Ode to a Teacher

Ode to a Teacher
(It’s strange that I’ve never sat down and written about this — until now. To this day, whenever I think of her, I feel as though I’m standing deep in the woods, surrounded by the enveloping, nurturing silence of tall trees and gently swaying leaves…)

It was 2006. In the midst of nascent teenage preoccupations that had all too suddenly started sprouting in my mind like otherwise-forgotten seeds (did my forehead resemble a football field in size? Was that zit on my forehead too prominent? Did I reek of that unpleasant mix of floral deodorant and body odour that was so typical of teenage girls?), I found myself in Flavia ma’am’s class.

She swept into Class VII-C (and into my life, in particular) like a welcome breeze on a scorching summer day. She was the very life of the party: her voice rose and fell like waves, in accordance with her mood. You knew she was tired, excited, restless, or angry by the way she modulated her tone. My classmates and I loved her for the very reasons we found her unbearable sometimes: her uncompromising insistence on flawless spelling and grammar at a time when “u r d bst” was the ‘‘cool’’ way to write and not one of us had ever written a full, grammatically sound sentence of our own volition; the way she nagged us to ‘‘enunciate! E-nun-ci-ate!!!’’ when most of us were wondering what on earth she was talking about.

She loved Wordsworth with an intensity bordering on obsessive; for her, poetry really was ‘‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’’. Words were sacred things, meant to be handled with the utmost tenderness and care. And she loved Shakespeare; oh, how she loved him. On the days that the CBSE curriculum got too dry to swallow, she’d flip the books shut and hand out photocopies of the real, unabridged stuff: Mark Antony’s speech. Portia’s speech. The storm scene in King Lear. She made us enact the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet one fine day for no other reason than the fact that she felt like it...even though we didn’t. We groaned and complained and dragged our feet.

But her? She turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to all our tantrums, choosing — instead — to believe that we, her students, would do exactly as we were told without further provocation. For all her tendencies to exaggerate and indulge her histrionic side as often as she could — things were never ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad’’; they were always either ‘‘marvellous’’ or ‘‘appalling’’ — there was something about her; something solid and reassuring and real. If we were the stray leaves in a gale (flapping around for all that we were worth; yearning for a sense of purpose and direction), she was the tree trunk — feet firmly on the ground; unfazed by the noise and chaos of echoing voices in the corridor, heated exchanges, flustered, giggly and mildly embarrassed adolescent girls getting their periods, and the clashing smells of deodorant emanating from the boys’ toilets.

She had a very distinct way of articulating herself — crisp and clear, with flawless diction and pronunciation. It was she who taught me that in the word “academic,” the stress is on the third syllable. Under her tutelage, I started writing more often; hasty scribbles on random sheets of paper. I started reading poetry — a new adventure, in equal parts exciting and baffling. I remember having discussions with her in the foyer near the staff room — discussions about how seamlessly life and literature blend into each other... how a single line of poetry or prose could describe my (pre)adolescent angst so perfectly. 

She was a good, solid shoulder to lean on — whenever I found myself flailing and floundering, I’d approach her for some perspective. And she’d listen….calm and steady as the patch of sky that peeped through the skylight window that was diagonally opposite her seat in the staff room. Midway through that year — 2006 — I shot to the top five students of my class, steadily maintaining my position until the end of the academic year. Flavia ma’am was known to be notoriously, unflinchingly strict with her marking...but I will never forget the looks on my classmates’ faces when I got 47/50 in the end-of-year assessment. And how much I cried when I found out that she wouldn’t be teaching me when I moved up to Class VIII. (In those first, very disorienting months as a student in Class VIII-C, I missed Flavia ma’am with a fierce intensity. I’d go to her every day during the lunch break and cry my eyes out, because I simply couldn’t get used to the stiff and imperious ways of the new English teacher.)


And then, in 2009, it all changed in the space of a heartbeat.

When, towards the end of my summer break, I was studying for my upcoming first-term exams (every set of long breaks in Std X was, essentially, preparatory leave for mock exams that were held immediately after school reopened; more often than not, from the first working day itself), I received a phone call that blew my world apart and rearranged it in ways that I hadn’t known were possible up until that moment. It was the final week of June.

The phone call was from a classmate, who happened to be my adored teacher’s neighbour.

It was a fatal cardiac arrest. Death had been instantaneous.

It seems a bit fuzzy now, but what I do remember feeling with a startling clarity — among all the other overwhelming negative emotions, that is; so clearly that flashes of it arise in my mind even today — is a sort of total and absolute disbelief. I remember writing about it in my journal, trying to make sense of what exactly I was supposed to do now that one of my biggest role models was no longer in the world. Who would charm my juniors with her theatrics? Whom would I go to when I felt, albeit hyperbolically, like my world had gone to pieces? The irony was not lost on me: the very person whom I’d usually reach out to, if this sort of catastrophe happened, was the one whom I would miss — in the months and years to come — as though I were a tree whose branches had been violently wrenched away.

She was a force to reckon with, my Flavia ma’am. She turned my entire universe around by walking into my class on that day in April 2006. Unquestioningly devoted to her students, she was fiercely loving and loyal to a fault. She wore her heart on her sleeve in a way that no other teacher did. If only I’d known that she’d be taken away three years later. If only. But you can never know this sort of thing, can you…? That’s what’s so frightening. One minute you’re walking on solid ground; the next, you’re flailing, desperately trying to keep yourself afloat even as you kick harder than ever before…and weirdly enough, the water seems as thick and viscous as molasses.

She is the bird which flew away; the candle that was snuffed out far too soon. She was my Mary and I was her little lamb...not a day goes by when I don’t think of her. This year marks a decade since her untimely demise...and while I can’t undo what happened all those years ago, I comfort myself with the realisation that — clichéd as it sounds — she’s watching over me, wherever she is: signature red pen in hand, a well-worn copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets within arm’s reach, and a pile of notebooks teetering precariously on her desk....always cheering me on, because “a word after a word after a word is power.’’ 

Her spirit lives on.

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Wonderful eulogy!
May 6, 2020 at 13:36
Kudos to the teacher and the taught. Beautiful and peaceful. I wish to be remembered as a mentor more than as someone who transacts a lesson with his/her pupils. It shows how powerful is the role of a teacher. Shreya...congratulations
May 6, 2020 at 05:14