Not just another brick in the wall

Published: July 23, 2010
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Teachers have ability to make us feel special or like 'just another brick in the wall'

Pink Floyd’s classic “Another Brick in the Wall” always reminds me of my teachers. One of the biggest mistakes teachers in Pakistan make is to treat students as blocks of wood, and not as individuals. Teaching is often considered a thankless profession, but one can have such a positive influence on raw, impressionable and hungry minds.

Many of my teachers relished ridiculing their students and chipping away at their self esteem, but there were others who motivated and cared for us. One of my earliest memories is of my kindergarten teacher in Gilgit, who placed me on her lap on my first day in school and explained that I had to say “present” when she would call out my name. I was perplexed as to why I should so brazenly demand a present, and that too on my very first day! Suffice to say, the teacher kept calling out my name, but I was too timid to say the magic word out loud. Memory fades after this embarrassing incident, but I do remember the teacher’s immense patience.

We come across so many teachers in the course of our educational life, but there are only a few who leave an indelible imprint on our minds. One such teacher was Mrs Sajid of Convent of Jesus and Mary (CJM), Karachi who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of the Jane Austen novels she taught. Soft spoken and graceful, she gave me a lot of her time which helped me immensely in making the transition from Pakistan Air Force School, Peshawar to CJM. Switching from an Urdu medium school to an English one in Junior School was quite a learning curve. There were some teachers who relished reminding me of my deficiency in English, and my grades kept nosediving that first year.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs Lobo, initially disliked me and the feeling was more than reciprocated. She could not stand my habit of learning by rote, and would relish pointing out any mistakes I had made. In retrospect, I feel that she was right to pull me up for learning by heart, because it was a bad habit, but surely she could done so with less aggression and more understanding.

In sixth grade, I was lucky enough to have a teacher of the calibre of Mrs Sajid who gave me the confidence to work hard. Her constant encouragement and faith led me to keep my nose to the grindstone and top in both English Literature and English Language by the end of the term. I must credit my mother too for forcing me to read and write daily in those dreaded workbooks!

One teacher who I do not remember fondly was our Urdu teacher Ms Sanober, of the flame coloured mane with a temper to match. Her violent temperament led us to quake in our shoes in junior school as ears were wrenched painfully, and copies thrown on the faces of unfortunate students. In fact, some of us became quite agile in ducking those unguided missiles! To add insult to injury, we had to somehow fend off queries from irate parents on how newly covered copies would be torn within a week as the truth was much too awkward to reveal.

When she flew into a rage, Ms Sanober (who later married an unfortunate Mr Mirza) was a magnificient sight to behold.. green eyes flashing, fiery mane swinging, vocal chords rising and powerful hands unfolding, ready to wreak havoc and destruction not unlike Keats’ Autumn Wind in ‘Ode to Autumn’ “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere/Destroyer and preserver: hear, O hear!”

How can I forget the amiable Mr Sinha who attempted ever so bravely to teach us Science? The trouble was that nobody took him seriously despite his frequent threats of punishment, and efforts to subdue the troublemakers by hitting them with chalk! In fact, his skewered aim would lead us to collapse with laughter which would make him even more furious. One student swore that she had spied him reading a Mills and Boons story under the cover of a Physics book. The story was never substantiated, but it led quite a few of us to sneak up on the poor chap, as he sat reading in his lab, in a futile effort to nab him perusing soppy romantic trash.

Mrs Arif had the gift of the gab and was an interesting study. She considered it her duty to tick off overweight girls, exhorting them to eat less and exercise more, and would advise us incessantly about the necessity of wearing sunglasses outdoors in order to avoid crow’s feet and wrinkles. What made her memorable was the way she would cock her head to one side and read our minds, and say gravely, “You must be thinking that who is she to tell us all this when she herself is so fat and wrinkled?! I know I am, but I am advising you so that you do not grow up to look like me!”

Mrs Arif would relish the double meanings or puns in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ and explain each and every one in excruciating detail, which we would copiously note down, only to be told by the end of the term that ‘these meanings’ need not be referred to in the exams!

Petite Mrs Qazi could easily have been cast in one of Fatima Surriya Bajiya’s plays. The demure Urdu teacher would enter the class clad in her sari with clinking bangles, tinkling payals and a fragrant gajra looped around her immaculate hair. It was intriguing how Mrs Qazi would lose herself in the romantic verses of Ghalib or Mir. We would enjoy questioning her about the lovelorn poetry, because it would cause her to blush and lower her lashes. Even her laugh was musical, which she would attempt to smother with a delicate hand. She was easily horrified by any crassness or loud behaviour, and would attempt in vain to inculcate in us some measure of feminity and charm.

