Just as there are teachers who create an impact on their charges, there are students too who have touched their mentors in so many ways.
TWO YEARS ago when I was assigned to teach Art to a Form One class, I enjoyed some of the most hilarious moments of my career.
On my first day with them, I decided to break the ice by telling them a little about myself. My Plan was to illustrate my life story in the form of a Lat-styled cartoon on the board.
I started off by writing my name, BhulVindarKaur, in block letters on the board.
“Based on my name,” I asked, “who can tell me what race I am?”
A hand shot straight up at the back and flailed wildly for my attention.
He was a Malay boy. When I nodded at him, he stood up and proclaimed loudly, “Bollywood!”
The whole class laughed. After I had explained what Bollywood really meant, I asked them to try again.
This time, an Indian boy stood up and said confidently, “You are a Singh!”
Before I could even answer him, a scrawny, bespectacled Chinese boy who was a Harry Potter look-alike with his unruly, jet-black hair ridiculed him soundly by telling him, “She’s a teacher not a sing-er lah!”
To avoid further altercations, I told them about the Punjabi race.
I explained the gender differences in the usage of the suffix of Singh and Kaur.
I also drew the international symbol for men and women and we joked about what would happen if Harry Potter (this nick-name for him stuck in my mind!) mistakenly entered a toilet with a female symbol on it.
Of screams and giggles
“The girls would scream! Aaagghhh!” He happily parodied the scream for all to hear.
After getting some withering looks from the girls, he collapsed in giggles and sat down meekly.
As the days passed, the students and I became accustomed to each other. Harry Potter, in particular, grew particularly fond of me.
He would trail me in the classroom and on many an occasion, I would find him, right next to me, springing up like a Jack-in-the-box.
One habit he had was to hold on to my Punjabi suit, a trait I found quaint.
Some weeks after teaching him, I happened to meet his father.
After a few minutes of desultory conversation, the father gave me a BQL — a burning question look.
Prodded, he finally asked me, ‘Did you tell my son …?’
It turned out that my student Harry Potter had gone home and told his father that “if you touch a Punjabi woman, you must do so very gently.”
He also told his father that I was “hot”, “extremely funny” and told the class “a lot of sex jokes”. I laughed!
The explanation of course was very simple. Some of the students I taught liked to sprawl on the floor while doing their artwork. To avoid impropriety, I resorted to wearing Punjabi suits which came with flared pants.
Like I said, Harry Potter had the habit of not only holding on to my dress, but also tugging it to get my attention.
One day, I told him, “Be gentle when you tug my dress!”
“Why?” he asked.
I answered: “The material may tear, don’t break my heart okay,” I joked, “these suits aren’t cheap.”
He laughed and told me gallantly that “my father can buy you a hundred more!”
As for being “hot”, it is true that I was suffering at the time from premenopausal heat flashes and I would often move towards the centre of the classroom so that I could get the full effect of the ceiling fan above me.
Harry Potter didn’t like this habit of mine.
He even told me, “Why do you always go there? I can’t see your face when you teach from there (the centre of the classroom)!”
I remembered telling him, “I’m feeling hot.”
“Hot! Hot! Hot!” he would scold me gently. “Always hot!”
The “sex joke” comment of course originated from the time I had told them about the male and female symbols.
The fact is I really liked these students. Knowing that they would soon lose their childish delight in things, I allowed them the harmless raucous fun they derived from my humorous comments about their art and life.
My students didn’t realise this, but at the time, I was going through a very difficult personal period — both my mother-in–law and my mother were deteriorating rapidly and would, in fact, pass away within months of each other.
My health too had taken a dive and I often suffered from chronic fatigue and emotional lassitude.
But, on the days I made it to school, I came to cherish the Art periods I had with my ‘kids’.
Teaching, I discovered, can be a healing experience. In giving to others, one can forget one’s own pain.
Speaking for myself, I found succor and comfort in the way these young students grew attached to me.
Due to my experience, I could teach them in a subtle, relaxed way, yet make sure they understood and translated concepts of tone, colour and mood into their art pieces.
I have always believed in the power of positive reinforcement. But, they were often surprised when I honestly picked out the strengths in their pieces.
One boy, for instance, told me his artwork was “ugly” and wouldn’t show it to me at first.
When he finally did, I ignored the poor drawing but focused instead on how beautifully he had used an orange tint to signify a sun-rise.
Students like him improved tremendously under my tutelage and encouraging remarks.
During Picasso Week, these students really bowled me over with their creativity.
The beauty of the human mind and heart can unfold in many ways but none touched me more than these 13-year-olds who embraced me fully as their teacher.
They were very frank and open with me and I laughed often at their antics.
But, Harry Potter cried the day I told him that I had made the decision to retire.
Overcome with emotion, he passed me a note.
There was just one word on it. It was “Why????”
“You are not even old!” he chided me later. “My father says only old teachers retire!”
Under normal circumstances, I would have agreed with him but the year I taught him, I was actually barely holding up.
The decision to opt for early retirement was one of the most difficult choices I had to make in my life but I did it for the sake of my health.
He may not know this but I carry him in my heart everywhere I go.
(I was to discover later that Harry Potter’s mother passed away when he was just aged eight. One of his habits as a child was to hold on to his mother’s dress everywhere she went.)