What My Worst Teachers Taught Me

[Context: Fifth September marks Teachers’ Day in India. For a quick summary of the reason we celebrate it today, hop over here]

My Facebook newsfeed today has been inundated with messages about inspiring teachers, and nostalgic recollections about schools. (Curiously, institutions of higher ed. and vocational training have been left out of the eulogies.)

I’m very glad that my friends and acquaintances had such wonderful people and traditions in their lives — I myself have certainly been shaped by the austere and stern upbringing of my Protestant school — but I did notice the implication, in these messages, that we learn good things only from good people. From devoted, sincere, affectionate teachers, and the institutions they shape.

I would have to disagree.

A great many of my acquaintances consider me unfortunate, because of the horrific verbal and emotional abuse and systemtic bullying I endured in my four years of senior school, at the hands of teachers and the school admin. Those that didn’t actively persecute me supported my powerful bullies by their determined silence, or by counselling me to be submissive and apologetic, instead of standing my ground.

I didn’t take their advice. Had I done so, life would perhaps have been a great deal easier. (The one outside my head, anyway. Inside, I would be shrivelled up in shame.)

Anyway, my point is, senior school and its constant torturous onslaughts — I believe these days they call such things ‘traumatic experiences’ — was a make or a break for me, and while it certainly broke me in subtle and I fear permanent ways, in many ways it also made me, absolutely. It was, to employ a tired cliché, like walking through fire. It dispelled all delusions I had about fairness, justice, equity, ethics and honesty. It convinced me about the power of nepotism and hierarchies, and the helplessness of the average person when caught in their path. It made me re-evaluate friends and friendship, and the rot in our citizen-making systems. And finally, it taught me to examine closely our society’s smug lip-service to the idea of democracy.

At the same time, it branded my very soul with the need to fight for fairness, justice, ethics and democracy every moment of our lives. Especially in subtle, concrete, constant ways, without raising a flag or walking in a parade (for I am not suchly inclined).

The two most important things that my ‘abusive’ teachers taught me, however, was the absolute necessity of a sense of proportion and a sense of humour. For a balanced, happy survival, that is. Wallowing in self-pity is the easiest thing to do, especially when life gives you ample reason for it. However, to look around and realise that while you are certainly a victim, you still have blessings to count, and that there are people far worse off who can use your help, is a wonderful way of keeping yourself from becoming an emotionally stunted, perenially miserable narcissist. And to be able to laugh at tyrants, ah. No one who hasn’t been forced to hang their heads and study their shoes in front of a thundering, power-drunk mini-deity with the ability to destroy their lives, will know how empowering it is to be able to secretly smile at this mad, self-aggrandising stomping-about, realising that it very thinly veils mental illness, deep unhappiness, and predilections of the canine persuasion. A sense of the ridiculous grounds you better than most things, and is certainly more enjoyable than the rest.

So yes. Unlike you lucky lot, I had pretty terrible times at school. The only teachers I recall with a great deal of affection are either no longer in the school, or on this mortal plane (or, they wanted to be detached from the cliques and power-brokering all around, for which I cannot blame them). The ones I can only recall with distant distaste, however, were the ones who taught me the most valuable lesson of all.

They taught me that life is a bitch. And then, in their unrelenting cruelty and pettiness, interspersed with incompetence and indifference, they helped me figure out how to best live it.

What better school-leaving gift could there be?

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32 comments

  1. Finally someone with a sensible message. These Days with specific (commercialized) tags tend to bring out the most banal, hackneyed sides of people, mostly. Traumatic indeed.

  2. Well, like in a Miss World judges’ round Q&A session, would you change events in your life if you could? I’m not so sure. At any rate, I’m glad you’re the Priyanka you are now.

    (Minus the passings away of your dadu, and Lali and people, I should specify. Those, I would never ever ask you to choose.)

  3. Thank you for writing straight from the heart. Eventually Life teaches you that there is nothing more joyous, more satisfying and more strong than ‘Living’ – with a sense of humor and unadulterated soul of course.

  4. My high school was not that bad but yes there were a couple of teachers whose only aim was to humiliate me and reprimand because I did not fit into the structure of ” Girly behavior ” (read ‘oshalin’) and had all the notorious boys as my friends and allies. So, Nandi, I exactly know what you’re talking about.

