Teachers, I salute thee!

S Balakrishnan
I don’t remember my first teacher and I can’t be blamed for it because that was 60 years back. But luckily I have a photo of my first teachers. However, truly speaking, I can’t claim them as my first teachers nor can they claim me as their student, as I was a dummy student. Believe me, I was so keen on learning that I adamantly accompanied my elder sisters to their school and was made to sit along with my second sister in first standard. Alas, only if I had continued with that same zeal …! This archival photo is so unique because in those days class group photo at the end of every academic year was unheard of. This photo of Section ‘A’ of the 1st standard was taken during the academic session 1960-61, exactly 60 years back! Can you spot me? The cutest and innocent boy seated at the extreme right in the bottom row is me; my sister is 3rd from right in the third row. Maybe I was the teachers’ pet as well!
An analysis of the six-decade-old photo reveals many social facts – while most of the girls are wearing the traditional paavaadai-chattai (full length skirt-blouse) with double-plaited hairdressing, one is wearing a knee-long gown and another full gown. Many girls are decked up for the special occasion, probably told in advance. But what make-up can boys apply? It is a mixture of students from very poor families to lower middle class strata. There are more girls than boys which is surprising. The boys are wearing shirts & half trousers, except one (or is that a girl?) who is wearing a striped pajama-like dress. I am stylishly wearing a full sleeved ‘jippa’ (as kurta is known in Tamil) with slippers on. A few of them, however, seem to be over aged for the first standard. One boy’s hair is not cropped and he is having a traditional tuft. The sleeve of teachers’ blouse is up to the elbow and even beyond. No notebook and pencil/pen, only slates (made of slate stone, as held by the girl in the bottom row) and ‘balpam’ (white slate pencil) for writing. This photo was probably taken at the convent school in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. Or was it in Madras?
There was no formal Kindergarten schooling then but a sort of informal play schooling nicknamed ‘half standard’. So technically this was my ½ standard! These days you have graduation ceremony after the three-year KG-level with all the paraphernalia, including photo shoots! Do I envy? Well, I don’t remember anything about my 1st standard schooling. I remember my 2nd standard at the convent school in Kumbakonam for the reason that I was scared of moving to the next standard because of the fear instilled by my sister about the 3rd standard maths teacher. Needless to say I was and am still weak in mathematics; my worst fear was the multiplication tables. “Oh, come; welcome to the 3rd standard. The maths teacher is waiting with a long cane. Swish! Your buttocks and palms will burn”, she used to scare me.
But God was so kind to this cute, innocent, little boy! My father was transferred to Madurai and I escaped from that dreaded maths teacher. When we arrived in Madurai from Kumbakonam, the academic session had started. So we three could get seats only in a municipal primary school that was quite close to our house. The school functioned from an old house with a central courtyard open to the sky where rain would pour down beautifully. I was charmed by the class teacher who invited a few of us to her house for her birthday bash! With all the classes crammed within that small house, it was cacophony all around. We three shifted to a convent school next year and my 4th & 5th standards were done there. I remember only my 4th standard teacher who was yet to be ordained as a religious Sister; she was tall and well built and had a manly voice. But she was kind and friendly to the students. Despite being a Christian school, it staged Hindu mythology-based dramas during the annual day function. She played the role of Guha in that part of Ramayana epic that emphasizes friendship. The next day we enthusiastically told her that we had identified her though she playfully insisted it wasn’t she. My memory is blank about my 5th standard teacher/s. During lunch break we will visit the church within the school compound for tasting the salty holy water in the font!
Now I was a BIG boy into 6th standard and into a boys’ high school; not anymore under the constant watchful eyes of my two big sisters.  For the next three years also all the teachers were female. So I had presumed for a long time that the word ‘Teacher’ is a feminine noun that indicates only female teachers. For one year I had a Tamil male teacher who was addressed as ‘Ayyaa’ in Tamil (Sir). The portly Tamil lady teacher was addressed as ‘Amma’ (Mother). From 6th onwards I was put in an English medium. So my parents thought it was better to undergo extra coaching (tuition) for one year at the school itself. Throughout my academic life, this was the only period I underwent tuition. I really hated this because “I know everything” (Enakku ellaam theriyum) was my standard reply as a student to my parents. I still remember the school’s prayer song in praise of Goddess Saraswathi –‘Vellai thaamaraiyil veetrirupaal, veenai seiyum oliyil irupaal …’ (Seated on white lotus, playing on the veena …).
Again there was change of town and school with father being transferred to Tirunelveli, further down south. Here at St. John’s high school, Palayamkottai, it was all male teachers who were addressed as Sir. So my presumption that ‘Teacher’ means only female teachers got strengthened. The 9th standard Sir was a bubbly person liked by students; due to some difference with the management he was shifted midway to another school. The 10th standard Sir was Mr. Ahimaz who declared that he knew everything under the sun, from A to Z, as his name itself proclaimed. True to his word, you ask him about anything, the next day he would explain about it in detail! The secret was later revealed that he had at home a set of Encyclopedias. Sadly, my memory is blank about the teachers of my final year of schooling, i.e., SSLC (11th Standard). Even at this final stage no group photo was taken by the school. How sad!
Therefore, this is the one and only photo proof of my eleven year long school education! How interesting would a reunion of this group be! My respect to my teachers, all of whom must, by now, be waiting in the other world for my arrival to refresh their subjects; but no maths, please!
The author can be reached at [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp