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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Yes, I've Changed....

A few months ago, I noticed my sister’s peculiar behavior on Whatsapp. She was online but was taking much longer than usual in her replies to me. Clearly, she was preoccupied and when she told me the reason, I found it quite puzzling…what would she find in common to chat about with her batchmates from Goa Medical College after a gap of some 20-plus years?

Just some months after this, I watched a friend get excited about catching up with school mates on Whatsapp and meeting them at a class reunion – again, some 20-plus years later.

I wondered what could be the motivation behind such emotion. And put it down to the rather obvious extrovert nature of these two people. I remember also a sense of smugness in telling myself that this would never happen to me. I had better things to do than chat like a teenager with not a care in the world.

Today, less than a month after I got pulled into a Whatsapp group of St. Mary’s High School Class of 1991, I’m not so sure. Okay..I still don’t chat like a teenager but am finding myself spending quite a few minutes every day catching up with things happening on the group and posting more than an occasional comment. And judging from the comments my activity has invited, it looks like I’m not the only one overwhelmed at this turnaround.

The group admin commented that she is quite surprised to see the level of my interaction. Perhaps others too felt the same but held back from saying it aloud. Nothing startling in this response considering that they last knew me as a studious and silent 15-year old who seemed more inclined to academics than talking or having fun in class.

Today, almost 25 years later, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. If a silent girl has turned into an expressive teacher, there is also 
  • A wayward kid who has changed into a “domesticated” and caring husband
  • An impish guy of yore who now doles out gyaan on life and learning from it
  • A bubbly teenager who is now an investment banker to the royals of the Gulf, 
  • A guy who stayed in the background who now shows up as having a phenomenal memory
  • A seemingly glamorous young one who is content today as an efficient homemaker
  • A hesitant girl who is today competently mothering two growing boisterous kids
  • A serious engineering student who now makes the world smile in her avatar as an RJ
  • Someone whom some labeled as “khadoos” who takes time to make an old teacher and her friends feel appreciated
  • An unadorned child who now captures the beauty of the world in her paintings                                                                                                                                                                             The list is endless…and I’m only stopping here because I need to hold your attention long enough to read the other things I want to say…

Change is the only constant, they say. Sometimes, we change willingly; at others, we are forced to change and in some rare cases, we may even refuse to change. Circumstances we endure, situations we experience, people we meet, books we read, conversations we have, the thoughts we form…all these contribute to making us the individuals we are. What I am today is the sum of all I have been through and not everyone can possibly know or understand what that is. They only see this me after a long gap and I seem like a different person now.

What is astounding though, is that, despite the distance in space and time, there is a camaraderie that exists between us. Maybe it is because of the distance that it exists…after all, they do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe during the innocence of those childhood days, we forged bonds strong enough to endure the vagaries of time. Or maybe it is just the fact that we are able to respond with unconditional positive regard to these friends (and receive it from them, too) that makes the interaction predominantly pleasant. That you don’t actually live with them day in and out and that some important decisions in your life are not influenced by them, also contribute…reality is always glaring in its clarity as compared to the rosy tint that seeps in when viewing someone from a safe distance.

When I was 18, I was once asked, “How much do you think another person is important to your happiness?” I remember defiantly saying, “Maybe just about 10% - mostly, I’m the one solely responsible for my happiness.” Today, I’m not so sure of that answer and cringe at the naïveté with which it was uttered. 

For I have come to realize that in the process of being responsible for our happiness, we often tend to base our attitudes on the way others treat us or think of us. Which is precisely why it is easier to be happy when we get positive inputs from those around us than when conditions are not so conducive.

Now I know what got my sister and my friend hooked. The reason why we make time for people with whom – ostensibly – we now have nothing much in common. They represent to us a period of our life that will never come again….a time of innocence, a time when we did not know what the future held but which we fondly hoped to be full of promise. And maybe in relating to them today, after all the initial surprise of how things turned out for each one has dimmed, we are left with a quiet joy that for all the trepidation of youth, things did turn out right for us after all. Maybe this promise will give us the strength we’re looking for as we dither over the choices of today.

There’s talk of a class reunion next year. People are working out dates and venues. Classmates from outside the country are making travel plans. I’m no extrovert…but I find myself getting caught up in the enthusiasm. I know I have to write my psychotherapy exams in about 10 days time and am not as prepared as I would have been in my student days. Yet, the urge to reach out and share these feelings and thoughts is such that I’m taking time to write this and dedicate it to these wonderful classmates of mine. 

Because the naïveté of the past has gone as has the smugness of a few months ago. Because I now fully understand that I am as much a result of the people around me as of my own efforts. Because I have realized the need to grab this moment and make the most of it – for it will never come back again. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Thank you, Students for making me a Happy Teacher

 “Are you a repeater?” the teacher asked. The little girl being addressed stared back incredulously, wondering if she had heard right. The teacher repeated the question and this time, the answer came out firmly, “NO.”

I can never forget that sense of embarrassment that overcame me when I was thus addressed with that most blasphemous of terms – “repeater” – St. Mary’s Convent lingo for someone who had failed a year and was repeating the same class. As a young girl in Class 5, I remember feeling a sense of acute disappointment that my teacher thought I could answer a tough question only because I had already heard the chapter being taught the previous year.

