Stoics believed that living through hard circumstances can make us happier. I understand it now, as there are little things that bring me joy in these times of lockdown, that never came to my notice before. Sitting in the garden and watching kids play, cooking a small meal at the end of the day for the family, watching old classics all over again and so many other things that I could never do with such satisfaction and gratitude. Such times help us realise that gratitude is one quality that can alter our mindset and help us to see probably the most adverse situations as providential in life.
Today marks the end of Teachers Appreciation Week for this year. Honestly, I don’t think seven days are apt enough to thank teachers for what they have been doing amidst COVID-19 outbreak or even before. I read some great stories in these past weeks where some people have forced us to redefine the word teacher in our minds. I read the story in The Independent about a teacher in Grimsby, who walks five miles every day to provide his students their free school meal. CNN reported about a Maths teacher who is using half of his salary to pay for groceries and bills for the families of his students. Another story reported about a Primary school teacher who volunteered to take care of her student’s new born baby brother while the family was fighting with the deadly virus. These are just a few stories that surfaced in the news headlines but we know that there are thousands of teachers around the world who are doing more than what they have to so their students don’t feel deprived from a sense of safety and security in these desperate times. Teachers are holding virtual classes, making daily phone calls, providing advice and counselling on a daily basis to vulnerable students and their families.
I thought of writing this blog when I received some really heart warming messages from some of my students. Their appreciation made me think about my values and beliefs as an educator. The word teacher has such a broad sense to it that it feels belittling the meaning of it when we limit it to just a profession. The thought of writing about the three most influential teachers in my life became a struggle when I actually had to cut down the list of many great personalities such as Guru Nanak, Lord Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tzu and many more including my parents who have been great teachers throughout my life so far. The more I was thinking, the list kept growing so I came to the point where I paused and started to draft down the top three.
“I am indebted to my father for living but to my teacher for living well.”
I started to drift back in my childhood and started to see glimpses of those people who left an everlasting mark on my mind that led me to take teaching as a profession. Did I ever thank them? The honest answer is no and may be that would be my regret till the last day. There is one teacher however, who I would like to thank the most. Simply because his effortless simplicity and barefaced sincerity was unparalleled to any other personI I have ever met. Mr Malkit Singh Brar used to be my Maths teacher and I was his student for most of my adolescent years. His neatly tied turban and well groomed beard and mustache was a sign of discipline and the pride that the man held in his profession. About 5ft and 4 inches tall, Brar sir was the most feared teacher in the school. It was later I realised that the fear was actually the sense of respect the students had for him. I am terrible at remembering anything from my school days but some instances are so strong and valuable that somehow they end up becoming life lessons. Brar sir started teaching me when I was in Year 7 and Maths was never my strength. My worried parents saw the trend of tuition in the community and signed me up for the evening classes with Brar sir. There were around 12-15 people in that evening session and for me it was no different than going to school and sitting in a classroom. He was a simple man who lived in one rental room and organised his evening class in the same space. Two big manjaas where students sat in a queue and his chair right in the middle was not a typical classroom setup. On that particular day Mr Brar asked me to get my homework checked and realised that I couldn’t do even one question correctly. I was obviously scared of what was coming next and looked at the rest of the class thinking it is going to be humiliating too. He asked the person who was sitting closest to move and made me sit next to him. Then he spent a good 20 mins just explaining the concept. Later, he sent a message at my home that I will be late and helped me to do all the homework tasks one by one until I actually got them right. I never had an experience where a teacher spent so much time on one student’s needs. To improve my calculating skills he encouraged me to follow Cricket. That started a new passion and gave me a great love for the sport.
During our school’s sports day, Mr Brar had a responsibility of kick starting the races at the starting line. Year after year we watched him giving a start signal with his wooden clap. I could never forget his answer when I asked him why he chose to play that role during sports day. His answer was genuinely relatable. Very casually he joked and said that this is what teachers do. We say ‘On your mark. Get set and Go.’
“My purpose in life is to help others to attain knowledge and I do not know other than that” – Mahabharata
The second most influential teacher I am going to talk about is a mythical character from the epic Mahabharat. Guru Dronacharya or Guru Drona is unequivocally one of the most admirable and commendable character in the epic set up during medieval times in India. Now of course, we know that characters of Mahabharat are not plain good or evil. They all represented humanity in all elements and there were aspects of each character that transcended the appropriate definition of good and bad. Drone was no exception. However, there were two instances in his story that affected me the most. King Drupad was a sworn enemy of Drona because he wanted to avenge his humiliating defeat. The legend says that Drupad held a yajna (ultimate prayer) to request for a son who would kill Drona. His prayer was answered and he was rewarded a son by the gods. He named his son Drishtadyumna. Drupad was delighted by the fact that his son is destined to avenge his father’s humiliation by killing Guru Drona. However, Lord Krishna acted as a peacemaker between the angry king and the guru. Their enmity altered into friendship but the fact that Drishtadyuman was destined to kill Drona remained. This is when Guru Drona, knowing the fact that the young prince is his death in the living form, decided to train and educate him in martial warfare. He taught him every aspect of martial art that he knew and didn’t resent.
Later in the epic, when the two opponents, Pandavas and Kaurvas, meet in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Drona realising that this is his time to leave this world steps down from his chariot and sits on the floor making it easy for his disciple to fulfill his destiny. I know that there were many aspects of Drona’s life where we can question his morals and ethical values but the way I see it is that characters in books and history are multi dimensional to us and we see their lives clearly as one holistic view. This doesn’t mean that we stop earning from them.
“Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.”
The third teacher I am going to mention is the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates’ impression on classic and western philosophical traditions is unparalleled. His ideas such as Socratic questioning, Socratic Paradox, Socratic Intellectualism and ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ are perpetually changing the world and even in the 21st century. He is famously known for his trial in the court of Athens where he was accused for corrupting the minds of the youth. Socrates taught his students to question everything. He told his students that the world becomes a better place when people are wise. Socrates did not believe that knowledge about the physical world, in other words metaphysics, makes us intelligent. He encouraged his students to ask questions about the physical world that they see, he engaged with them in critical thinking and asked them to write their own thoughts, doesn’t matter how foolish they may sound to them. For him, this was living a virtuous life. In the debates with his opponents he had a clever way of making them reveal their self-conflicting ideas and ignorance by asking cross examination questions. Today we call this Socratic Method. Once when a young man approached him to become his student he asked him to stand inside the river until he told him to come out. The young man did exactly what he was told. After a while he couldn’t hold his breath any longer and came out to the surface and started to breathe heavily. Socrates asked him, “What was the most important thing that you wanted when you were under the water?” The young man replied, “Air.”
Socrates said, “Come back to me when you have the same desperation for knowledge and wisdom.”
Not everyone we meet or read about would leave an everlasting impression on us but those who do change us in more than one way and encourage us to live larger. Brar sir’s simple lessons or Guru Drona’s dedication towards his purpose or Socrates’ faith, love and passion for education are the values which every teacher holds close to their heart and I salute them on this day and everyday.