with their students in — it may have been English, Hindi, Urdu, or even Odia — but they managed to get their meaning across with eclat. With little or no ambiguity. They essentially meant business. Again, some more than others.
Most of these teachers
— not all of course — were quite sensitive and gentle in their dealing. It may not have appeared back then but most of them listened, even though you were just a 13- or 14-year-old and may not be dropping any pearls of wisdom. They actually heard you.
Then there were those who could shut you up with one look. They didn’t say much — the look just conveyed their message: “if you know what’s better for you, shut up”. These were actually the most dreaded ones: The withering look that made you squirm and feel like a worm, quaking in your shoes. Back then, of course, we as students felt we had been especially picked upon but in reality, these looks usually didn’t come your way without a very good reason.
Reading — something teachers no longer appear to manage — was something almost all these teachers did with a passion. They read because they loved reading. I remember sometimes passing the teachers common room and finding one or the other teacher with her nose in a book. Of course, many knitted then…in general, their hands always seemed busy and their minds uncluttered.
One distinct quality most of these teachers had was their ability to hold your attention. Not only did they hold your attention, a few made you fall in love with a subject, or even just a character. I know my English elective teacher made me fall in love with Bathsheba, the haughty and fiery farmer woman in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I still remember the knot in my stomach I felt as she brought alive Pip’s absolute terror at coming across his prisoner in the marshes in Great Expectations.
One of my biggest regrets today is not having taken up history in Classes 11 and 12, under one of the few male teachers in the arts section, the inimitable Zal Davar. By the time a student reached Class 10 in the CBSE back then, history was reduced to a meaningless series of names and dates and, therefore, I dropped it, only to realise now that it is one of my favourite subjects.
I don’t know whether all this is just a figment of an overly vivid imagination or a crazy wave of sentimental nostalgia — triggered by my recent meeting with a quintessential teacher, the kind that is slowly turning extinct. I do know that this less hi-tech, less fancy and rather prosperous variety inspires more confidence in me than today’s slightly anorexic, slightly lost, nervous, and more style over substance kind. And teachers need to start reading again. Period.
PS: My meeting was with Jyotsna Brar, former principal of Welham Girls, Dehradun.