Our Islamiyat teacher was a fascinating study. Apart from her abilty to instill in us the fear of God, what drew us to her was the amount of dry powder she would plaster her face with. After a few minutes of her lesson, one could see her face literally disintegrating as the powder would start flaking. Oblivious to the amusement of the front rows, she would drone on and on about the simplicity of the Prophet (PBUH’s) life.

One teacher who every CJM student remembers with awe is Mrs Shakir. Plait hanging untidily, sari askew, slippers flapping noisily, eyes narrowed ominously and body language spelling D A N G E R, Mrs Shakir was enough to strike terror in the stoutest of hearts. She would glare at us and tell us to open our biology textbooks. This was the lull before the storm and we would wait with resignation for the storm to break loose. Sooner or later, some poor victim would invite her ire and be subjected to a tongue lashing, while the the rest of us would squirm uncomfortably.

On one occasion, I unwittingly occupied Mrs Shakir’s chair while she was teaching seniors in a class in the library. Lost in my book, I was paralysed with horror when Mrs Shakir’s ominous shadow loomed large. In a saccharine sweet tone, she asked, “May I have this chair, please?” My legs turned to jelly as I tried to jump out of the chair, but she grinned like the wolf in ‘Red Riding Hood’ and said, “That is, if you don’t mind, of course. I am so sorry to disturb you…” By now, I was yards away from the chair, book abandoned, stammering my acquiescence, backing towards the exit, and miserably awre of the sniggers of her class. In the space of a few seconds, Mrs Shakir had succeeded in shattering my tranquil bookworm world and reducing me to a nervous wreck.

Another occasion which I recall vividly was when we were asked to bring certain items for a Milad at school. Mrs Shakir turned to me and muttered, “Yamyars!” Perplexed, I looked at my classmates who shook their heads so I mustered up enough courage to say, “I beg your pardon., Ma’am?” She exclaimed, “Get yamyars from home!” before heading towards her next class. It took us two days to figure out that she meant jam jars…

Mrs Shakir had a wicked sense of humour and was not averse to poking fun at herself. During one lecture, she said that one stops growing after a certain age. Illustrating her point further, she pointed to herself, and said with a droll look, “I cannot grow vertically any longer, but I can grow horizontally, and I am!” Despite her plump figure, none of us had the temerity to laugh in the face of that gimlet stare.

Such was the fear and reverence with which we regarded our indefatigable teacher that even after graduation I refused to go crabbing with my cousin when a guest turned out to be Mrs Shakir’s son. I was dragged feet first on the excursion, and my embarrassment was compounded by my cousin telling the son blithely about my extreme reluctance to meet him because of his mother. The poor guy brushed it aside by remarking that he was aware of the iron grip his mother exercised over her students. Needless to say, I sat as far away as possible and avoided talking to him throughout the trip.

How can I ever forget the slight Ms Laquis who advised me and other classmates to kindly give up studying mathematics, because we were “dunkeys” who were a hopeless lot. In the end, all the “dunkeys” brayed and submitted to our pessimistic teacher’s assessment that we didn’t have the gray cells to ever master algebra, trignometry and calculus. In Ms Laquis’ book, being a quitter was better than working hard to better your grades.

At Karachi Grammar School (KGS), Miss Saif was the most interesting teacher. Theatrical to the core and perpetually late, she was happiest picking out melodramatic passages from D H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Many of us felt that she had missed her calling in life and should have been exhibiting her considerable histrionic talents on stage. Her ubiquituous Cheshire cat grin always lifted our spirits. After graduation, I met her somewhere and she asked me to call her by her first name, instead of Miss Saif. Unfortunately, the word got stuck in my throat despite repeated attempts and left me red faced in front of my former teacher who smiled away my awkwardness.

The attractive Mrs Rahim invested each and every movement of her expressive hands with feline grace. She definitely made History, European or Indian, come alive as well as the boys in our A Levels class, who would be hanging on to every word of hers, unlike other classes, where they would take a back seat in order to comfortably doze off.

One such class was English Literature which was taught by the articulate and brilliant Mrs Islahuddin, whose rapid fire delivery made it difficult sometimes to take notes. She could spot inertia from a mile, and made it clear that she would not tolerate such behaviour. She was one teacher who knew her subject in depth, and it was such a pleasure to imbibe her comments on Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ or Samuel Becket’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. Blunt and incisive, she pulled no punches and commanded respect from her students.
During “emotions recollected in tranquillity”, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, I often recall my school years and gauge how much I learnt from my teachers. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that my favourite subjects in school and college were History, English Literature and Language, because I had teachers who taught these subjects with professionalism, empathy and care. And that has made all the difference..

Maheen Usmani

Maheen Usmani

A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani (twitter.com/MaheenUsmani)

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