Soft spoken and courteous, when you hear R.Balamurugan speak in English today, you will refuse to believe that he had failed his class XII English exam, not once but twice. “When I wrote the Boards first, I secured 43/200 and then again in the supplementary exam I got 70/200,” he says with no qualms.
For, here was a young man absolutely in love with the language. “As a boy, I would hang around the Meenakshi Temple and hear the foreign tourists speak in English,” he says. At home he would spend hours hearing the English news bulletins and watching English movies not once but at least a dozen times. “I would be focussed on the sub-titles and write each dialogue in my notebook,” he adds.
The Merriam-Webster, Collins and Oxford English dictionary have been his permanent friends in this journey. “Students are capable of learning but do not get good teachers particularly in small towns like ours,” he says, reflecting on his missed opportunities.
Balamurugan always wanted to join the English department at The American College. But obviously his low marks did not allow him to do so.
“I would just hang around the Flint House and hear the students speak English,” he says. Luckily for him, a faculty member advised him to enrol in Sociology at the RPS Centre. It took him two years to write the exams in English but finally when he did so, he came out with flying colours.
Balamurugan says he spent hours in the library reading as many books and novels he could and noting down every new English word, phrase, proverb he came across with its meaning and usage. “When you read a lot you understand the magic of the language,” he says, citing Shakespeare and O.Henry among his favourites.
For the last six years, he has been teaching English in a private school following the CBSE curriculum. But it is the silent service of his last 11 years that shows people like him can do so much more beyond the call of their duty without expecting anything in return.
“Since I suffered so much in learning the English language, after my graduation I took a decision to help kids who are also deprived of such opportunities,” he says.
Balamurugan started making rounds of umpteen Government schools in the city where he knows the standards of English teaching do not meet expectations. “I felt there must be so many kids with dreams like me but do not have or lack the knowledge and skills to make those dreams a reality.”
After several visits and pleas, four Government schools – near Tiruparankundram, Sakkudi, Palamedu and Vadipatti – finally agreed to le him in as the trainer for English language skills and grammar.
They spoke no English when he first met the class X and class XII boys and girls in these schools. “I sensed their inferiority complex. Many hailed from rural areas but belonged to nouveau riche families and were first time learners. They regretted their inability to speak English like their city counterparts,” says Balamurugan.
He found a way to use body language, facial expressions, voice tone to communicate and teach them. “I always tell my students English is like mathematics. The language is equal to ideas plus stories woven with tense.”
As their results boosted over a period of time, Balamurugan became so popular with the students that successive batches refused to let go of him even after he joined the private school as a full time teacher. For the past six years, he has been taking weekend classes with the students of the four Government schools.
Balamurugan does not charge any money from the students for the extra hours he spends with them fine-tuning their English language skills. Much to the chagrin of his wife, he foregoes his leave and holidays to be with these kids and claims that so far 6,000 students have rolled out of his classes with higher confidence levels.
“When these children get the opportunity to learn English, they also have a better future,” believes Balamurugan. He claims many of his students in the last one decade have turned into better conversationalists and landed themselves in banking, teaching and hotel jobs.
We should not fail our students, he says, adding, “rather, all teachers should view themselves as language teachers first and give plentiful opportunities to students to use the language.”
There are innumerable ways in which a language shapes the world. And Balamurugan constantly worries how the words his students have either mastered or not acquired will grant or deny them access to the world where they are expected to navigate professionally.
(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to tell her about someone you know who is making a difference)