  5. i don’t think anyone has said anything about the bad teachers we have all encountered. it’s the good teachers we want to remember, our favourites that we actually want to wish. Rimi, you’re going by my system of judging any book: however badly written a book is, you can still find something useful in it, even if it is something on the lines of ‘don’t read crap like this again!’ 😀

  6. I am SO fucking glad that even with the broken bits, you’re the person you are. Gods know, we have our issues, but I would not change you for the world.

    I think your greatest gift is *clarity*. Honesty is one of my mainstays, and I am, with myself, scrupulously so (at least, I try. who knows what the sub/unconscious does?). Kintu in the searing honesty stakes, at least in public, you leave me faaar behind. The clarity you bring, khub double-edged sword of justice types, cares not whom it cuts.

    You remind people of uncomfortable truths, and that’s a bloody public service. AND you do it at great personal cost too (mainly, wide-ranging unpopularity and covert and overt “haters”), which requires a great deal of courage. So yes, thank you. And love. MUCH love.

  7. Absolute and brutally honest assessment of a profession which by default people tend to revere, when it should be nothing like that. There are teachers and there are teachers. There are the human ones and the dehumanizing ones – other professions have other ways of satisfying their (unfair) needs/wants – there’s bribe, there are promotions which gives one a sense of power. A teacher’s job, in that sense, is a dead end one, with very little upward mobility. So the kids become the easy targets. Senior school kids are the worst hit, because on the one hand you have teachers who can make the student’s (imaginary) transgressions believable to others similarly inclined and on the other you have fiercely competitive mates (read bullies), who came the already difficult existence even more so. The chances of finding a good teacher are the same as finding a good ‘anybody’ really – but the effects of a bad teacher are permanent in the lives of the taught. In that sense, they do have more power and maybe there lies the reason why people tend to suck up to them (there goes the contributions of my English teacher – who, btw, were some of the best ones I had always). And that sucking up transforms into nostalgia-filled adoration later in life, and also because it is the right thing to say and do. In my life, in schools ( Baba’s job meant I have been through several), colleges etc, teachers I remember fondly and who made any difference to my life and what I have become, would not go into double figures. I see the same with my son’s teachers. So I am right there with you on this one, Rimikins.

  8. I went to three schools in all- upto class 12. Today i could only mention my last school, Loreto Lucknow, because that was the one school i could mention without terrible memories, and so i decided to say thanks -for the first time ever. There are many friends in my friend circle who are from my second school, and who think the world of their school- the only one they went to. I cannot say the same, so i didnt. That was the school where my spirit as a child was bitterly crushed as i watched the workings of “social hierarchy” in full blast. as the children of general managers and ceo’s got selected each time for everything as we were brushed aside. If i had not gone to Loreto thereafter, where i learnt that i as a person was of some value, irrespective of what position my father held, i would have turned out to be a very bitter person indeed….

  9. School is where you learn the dirty business of life – the politicking, the hierarchy, the smart rebuttals, the chaliyati, that will help you survive in adult life. What else are schools for?

  10. I went to a missionary school as well, I have faced some of the toughest times in school and that too very early.
    I was bullied badly in Prep school and the teachers were always biased! then in middle school the story was the same, in senior school I had to endure a teacher who would give me less marks because I stood my ground and was the only person in the batch who did not join her private tuition. I gave a damn! There are other stories as well, my ma taught me one thing which has stood me in good stead – ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I never really let any of the bullying bother me, which I think made them even more angry. But I had the last laugh!

    Anyway Im a teacher now, since I had faced teachers just like you have described! I never wanted to become a teacher, ever! but somehow I have ended up in this profession and now I love teaching and those horrible teachers have taught me what not to do, which has made my job a lot easier!

  11. Brillianto, Rimi. It almost makes me feel guilty for having had a fairly decent time at school! My greatest trauma in senior school was being known to all and sundry as the head girl’s sister. Power games are insidious and toxic- but I’m glad you survived them all with your sense of humour intact, if not geatly enhanced. Way to go, Rimi!

  12. “They taught me that life is a bitch, and then helped me figure out how to best live it.” LOVED IT. Loved it overall too. Cheerio!!!

  13. Great one. 🙂 On Teacher’s Day, I will just curse all those teachers (from fox news to firstpost) who imparted half baked knowledge to hapless pupils. Little knowledge is a dangerusss fing! :/

  14. I know I wasn’t tagged in this post, so I hope you wouldn’t mind my intrusion. I just happened to read this. I must tag Daisy Majumdar .. Who’s pretty off FB these days. Since I was part of the senior school, I will mostly agree. I recall disapproving teachers, random rebellions, a lot of excuses and some very nice photos which I still have of all of us. Daisy has been asking me to share them for forever, maybe that will make senior school a little better.