Today, being a lecturer myself, I can easily sympathize with the sense of disenchantment that must have prompted such a question from my school teacher.  But eternal optimist that I am, I just cannot let that feeling get me down for long. For there is so much I have learned from my students ever since I became a teacher.

Teachers Day is an occasion when people eulogize their teachers. But maverick teacher that I am, I find myself more drawn towards using this occasion to talk of how my students, over the past 15 years, have helped me learn and grow.

A few months into teaching, I ran into a brilliant student who, I suspected, knew that I did not know much about the subject I was handling – Human Anatomy and Physiology. Of course, I may have misunderstood that hawk-like attentiveness because of my own insecurity but it drove me to prepare better for my class, reading up more than what was essential, to be equipped to handle any query that came my way. Thanks to all that effort, I think I managed to redeem myself pretty decently…and in the process, gained a lot of insight into the subject, too.

As a teacher, you learn quite a bit of students’ study habits from the way they frame their answers in tests and exams. I’ve classified students into two categories: the “muggers” who learn everything by heart and then regurgitate that into the answer paper. And the “understanders” who understand things and attempt to explain it in their own words…their answers are not perfect, but reading them, you know they have understood the concept. I’ve always had a fondness for the latter category. And from it came another student who, it turned out, was helping his father manage the family business after college hours. Attending college from 9.30 am to 4.00 pm, working at the shop from 4.30 pm to 10.30 pm and still finding time, energy and interest to really understand the complicated stuff we teach in Pharmacy, write lab records meticulously and almost never miss a single day’s class…Wow..That calls for a special kind of drive. Even today, I find myself quoting this example to students who suffer from a lack of motivation. In fact, I’ve used this to motivate myself too on occasions when I’ve felt lethargic.

And then, there was a student who I thought had it all together – class topper, intelligent, good looking, excellent communication skills, good friend circle..…the works …what more could someone want? But one day I was stunned to learn an unexpected fact from him….that both his parents suffered from an inborn hearing and speech impairment. Can you imagine not being able to hear the comforting voice of your parents? Can you imagine foregoing the joy that comes from them listening to you? And yet, this student did not exhibit any of the bitterness we tend to expect in someone who has been dealt an unfair blow by life. Often, at times when I’ve been in danger of slipping into a cynical dissatisfaction with some situation I’m facing, I’ve remembered the positive attitude of this student and tried to emulate it.

Another student I remember well is one who belonged to that category I dreaded being put into – repeater. He was still in college when others from his batch had graduated and landed plushy jobs about two years before. It was rumored that he was stinking rich and that information was kind of used by other teachers to imply that it did not really matter to him whether he finished the course or not. Once, when one of his new classmates did not have money for the college tuition fee, he was the one who stepped forward to bear the expense. From him, I learned the meaning of standing by a friend, through thick and thin.

These are but a few examples of ways in which interacting with my students have transformed me. To all of them, I’d like to say a big thank you for enriching my life thus.

I’ve had students who have
  • Lost a parent mid-session and yet, gone on to complete their course with decent scores...they’ve taught me what resilience means.
  • Had financial difficulties and worked at part time jobs to pay their way through the course.........they’ve taught me what strength of purpose means.
  • Played the fool in class and provided precious moments of laughter in tense situations......they’ve taught me how to bear my burdens light.
  • Transferred from an Indian language to English as medium of instruction after their 12th Std and are today marketing managers of leading brands of pharma products.....they’ve taught me of the rewards that follow hard work and persistence.

Over the years, I’ve moved from looking for that elusive spark of academic intelligence in my students to looking for the spark of humaneness …emotional intelligence, you could call it. Because I’ve found that the latter is what proves a stronger determinant of success and happiness in life.

Everyone knows a teacher does not “make” much…but the rewards you earn are mind blowing…

  • Intellectual satisfaction when students experience an “aha” moment, understanding some concept you’ve explained.
  •  Joy and laughter, a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye after you’ve laughed with them at a joke someone has cracked in the lab or class.
  • A sense of being trusted and valued when they share their troubles, secure in the knowledge that you will listen without passing judgment and maybe show them a way to cope.
  • Immense respect that drives them to touch your feet (despite your forbidding it) when they leave college.
  • The quiet satisfaction that comes with knowing they are doing well in life and that you have, in some small way, contributed positively to another human being’s life.
  • The glow that lights you up from within when someone shyly says, “Thank you, Ma’am for EVERYTHING”  or like a student recently told me, “Ma’am, please keep guiding me thus throughout my life.”

I cannot imagine any other profession providing such a terrific package…

This year, it is indeed a wonderful coincidence that Teacher’s Day is also Krishna Janmaashtami – the  day we celebrate the birth of the greatest Guru the world has ever seen. On this auspicious day, I’m praying that He bless all of us with Jnyaana (Knowledge), Bhakti (Devotion) and Vairagya (Detachment).

Perhaps we teachers need more of these. Knowledge to keep up with the latest developments. Devotion to perform the duty we’ve been entrusted with – of creating good citizens.  And detachment to avoid getting stressed when we find students don’t behave as we expect them to….