Noted educationist and rationalist H Narasimhaiah had a red-coloured question mark prominently painted on the wall of his office at National College, in Bengaluru’s Basavanagudi. To anybody who cared to ask, he would say, “Do not accept anything without questioning.”
Narasimaiah, who spent his entire life trying to instil a scientific temper among the youth, would often lament that rationality had taken a holiday in the country as people had stopped asking questions. Sometimes, many of life’s biggest lessons come not from text books, but from the experience and knowledge of teachers.
“Believe Nothing. Question Everything.” Such simple advices have always stood students in good stead, often enabling them to confront some of the biggest challenges with ease. When D H Pavan Kumar was studying in a boarding school, he was punished and humiliated by one of his teachers before the entire class over a petty issue. The young man was so disgraced that he thought this was the end of the world. That was when another teacher gave him a piece of advice that would stay with him throughout, “Do not worry. This too shall pass.” Pavan Kumar now laughs over the incident, but whenever he faces some trouble, his teacher’s words ring in his ears, “This too shall pass.”
For Kusum Nehru Mallangada, a social worker, the buzzword is contentment. “As residents of St Agnes hostel in Mangaluru, we were never satisfied with the facilities available, and our list of grievances only grew with every passing day. One morning, we woke up to a quote put up on the notice board by our warden Sr Olivia, ‘I cried that I have no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.’ This brought tears to my eyes, and completely changed my perspective. Then on, I decided to take life as it comes, and be happy with whatever I have. This sense of satisfaction and absence of greed has helped me evolve as a much better human being.”
What would you do?
Vikram Bhaskar was pursuing his MD at a poorly appointed government hospital in Belgaum in the early 90s where due to the limited access to medical equipment like ECG, the students had to rely on their clinical skills, which they were yet to hone, to diagnose patients. Once, when a rather sick patient was admitted, the professors gathered around him with each pronouncing a diametrically opposite diagnosis based on their observation. It was Bhaskar’s responsibility to take a final call on the treatment.
“After declaring their diagnosis, all of which appeared plausible, the professors walked out of the hall, leaving me alone with the patient. I was not clear about the diagnosis, and a wrong line of treatment would lead to certain death. My eyes then fell on the young wife and kid of the patient. One incorrect move and I would have blood on my hands. I started perspiring. Just then, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulders,” recalls Bhaskar.
Behind him was his professor, M N Sankpal. Sensing his dilemma, the professor offered a simple solution and walked away, “Forget all our theories. If the patient were your father and you had only this one minute to act, what would you do?” It was an eye-opener. “I looked at the patient and imagined him to be my dad. Instantly, all conflict disappeared. I was able to correctly diagnose the ailment and successfully treat the patient. Even now, when I am faced with a predicament, I look at the patient as my next of kin and all confusion vanishes. This is an invaluable lesson I have learnt from my teacher,” adds Bhaskar, who is the founder of Vikram Hospitals.
“Maintain a record of every little thing in life, including your dealings with your wife, no matter how much you love her.” When Sankaran Sundar, now a renowned nephrologist, received this advice from his guru Padmabushan awardee B M Hegde, he almost scoffed at him. But this philosophy would come to his rescue many years later when in 1995 the so-called kidney scam hit the headlines. Doctors were falsely accused of ‘stealing’ kidneys from their patients, and some of them even went to jail, only to be acquitted later. While most doctors were facing a harrowing time, Sundar was saved because he had meticulously maintained documents of all kidney transplants he had conducted.
We often find ourselves at the crossroads of life. Do we take the familiar route or the road less trodden? “When you are at the crossroads and have at least two choices to make, go by your instinct instead of listening to a hundred people,” M S Sapna, assistant professor in Mysore University, remembers her primary school teacher’s advice. Shilpa Kalyan, assistant professor at Bengaluru’s Presidency College adds, “My teacher would always say there was nothing wrong in getting lost at the crossroads as it would add to life’s experiences and make us tougher.”
Teachers are beacons who not only illuminate our paths but also guide us to our destiny. Shiraz Zakir, a pre-university student who worked as an attender to raise money for his college fees, had always dreamed big. Even as he was trying to make both ends meet, he had to undergo an operation which threatened to put an end to his education. Zakir then wrote a letter to his teacher Narasimha Prasad explaining his agony. The teacher’s response was so motivating that the student forgot all his woes. The one line that would forever remain with him was, “You are cut out for bigger things in life.” Today, the office boy is a top executive at a reputed housing finance company, managing the entire South India. All because of the inspiring words of his teacher.
Sriranjan Chaudhuri, editor-in-chief with pharmaceutical major F Hoffmann-La Roche, based out of Basel, Switzerland, credits much of his success to an unusual phrase that his mathematics teacher at St Germain’s School, Bengaluru would repeat often: “Hurry up, slowly.” “As Class IX students, this phrase hardly made any sense to us. Over the years, the words have stuck with me and resonate beautifully. Life does not wait for anyone or anything. So, get on with it. But do not rush so much that you miss out on your own life and that of your loved ones. It is about getting the right balance.”
