An English Lesson and A Life Lesson

I grew up in the beautiful town of Cochin (now Kochi) in picturesque Kerala – in “God’s Own Country”.

In school, a boy called Ajith and I used to be best friends. We were pretty inseparable – Ajith was plump, I was skinny and our classmates (the girls in particular) called us Laurel and Hardy.

Ajith and I were conspiring and playing pranks all the time. We hatched silly plans, often came out with weird ideas (like blowing soap bubbles in class, using the hollow stalk of a papaya leaf), and cooked up imaginary stories of ghosts and ghouls and of incredulous adventures. Needless to say, we were also often guilty of being talkative while a class was on.

Ajith was among the class toppers. He and another class topper, Sujatha Menon, also a very good friend of mine, gave each other a good run for the others’ money. And I … well you can guess, was just an above-average student, with a keen interest in everything but studies.

We had an English teacher in middle school (Grade VI) called Ms. Teresa. I remember, she was quite young, average height and plump (rather round) and she had a wonderful disposition. In fact, she was polite to a fault, had a sweet voice (and lilt) and was never known it raise it.

And needless to say, she was an amazing teacher as well.

One day, our English lesson was on and Ajith and I were talking in class. Ms. Teresa tolerated us for quite some time, and then said politely, “Ajith and Suman, would you stop talking in class”?

We kept silent for some time and the incorrigible brats that we were, we started talking again.

Exasperated, Ms. Teresa said very gently. “Suman, you may leave the class”.

Ajith immediately shot to my defense and protested – “But Teacher, we were not talking, we were discussing our lesson!” That was a half truth.

Ms. Teresa’s tone became even gentler and she said “Yes and you may ALSO leave the class, Ajith”.

Both Ajith and I conjured an exaggerated expression of mock dismay and I pleaded – “But teacher we were really not talking, we were discussing the lesson!”. “Yes Teacher!!”, concurred Ajith eagerly.

Ms. Teresa looked at both of us, paused for a few moments and said in a very composed and gentle tone, and in her signature lilting voice – “Suman and Ajith, PLEASE leave the class”.

That “PLEASE”, we knew well, was an indication of finality. There was no room left for any negotiation. We silently walked out of the class with our heads bowed, avoiding any eye contact with other class mates. Ajith and I stood outside class, exchanging glances – our faces writ large with an expression that was a good blend of mischief, guilt and shame.

Barely were we outside for five minutes that Ms. Teresa called out – “Suman, you may now get back to the class and resume your lesson”. And I had taken my seat, when Ms. Teresa called out again – “Now Ajith, you too may get back to your seat and resume your lesson”.

Incidentally, Ajith and I were favorite students of Ms. Teresa. Although Ajith was among the class toppers, I generally scored higher in English. Ms.Teresa was however never partial to any student and did not play favorites. But we knew, we were special. At least I always felt a special connection with Ms. Teresa.

And that was a very long time back, as you can well imagine, dear reader.

My teacher, Ms. Teresa’s face has now got largely blurred in my memory. I remember her only vaguely, although very fondly. And the tone and lilt of her sweet voice still rings in my ears.

I did learn my English in Ms. Teresa’s class, for sure. I wasn’t an unworthy student after all. But there was something more profound that I learnt from Ms.Teresa that I have carried with me well into my adult life.

It is a lesson I have tried to pass on, in many different ways, to my daughter, who is now around the same age as I was in Ms. Teresa’s class.

I learnt from my teacher that gentleness of disposition was a reflection of inner strength of character; that good manners or politeness was not just a matter of external polish and sophistication – it was as much a matter of being fundamentally a nice human being.

Politeness was a matter of inner human grace, dignity, strength and beauty…