The precious gift of knowledge

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A tribute to that most influential person in our lives, the teacher who shaped our lives…

A list of queries on email asks recipients to name the world’s richest man in 2008; the winner of the world’s golf title in 2007; the designer of the first rockets; the manufacturer of the first bicycle and so on…building up a roll call of achievers who left their mark on mankind. It ended with, “Who was the teacher who helped you to enjoy school and whom you remember most vividly?”

I don’t know a single recipient of the email who answered a single one of the questions except the last. In other words, everyone’s most unforgettable person was a supportive and encouraging teacher whose wealth, fame and social standing mattered not at all. What the grateful student received was beyond evaluation because what the teacher gave most freely was the precious gift of the self. It was not just knowledge to pass an examination that they gave their students but an understanding of the value of knowledge itself and a love of it. Great teachers seek to form, not merely inform their students. Socrates for instance, insisted that wisdom was about insight gained through discussions and dialogue and not about amassing information; he was against what most education today is centred on and about — the written word.

Today, when teaching (especially teaching young children who have not learned to write) is no longer a coveted profession, I wish we could all pay a silent tribute to the many obscure men and women who shaped our lives and asked for so little in return. Surely, a good teacher deserves to be called a deva because the real meaning of the word is “the shining one”. A legend in the life of the Buddha says that when a seeker called on him to clear a particular doubt he had, the Buddha had smiled and refused to answer. After he had left in a huff, when Ananda asked his Master why he had declined to reply, the Buddha said, “Answering that particular question would not have helped him because my teaching is about solving the problems of life.”

Stepping back

Every year, choosing a day when it is not functioning, my cousin visits his old school in Thrissur, deserted because it is the Pooram festival time. The building and compound are much the same as they were when he was a student, so the sense of stepping back into the past is powerful. He moves from classroom to classroom following the exact progression his student-graph had taken him more than half a century ago, and pays a silent tribute to each of the teachers, intensely recalling those impoverished gentlemen whose wardrobes had hardly held more than two shirts. What still moves him is the memory of the care they had taken in the lives and progress of every student, encouraging each of them and guiding every child to do his best and then some. A drop in concentration or performance led to the “master” calling on the child’s parents to enquire if there was something wrong at home which the child found disturbing or was unable to cope with; very few homes had phones in those days and even if they did, a school-teacher would certainly not have been able to afford a phone call. So, umbrella held high, he would walk those extra miles. Likewise, the principal of a famous college once told me how he emerged from a raging fever in childhood to see — not his mother, but the anxious face of his teacher. Abandoning her own rest, she had kept vigil all night by her student’s bedside.

My first teacher was a smiling and very gentle woman named Mrs. Delamose, whose name my brother and I repeated over and over again to get it right so that we might greet her correctly: “delamosedelamosedelamose”. I still recall her dark eyes, and charming crooked smile with faint streaks of lipstick out of place, as she led us through Songs the Letters Sing. I owe my profession to her. Incidentally, those world-beating English readers were prepared by a group of anonymous Convent sisters, teachers all.

A teacher’s memoirs

Teachers rarely write their memoirs. An almost forgotten one is Sylvia Ashton-Werner’s The Teacher in which she says that we must allow children to learn at their own pace and through their own culture and mileu. “What if a whole set of textbooks set in Africa and with references to African culture and weather were used to teach English in Britain?” She felt it was unfair to teach English through lessons about Peter and Jane, and lemonade and scones to Maori children and expect them to relate to those experiences! Many of Maria Montessori’s theories of education were developed from teaching and watching disabled children. The true teacher knows that every single child is unique and that there is no such thing as an unintelligent child.

May we never forget that famous teacher of English Literature, the late Prof. M.S. Doraiswamy of Annamalai University. When he was interviewed on his 60th birthday and requested to list his publications, he replied, “My students are my publications.”




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