A student's valentine to a great teacher

Thank you, Mrs Khan, for opening doors and giving me the love of language

I stand at The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail, Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

-Gary Soto

Hair now as grey as scattered ashes, sari draped casually, slighter in figure at 72 yet incisive of mind, she remains distinctive in voice. In sound, it is maybe hoarser, as if age has sandpapered her larynx; in strength, it is a teacher's voice, firm, strong, deliberate and once, like an orator, able to envelop a room.

Thirty-five years since she taught me, her voice has stayed with me, not merely for its occasional flintiness - words so sharp she could part my schoolboy hair - but for what it carried to me. An unforgettable education.

In an Indian boarding school perched on a hill, in a room washed by the sun, she was my interpreter. Untangling a Shakespeare sonnet for me and unscrambling O. Henry. She was my opener of doors to W.H. Auden, she was my fellow traveller to Thomas Hardy's world, instigating romance without even knowing it. If I write now for a living, irrespective of standard, it is because she endeavoured to first teach me to love language.

This is my teacher. Mrs Khan. Never Manju. Mostly just Ma'am. In December in Delhi, as she visited her daughters, I met her after nearly 15 years and it struck me on reflection: I owe her. What precisely I cannot say and how you can repay the great teacher I do not know.

A Valentine's Day card may not suffice for I don't particularly care for its affected affection, its artificially inflated red hearts and its trite words. Yet neither, as scattered fundamentalists in India decree, should it be banned, for how love is expressed is a choice that cannot be dictated. Curious about her opinion, I call my teacher and while she is no admirer of the commodification of love, firmly she states: "I believe in inclusion, in accepting the rituals and customs of other cultures."

It is a sweet lesson and so let me, on this day, at least send her the student's simple equivalent of a valentine: Thank you, Ma'am.

Shunted across Indian schools, I was a lousy student paraded before an erratic array of teachers. Classes in India could be charmless factories, where for the most part we were indolent, nose-picking kids, scratching our initials onto wooden desks with geometry-set dividers much like prisoners inscribing theirs on a wall. Hunched over desks like a platoon of stenographers, we felt part of the herd that Lucia Perillo eloquently described in her poem Transcendentalism:

Like musk oxen we hunkered while his lecture drifted against us like snow.

If we could, we would have turned our backs into the wind.

Teaching often warrants connection, a chord that is struck almost by fluke in a crowded classroom between child and adult. As if somehow the teacher is speaking only to you. There is an element of luck to it, to find amid this posse of teachers - the slappers and the sensitive, the dictatorial and the determined, those of undying spirit and those just defeated - the one who calls you.

And if Plato had Socrates, and Aristotle had Plato, and Alexander the Great had Aristotle, then I was privileged to have Mrs Khan.

She didn't teach by strict ordinance, she wasn't some ancient guru requiring obeisance and obedience. Maybe she understood the absurdity of expecting dull conformity from her students even as we examined the originality and inventiveness of poets.

To take flights of imagination, you need initial help from a navigator, yet even as we comprehended cadence and voyaged with words, we were not allowed to be mute.

The best teachers offer you a voice, to question, to challenge, and she gave us the gift of her listening. Not just in class, but sprawled on the carpet of her home, where life itself might have been the subject, time winding away as she made coffee and I surreptitiously stole her cigarettes. She made me feel not like a lost boy, but a young adult on the cusp of possibility.

She wasn't an "imparter of knowledge" for even down the phone line last week, as we debated teaching, she grimaced at the "pomposity" of that phrase.

She was learning from us, too, telling me now: "It was equally enjoyable for me. I saw another point of view, a new way of thinking. I was also being educated." When I said "thank you" when our phone call ended, she replied, "No, thank you."

She is retired now to a village called Vythiri in Kerala, tending a vegetable patch next to a pond of lilies and I wonder if she thinks of reward. Is there any? It isn't money, for at the end of a teaching lifetime, excluding accommodation and food, her monthly salary was roughly $200. When she tells me the figure, I recoil, for it only confirms that society's veneration of teachers is pompous fakery.

Achievement for her was, as a single mother then, to give her two girls - now friends of mine - an education, a life, a chance. She taught for the most elemental reason, to make a living, but perhaps her triumph was to affect some of our lives. But if we never tell our teachers of their influence, if we do not confirm their significance, if we do not reach out in gratefulness, then we have not completed our education.

In December when we met, I was carrying a copy of Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize-winning book, The Narrow Road To The Deep North. I asked if she had read it, she said no, and I was thrilled to give it to her. Later that night, at the airport on my way back here, I wondered at the flickering symbolism of it. So much literature taken from my teacher and now by chance a little returned.

rohitb@sph.com.sg