sunday herald
Sunday May 4, 2003

Shreekumar Varma

We had a master in school whose eyes turned red when he was angry. The cane on the table leapt magically into his hand, and woe betide the student who sinned. It was that kind of an atmosphere, cringing boys and haughty teacher, evil disciplined by good. He reminded me of the early Shatrughan Sinha with his stylised mannerisms and deadly swagger as he lectured the other villains of the class.

School those days was a mixture of fun, learning and sheer fright. I remember a geography master chasing me around the class with his cane. I was so frightened that I ran and ran and finally took the cane right out of his hand and broke it in half and gave it back to him. We were both equally stunned and so was the rest of the class. Later-years later, actually---we became wonderful friends.

In college we had some equally stern lecturers but, of course, they couldn't lay hands on students. However, there were also delightfully friendly lecturers and I remember one who bought us lime juice from the canteen, smoked with us, and was so casual in class it was as if he were one of us and not one of "them".

After many years, I found myself on the other side. There was a short-but-happy-year when I was lecturing at my alma mater, the Madras Christian College. I would drive down from office, teach, and drive back to work. Armed with memories of my own days as a student, I tried to be relaxed and friendly, joking with my students and adjusting to their pace.

Even so, or perhaps because I was so friendly, the slightest disapproval or grim word had them looking up at me with wide eyes of disbelief. I remember an M.A. student bursting into tears when I asked her to pay attention in class on a particularly warm summer afternoon. There was an awkward silence and the entire class waited with bated breath to see what would happen. I felt like the run-around geography master from my own schooldays. I somehow recovered control and pacified her without being too mushy.

It's an Indian tradition that you respect your elders. In the hierarchy of reverence, you respect your mother first, then your father, your guru next and only then God. The classroom atmosphere, at least for me, was one of deference and awe unless the lecturer was bad, boring or unwittingly funny. As an adult, even formal meetings I attended took on the format of a classroom and the speaker of the moment seemed to don a mentor's halo. The years melted away and I was back in school with notebook, pencil and rubber and a heart full of respectful expectation.

So it was with great surprise that I heard a couple of friends discussing the academic scene in the west. "If you go and teach there don't be surprised by the utter lack of reverence," one of them warned. He had learnt it the hard way. He had been a college lecturer for about twenty-five years and had acquired the reputation of being quite a disciplinarian. Visiting in the US, he was confronted by a classful of casual students of all ages, some with their feet up on the table, others chewing gum and blowing bubbles of alarming proportions, yet others asking sharp, frank, though pertinent questions that would certainly have embarrassed the average Indian teacher. Some of the teachers were equally casual themselves, coming to class in shorts and laid-back good cheer.

In fact, the balance of power was so delicate that a row of negative ratings during the periodic student evaluation could fetch a member of the teaching staff a curt note of dismissal so that he could return home to ponder the mechanics of student management. Floored by the floor and daunted by the dauntless, my friend managed to come through in one piece by sheer virtue of his superior knowledge of the subject. "Because once they know you're thorough with your subject and that you can stand on your own, they melt and become friends," he concluded.

It was a sobering revelation. Far from the policing that went on in classrooms when I was young, here was a new situation where teachers lived by the hour and at the mercy of a more-than-equal student firing squad. The hierarchy of reverence has shrunk today, displacing everyone else except God, who is the student.

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