English lessons with a “Teacher Friend”
One of the most popular movies made on teachers was Mr Holland’s Opus – a cinematic depiction of the life of a music teacher. Dimunitive but madly passionate about music, the movie traces the metamorphosis of Mr Holland, from that of a reluctant teacher to one who inspires, challenges, motivates and ultimately changes the lives of his students. Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Mr Holland convinces musically challenged Gertrude Lang to not quit playing the clarinet. Many years later Gertrude, now an accomplished clarinet player, sits in as part of an orchestra led by Mr Holland.
Mr Holland is symbolic – because there are many like him – who take on the demanding role of educating young minds. They become more than just teachers,but take on roles which are not expected of them – like friend, parent and guide. Take for example Sudeshna Chakraborti, who is not just the best English teacher known to her students, but also at times a friend, at times a parent and at times a guide to them as well.
Currently, Sudeshna teaches privately in her home. Students from the best schools in the city where she resides are tutored by her on everything from how to write essays to understanding the nuances in a piece of writing to facing with ease the dreaded “board” exams. Perhaps there are others who are equally good at teaching English or prepping young ones to face exams, but ask any of her students and they will tell you that it’s not just her mastery over the English lanuguage that draws them to her. Many a confidence, fear, worry and aspiration has been shared by her students with her – across her large dining table or while sitting on her comfortable sofa. Amongst the rustling papers and textbooks, students have sought guidance to make dreams into reality, students have found ways to face their deepest fears and students have been reassured that life moves on, whatever the result.
Sudeshna says that she became a “teacher by accident”. But once she did decide to take this up, she had a very clear notion of the type of teacher she wanted to be. Having studied in schools which were at times too laissez faire in their approach and at times too controlling, she realized that she most likely would have blossomed a lot more if her teachers had taken a more balanced approach. Stating that she was rather unhappy at school, she resolved that when she became a teacher, she would be the anti -thesis of all that she had seen so far in her teachers. An English graduate from St Columbus College, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, she started her teaching career in 1977. As she moved around a lot when her husband was transferred, Sudeshna had the opportunity to teach in a number of schools across different cities. But along the way, while caring for her young son, she completed her B.Ed. In 1999, after her last teaching stint, Sudeshna decided to give teaching a break for a while. While at home she took up some translation work for not for profit organizations and involved herself in organizing events at schools. But before long, Sudeshna, whose reputation for being a fine teacher had not faded from memory, got an offer to tutor the nephew of a former colleague. This had a domino effect, because her first student led to requests from parents of other students, and Sudeshna inadvertently found herself managing a full fledged career as a tutor in English.
Today, Sudeshna has a proper system running, comparable to any well run institution. She teaches on weekdays in the evenings, and on weekends in the mornings. If you look around the room where her students sit down with their books and copious notes, there is an air of calm. Books line the walls and pictures, ranging from abstract to charcoal sketches pepper the walls. While some students work at the table, one student sits separately with Sudeshna where she takes him or her through an essay or poem that needs work. After showing the student her own interpretation of the poem – neatly typed out and printed – Sudeshna prompts the child to attempt one on their own. Another student is given a set of questions, prep for a board exam. These questions have been compiled from Sudeshna’s many years gearing children to appear for Class 10 and 12 English exams. One notices the meticulousness and attention to detail employed by Sudeshna to make her students confident about tackling a paper or a poem.
Over the months spent teaching and learning, a strong bond also develops between the student and teacher. And Sudeshna says that she begins to understand when her students are down or troubled or pre occupied. That’s when the other aspect of her persona as a teacher comes to the forefront. Gently probing, at times friend, at times teacher, at times guide, Sudeshna is amazing at getting her students to open up. She says that often her students talk to her about things that they find difficult to share with their own parents. One of the most contentious issues between parents and children is that of choice of career. Sudeshna says that despite the many opportunities still available, parents seem to have fixed ideas of career options – which are no different from what they were not too far back. And when the child seems to have interests that differ from those, the resulting conflict can be difficult for the child to face. Though she never counsels her students to rebel against their parents choices, she does try to help them find ways to communicate with their parents. Sudeshna says she has never openly advocated any profession or steered her students towards a particular career. But she does wish that parents can look beyond the obvious to the opportunities that abound.
Sudeshna’s relationship with her students does not end once their objective of learning or passing exams has been met. You could say that an alumni of past students exists even today who willingly remain in contact with her and who continue to share confidences with her. She says that they still talk to her about their professional ups and downs – though the relationship has morphed into one of two friends catching up on each other’s lives.
A teacher once told me that after one retires from teaching, there is a void. After the hustle and bustle of teaching, and having students who at times hanker for your attention, at times make you stark raving mad, and at times seek out your counsel and friendship, it is hard to adjust to life sans that. Until an old student picks up the phone to ask after you or seeks you out in a public setting or adds you as a friend on Facebook. We think that Sudeshna will probably never feel that void because her students still seek her out, even though there is no Shakespeare to master or essays to tackle. So, unlike Mr Holland her final opus is definitely a long way off!
Many more students are going to be fortunate enough to meet Sudeshna and her “alumni” of “student friends” is probably going to get larger. Well, we hope that for every young student out there, there is a “teacher friend” like Sudeshna either in their present or in their future.
Sudeshna Chakraborti is the mother of novelist Rajorshi Chakraborti, whose first novel Or the Day Seizes You was shortlisted for the Hutch Crossword Book Award in 2006. Some of his other works are Derangements (August 2008, Harper Collins), Balloonists (June 2010, Westland Books) and Mumbai Rollercoaster (November 2011, Hachette India)
Cover image courtesy: Flickr user Susana Fernandez
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