Category Archives: Teacher’s Day

Shhhh! Silence in the Library!

library

‘No bookmark, no book,’ she would say in an impervious tone and that would wreck my entire week. That was Ms B our library teacher in school.

She’d stand there, one eyebrow raised in a silent dare – challenging me to challenge her. Torn between my fear of her and my love for reading – it was fear that always won. And I would have to make do with re-reading an old book or borrowing from friends.

Books were my sole entertainment back then. We were allowed three books each week – each of them a treasured treat. We had a wonderful library – not the few cupboards at the back of the class that double up as libraries these days. Rows of tables were flanked by glass cupboards full of rows upon rows of the most enticing books. Enid Blytons, Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys all sat there along with Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, and scores of other authors. Within the pages of those books lay the most exciting times my young self had ever seen.

However between the most exciting times of my life and me stood Ms B, a bit like Cerberus. She had an acerbic tongue and a short temper and she wouldn’t let anyone pass unless they showed her a book-cover and a book-mark. And woe betide anyone who forgot to get their books on the assigned day! They were condemned to a book-less week. No allowances, no concessions.

Not just that, she took it upon herself to discipline us on almost anything that caught her eye. ‘Put your plaits back, who do you think you are, Rekha?’, ‘Don’t slouch’, ‘Don’t shuffle your feet when you walk’ or ‘Why must you always wear black?’ (we didn’t have a uniform in class 11 and 12). Those days teachers wielded pure dictatorship. Yet we emerged unscathed with no permanent psychological damage. Instead, we came away with a bunch of good habits that we carry with us even today.

Despite such ‘ill-treatment’, on Teacher’s Day today, the first one who comes to mind is Ms B. While she didn’t teach me any subject nor was she directly responsible for kindling a love for reading she did teach me some very valuable lessons.

She taught me to respect and love books. That’s a habit that has stayed obstinately on. It drives me crazy when I see anyone manhandling books, folding pages, scribbling in the margins (use a pencil for goodness sake if you just have to), turning down corners.. aaargh!

She taught me to widen my reading horizon. But for that raised eyebrow I would be stuck onto fairy tales forever. After she gave me one of those ‘looks’ I was forced to look at other genres and developed an eclectic taste. (I have to confess though, that I still pick up a fairy tale somedays).

She taught me essential library etiquette. I learnt to keep quiet – not a mean feat for a 12 year old. I learnt to shut out the world and lose myself in a book as also to not disturb a person engrossed in one.

She taught me discipline and punctuality – a useful lesson even outside the library.

So tell me who is that one teacher that comes to mind when you think of school?

Rick Braithwaite – The Perfect Teacher

A group of young adults, girls and boys, from London’s East End (an area known for abject poverty and all the problems that come along with it) go to a small school – The Greenslade Secondary School. The teachers – most of them women, have grown up from among them. The men the kids see around them – fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours – are scruffy and untidy. They dress in shabby ill-fitting clothes, barely bother to brush or bathe and are hardly conscious of basic hygiene let alone the aesthetics of their appearance.

Then one day, in walks a teacher and I quote, “his clothes are well-cut, pressed and neat, clean shoes, shaved, teeth sparkling, tie and handkerchief matching as if he’s stepped out of a ruddy bandbox. He’s big and broad and handsome“. Chances are he will be laughed right out of the school as a complete misfit. But this one sticks.

Rick Braithwaite, my character for today is from ER Braithwaite’s, part autobiographical book To Sir With Love. An engineer and an ex RAF aircrew, he joins the school because he cannot find any other employment largely due to him being black. He is faced with a group of completely unmotivated, semi literate pupils interested in everything but studying. Their attitudes range from indifference and defiance to hostility. He struggles through prejudices, his own as well as his students’ and years of deeply ingrained attitudes and habits. His firm belief in his students’ capabilities and their innate goodness sees them rise above themselves. He wins over not just their respect, love and trust but also that of their families. It’s one of the warmest feel-good books I’ve read. If you’re a teacher or a parent here’s an ideal you might like to adopt.

It’s hard to enumerate why I love this character

He is sensitive and intelligent and smart. He embodies all that is honest and wholesome. He wins over the reader completely so that you celebrate his victories and feel his pain when his students fail him, which they do many times over.

I love him for the trust he places in his students. I love the way he extends himself to things way beyond academics. He teaches the students to dress, to talk and to appreciate basic human values. He introduces them to Shakespeare. He takes them on trips to the museum and the opera. Sceptics predict chaos but the children do him proud. He sets high standards for himself and expects the same from his students.

And he’s passionate. His  impassioned outbursts at the students are possibly my favourite parts of the book. I could have fallen in love with him as did the students.

Yes, yes I hear you – he seems too good to be true. The character is, say critics, too simplistic and a bit vain, his victories too easy. But for one moment banish that cynic in you and you’ll love him just as I do.

A note on Braithwaite’s take on racism

The first time I read this book I would have been barely in my teens. Shielded, as I was, from much of the world, I was barely aware of the severe racism rampant in the UK back then and it pretty much didn’t register even when I read the book multiple times. Perhaps I was  too focussed on the story or too young to understand the full extent of its horror.

Re-reading it now I find it more than just the story of a wonderful teacher, which it is. Interwoven along with it, are glimpses of the life of a black man and the racism he has to face. Braithwaite isn’t exempt despite having fought in the war as a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force). He talks of his shock and disappointment at being discriminated against. He fails to find a job, a lady refuses to sit next to him in the bus and later when he’s out with his (almost) girlfriend, Gillian, he’s insulted by a waiter in a restaurant. 

Racism in America versus racism Britain

Another interesting bit was where he talks of racism in America versus racism Britain. In America, he says, it is much more open, hence can be opposed. Also, each incident is followed by positive change. In Britain, on the other hand, people barely acknowledge its presence. In fact they might even look down upon the Americans for how open and rampant racism is. And yet it thrives in Britain — silently, in a passive aggressive way, making it harder to fight against. In fact as a white person you may not even be aware of its existence. A conversation between Gillian and him goes like this:

‘Didn’t you know that such things happened?’
‘Not Really. I have heard and read about it in a vague sort of way, but I had never imagined it happening to me.’

So that’s one more reason you must pick up this book if you haven’t read it already.

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Don’t forget to drop by next week for yet another fascinating character. It’s a boy this time – a teenager – a very very different teen who’s out on an investigative trail. And do share your favourites. It’s no fun if I do all the talking :-).

Linking up to ABC Wednesday , the fun alphabetical weekly challenge.

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