I was in first grade and to teach us how the government is formed, Ms Lynn Butler, our teacher conducted a mock election. When the ballots were counted I emerged winner and was declared President and a boy who was much more popular, but had lesser votes, was made Vice- President. I was surprised by the outcome more so because I thought the word was Wife- President. I went up to the teacher and offered to take the lesser post being the ‘weaker sex’. She explained the meaning of ‘vice’ and added that even if the post was ‘wife’ President, my gender wouldn’t have mattered. She said, ” You should honour your classmate’s trust of choosing you for the top position and believe in yourself. There is nothing which a boy can do and you can’t.” Her words made a great impact on me at a time when I was picking up subtle hints on gender roles from society. I took up the post with a new found confidence and lasted the term without facing impeachment. This, despite some very unpopular decisions like shifting the water break from the second period to the third.
As happened often, I had not done my homework. It was English class and our school Principal, Ms Vimla Raheja taught us. I was in tenth and being the senior most class in school she thought that our assignments needn’t be checked like fifth graders. She would ask a question from the lesson and a few of us would read out answers from our note books. Then she would discuss the various viewpoints and expect us to make corrections. Later on she would sign the copies in her office. That day she kept on asking me question after question and I pretended to read out the answers from my notebook. She didn’t seem to notice that anything was amiss and I was pleased that I had been able to fool her. While leaving she asked me to bring all the notebooks to her office. I complied unperturbed, knowing that she would not miss mine in the pile of twenty-five others. But to my amazement she asked me to take out my copy from the stack. As I stood there, dumbfounded, she calmly said, ” It may not always seem so, but living a lie is difficult. Accepting the truth is easier.” I managed a meek apology. She said she didn’t want to shame me in front of the class since I knew the lesson which was the purpose of the assignment. The showdown in private was necessary to make me realise that she was smarter than I thought. And then she said something unforgettable. She said that if I had considered doing it, I should have done it well and put up a more convincing performance. It is no surprise that she had many, much more illustrious students than me, the astronaut Kalpana Chawla being one of them.
I was doing my post graduation and my boss Dr Sushila Rathi was a stern taskmaster. She felt that my potential was marred by my lackadaisical attitude and so was specially hard on me. She would constantly push me to do better, never accepting my excuses. Her usual refrain was, “Is that the best you could do?” One day, frustrated by the way I was holding the retractor to expose the abdominal cavity while she operated, she asked me if there was a better way of doing it. I changed the angle of my arm and the organ she was trying to stitch became clearly visible. She gave me a tired smile and said, ” Even the most mundane and insignificant jobs deserve perfection. Don’t wait for a bigger opportunity to showcase your talent. Do everything to the best of your ability and you’ll never have regrets.” Though I have not been able to reach her level of excellence, I think her advice helped me become the best I could be.
Three teachers, three lessons, received a decade apart, that made me the person I am. The first lesson taught me that I could do whatever I want, the second that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing well, and the third that doing well is not good enough, it had to be my personal best. The lessons don’t appear exceptionally profound but they worked because they were well timed and made sense to me. Most teachers try to inspire and ignite young minds, some recognise the perfect moment to do so. Few realise that their seemingly unremarkable words have the ability to change lives. Sadly, very few get the gratitude they deserve for doing so.
( published in Vidura ( April – Jun ‘18) , a magazine by the Press Institute of India )