Shashi Raj, now a television professional, was always hesitant to speak English as he had studied in Kannada medium. His teacher, who noticed this, gave him a simple assignment: read a page from the dictionary every day. Today, Raj has not only mastered the language, but also conducts spoken English classes.
When A P Sapna Lekha, who was good at mathematics, flunked her examinations, her teacher was surprised. Sapna’s response was, “I simply forgot all the answers in the examination hall.” The teacher then asked her if she could recollect the name of a movie she had watched five years ago. Sapna replied in the affirmative. And the lyrics of a popular song from that movie? Yes, she could recite every word. “There is no problem with your memory, you only lack concentration,” the teacher concluded. Sapna, who went on to clear the examinations with flying colours says, “No textbook could have taught me such an important lesson.”
Lakshmana Venkata Rangaa Mysore, an aerospace and defence professional, recalls the commitment of his teacher at Sharada Vilas, K R Krishnaswamy, who would go beyond the call of duty to empower his students. Every single day, the teacher would hold combined special classes for about 500 students from 6.30 am to 9.30 am. He would assign hundreds of problems for the students to solve, and would personally correct all the papers. On Sundays, the classes would extend up to noon with a one hour break to watch Ramayana/Mahabharata, which were very popular on Doordarshan those days. The teacher’s selfless service ensured cent per cent results for the school. “Dedication is the mantra he taught us,” the grateful student notes.
A Mumbai-based journalist with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Roli Srivastava, received two valuable lessons from her teachers: “Never regard any job as too small as no experience will go in vain,” and “Always carry a bottle of water and some snacks in your bag.” The second advice would save her from going hungry on many occasions, especially while covering assignments in remote areas without decent restaurants.
While teachers no doubt stamp an indelible mark on their students, there are also many instances of students leaving behind a lasting impression on their teachers.
Popular Kannada television personality Shylaja Santosh, who is now a human rights teacher in Mangaluru, recalls an incident where her students sensitised her to gender-related issues. “We were conducting a survey to check the human rights temperature at a school. It is an intense exercise producing emotional answers and insights. The students revealed some of the most shocking stories about their childhood, the most common being discrimination. One girl who said she had faced horrific incidents from the age of eight, lamented with a tear in the eye, ‘Girls have no rights in this country and we are abused at some point of time or other in our lives.’ This was a wake up call for me. From then on, I have remained very vigilant to the discrepancies in the society and have done my best to take corrective steps instead of remaining a mute spectator.”
Nikhil Moro, director, A Q Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Kansas State University adds, “Students tend to be a step ahead in awareness and the use of emerging technology. As I discussed data journalism in a graduate class, a student introduced me to the Google News Initiative tools for reporting and storytelling, which I was not aware of. Nobody learnt more in that class than me.”
Christobelle Joseph echoes Moro’s views, “Our teacher at college would often mention that he was in the class to learn from young minds, rather than teach. Today, as I teach, I am constantly guided by his words. The feedback I receive from students is incredible, and I leave enriched every week.”
In the case of Sneha Putran, a pre-primary teacher at Delhi Public School, the most important lesson came from a tiny tot who taught her to give unadulterated love. Explains Sneha, “I had a small boy in my class who I fondly called Little Buddha as he never showed any attachment to anyone. He did not have many close friends and I was also warned by other teachers about his behavioural issues. But I patiently worked on him, and towards the end of the term, I noticed a drastic change in him. He began showing me a lot of affection.”
Once, the school had organised a salad-making competition. While every child tried to ensure that his dish looked the best, Little Buddha quickly mixed all the ingredients together, added a dash of lime, some spices, and started yelling out to his teacher. When Sneha reprimanded him saying he would not win the competition as he had acted in haste without paying any attention to the presentation of the dish, Little Buddha answered innocently, “Why are you scolding me, Ma’am? I do not want any prize. I have made this for you. Please have it.” The teacher was left speechless. “From him, I learned the meaning of unwavering love which does not expect anything in return,” says Sneha.
Sometimes, students can be cheeky too as retired Bengaluru University vice-chancellor M S Thimmappa realised during his early days of teaching. When his students gifted him a doll with a shaking head at a social event, Thimmappa initially failed to grasp the connection. “I was constantly moving my head while delivering lectures and the students who found it awkward wanted to send a subtle message across. The doll did the trick,” the professor fondly reminisces.
The relationship between a teacher and student is perhaps the most beautiful, with the memories lingering forever. No one can fit the role of a friend, philosopher and guide better than a teacher. While students scale new heights in life, teachers continue to remain at the bottom rung of the pyramid, strengthening the foundation to create better tomorrows for us. No tribute is big enough for a teacher.