I remember being a well-mannered student in school and college as much as I remember being a judgmental one. I respected my teachers and learned from them, but also made fun of their accents and pronunciations. I was never mean, but also not the dearest student. I was, just like almost every other classmate I knew, a battle between teenage callousness and inherent consideration throughout my student life. I’ve never howled with laughter (like some students I know) at a teacher, and I’ve never adored a teacher with glazed eyes. I was somewhere in between. And when I now tell stories of teachers in school, while the funny pronunciations make for a good roar of laughter from my audience, the profound tidbits silently make me a better person every day.
They say you can never understand worth in the present as we are experiencing it, but only in retrospect. If that is true for anything in life, it is for what our teachers taught us. It was easy for us to sit on the benches with our head full of mock and faux pride and condemnatory thoughts and judge the person trying to impart knowledge. Sure, we rarely apply a lot of the stuff we learned in school, but the teachers shouldn’t have to burn at the stake of imbecile judgment for those. Some were mean, some were kind, and some were just plain apathetic – we’ve all seen the types. But they all turned up no matter what – the most valuable, but counter-intuitively the most underpaid and undervalued people in our society – to teach us.
During my PhD, I was offered the job of being a teaching assistant to my professor. Most senior students told me that just meant that I would grade the exam papers and do all the grunt work that the teaching professor didn’t want to do. But in my case, my professor decided I would take up the entire course and teach on his behalf. And the first terrifying thought in my head was that the students would snigger when my back was turned, and gossip about me in huddles after class. There I was – an Indian with an accent trying to talk to a class full of Americans. In my student days, we were remorselessly critical of even a misplaced lisp. Maybe I deserved this, in some convoluted sort of karma? In any case, I diligently did what every teacher of mine did – I turned up and taught anyway. I mispronounced last names, I said ‘regulaytery’ instead of ‘regulatawry’, and my ‘r’s rolled away in a different direction. And I learnt something else – that I was able to gauge what the students did – yes, some did snigger, and some did grin behind my back. And I realized that we, as students, weren’t as surreptitious and clever as we thought we were – the teachers knew, and they continued anyway.
At the end of the semester, in my last class, two girls walked up to me and handed me a paper bag. They thanked me for helping them through this class. It was a large coffee mug, and my happiness then could have filled it and flooded over. The contentment of imparting knowledge is priceless. And even if just one student gained something from it, it is an invaluable feeling to the teacher. All the boos fade in the blinding glow of just one cheer.
Be that cheer for a teacher today.