  15. Your experience is similar to mine. I have met many undesirables in my life and many teachers figure on that list. However, I must admit that I also got a few very good teachers – who helped me to be what I am today. Samik Bandopadhyay, the Late Nandita Mitra and Partha Bose, Uma Shehanobis, Sreela Sen, Sreela Roy, Malabikadi (all teachers at Patha Bhaban, Kolkata), Brother Ignatius and Father Burns (Don Bosco Gauhati)…to them I owe much.

  16. It was a little late in life when I recognized the teachers I’d venerated in my childhood for the straw men (and women) they really were/are. Children and teenagers look up to people who treat them like young adults. If the respect is genuine, the student responds in kind (if he is not without a sense of fairness) and if it is merely perfunctory, the student gauges the extent to which he’ll need the teacher. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was never for the gauging. Whenever I felt there was some incursion into someone’s emotional privacy on the part of a teacher, I made my annoyance felt. I knew friends who would parley with these teachers only because they needed grace marks or because they needed great SOPs. I was chastised for it, sometimes, and all I could do was gnash my mind’s teeth at them. Lali is correct when she says there’s a professional and existential ceiling when it comes to teachers in schools and colleges. Petty politics and arguments with fat wives over the morning’s cereal make these men (and women) pull out their rulers or become tyrants just because they can. Is it just the teachers that we should look at, one may ask? Well, yes, definitely. A student is more vulnerable and impressionable than an adult. What one cannot expect, though, is for all of these teachers to always be fair or sympathetic. People take shit in different ways. A teacher can be bigger than the system he’s in, but it’s upto him (or her) to decide how he’s going to go about it. Even there, there should be a class for teachers wherein they are instructed in patience and empathy the same way children are taught ethics in school. That way, there would be considerably less scarring. Also, less cracked cereal bowls.

  17. Did i ever tell you that a certain teacher in history class one day actually very seriously instructed us to believe that all wo/mankind were decendents of adam and eve, and to possibly think that we are related to “monkeys” is sacriledge!!! so much for inspirational teachers and teaching!!! geez!!!

  18. but what shocks me the most is how so many ill qualified people were given the responsibility of young minds….and the culture of humiliation that was encouraged and respected….some of the things said and done in those walls could might as well have been to the level pf harrassment and abuse…though there were some good souls in there (or so i believe), i can’t think of more than one who i ever owe anything to…now how sad is that!!

  19. Goodness, Enika, are you serious? I thought we were safe from at least this sort of antiquated Christian dogma! And I quite agree. I was never with the two most popular junior school teachers, and in middle and senior school I liked two, at best three teachers, but I can’t say any of them have left a deep lasting impression on me. It IS sad. We spent fourteen years of our lives there!

  20. Oh, I know. The flip side of being the cultural coloniser of the world is that most vagaries of the USA is bandied about the globe. Besides, a friend of mine at uni was from Kansas (I think), and she told me how discussions about women’s reproductive health (read: safe sex and protection) was a big taboo. Girls who asked for it were apparently ‘shamed’ by their peers as sluts. Ki bolbo.

  21. I dont think I have shared this publicly but in junior school we had a teacher who would ask each one of us to open our palm and she would hit us with a wooden scale till we cried, the reason could be anything, it was according to her whim.

    Of course she ensured she never hurt children who belonged to the powerful and affluent families. These kids would gift her precious gifts regularly, which she would readily accept. I used to be terrified, a couple of times she did try to make me cry, my hand hurt like crazy but I remained silent, I just refused to give her the pleasure of seeing me cry. Because of this our academic performance suffered, our parents never believed that a school could hire such a teacher, they thought we were probably exaggerating . Finally a child was hurt so badly that her parents were forced to complain. She was let go. Thankfully, her replacement was human and I remember I got straight As in my final term in all the subjects. I was very young so I could not assess the situation then but now I know how a teacher can play a damaging role.

    This kind of thing kept happening, even though we were never beaten anymore, but they did try to psychologically damage us, but I had already developed my own coping mechanism so to me it was just empty noise. But some of the others were not as strong, it affected them badly. They lost their self belief forever.

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