Today is Teacher’s day and I thought I would write a tribute to one of the teachers who had a great impact on me. His name is Mr.Shanmuganathan, who taught English during our higher secondary school. No doubt his was a challenging role, to fight for our attention while the whole world is forcing us to focus on Math & Science courses, the courses that would supposedly decide our future.
I still remember seeing him on the first day of his class, a muscular build with big burly fingers, disheveled hair that was apparently coerced to a style by those same burly fingers. With such an intimidating stature, all that we thought at that point of time, was not to get inside the swinging radius of those arms. He opened by saying “Your textbook has a great selection”. At didn’t believe that at that time. “Another motivational gimmick” I thought, “Why not ask us to get on with it and start memorizing right away”. But if I had any doubts, it only took an hour of the lecture to dispel.
Of course it helped that the first poem of the syllabus was “All the world’s a stage” (Or did he choose to start with that one? I am not sure) . The stage was set for his teaching. I was amazed by the attention he gave to even a small phrase such as “bearded like the pard”. He paused at every stanza, dwelt over the words and explained the imagination of the poet with same incredulity as if he was reading it for the first time. I have never seen a leopard or the guy Shakespeare was describing, but I bet I could give the exact measurement of that beard, down to a millimeter. So transfixed were we in the world built by Shakespeare and brought to life by him. The poem no longer felt like a wrestling match with terse lyrics, but a beautiful duet with a soul that mirrored our own. The brevity of words, the discordant milieu and those escapist philosophies were like a liberal dose of exotic spices to flavor our numbing present.
And this experience was not limited to bard’s words alone. Throughout the year, he breathed life in to the words of many great poets (At this point of time, I was convinced that the selection of poems were great indeed!). The fire in the eyes of Blake’s Tiger, the treble in the oar-wielding hands of Wordsworth and many more came to life with lucid clarity and chose to stay with us for the rest of our lives. I felt like I was transposed to a literature course in college. But the pièce de résistance was the lecture on Keat’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. He savored every line of that romantic verse and shared with us with the same zeal. An hour long lecture, would barely get past a single stanza. How many sleepless nights I spent pondering the sweet irony of that lover so close, yet so far. The vivid image of that Grecian Urn is burnt deep in to my memory, far stronger than any real experience I ever had.
Teaching language is a tricky business. Just like how you cannot describe the word ‘describe’ without using that word or any of its synonyms, teaching a language is an exercise in untangling circular dependencies. He sidestepped those challenges beautifully, with stories, examples and explanations that formed a framework to explore and experience those literature without making you feel like you are transcribing from a dictionary. A poets skill is not his choice of vocabulary, the length of his meter or mastery of grammar. It is the soul of the poet that permeates between those rigid cage-work. The essence of his teaching was to experience this soul, to tap in to the collective conscience that had transcended cultural and temporal chasms. And with his guidance, we swayed to the movements of these poets soul, far separated from us both in space and time, like a puppet dancing to the pull of strings.
‘Mata, Pita, Guru, Deiyvam’ is often misquoted as a descending order of respect, that we are ordained to practice. I believe that it is not the case. I believe it refers to the extent to which each of those entity constitutes us. The mother gives us the flesh, the father gives us the soul. Likewise, a teacher imparts a part of him/her on to us. No matter how old or far apart we grow, like the sand that became a pearl, the fragments of a teacher lives within us, forming the core of our character and shaping our every living moment. I am no longer in contact with Shanmuganathan sir, but every time I open a book or come across a piece of literature, I interact with him, share my experience and joy. In that manner, he is always there with me.
P.S: All good sections of this prose are attributable to my English teacher, any spelling mistake or grammar mistake can be attributed to the insolent student.