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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My English Teacher : A life of community service....

One summer morning in 1980,  a small, dark, shy boy with a huge mop of hair was entrusted by his mother to Ms Edvina Fernandes , then the Class Teacher of the 8th Standard in St. John The Evangelist, in Marol, Bombay. 

Though he had been in an English medium school before, it was the first time that  the boy was in a school where the teachers and the students actually spoke English, not Hindi, in class. He was petrified to speak, lest the others poke fun at him; he was at an age where it felt as if everything he did would be inadequate, comical, and not up to the standards.

Then in marched Edwina Ma’am. In every class, she took care to talk to the boy, praise him, and reassure him : she encouraged him to speak, to say what was in his mind, and she made it clear to the other boys that he was under her protection.

The boy blossomed under her, and the under-confidence, that sense of being inadequate left him; for the rest of his life, he saw himself as Edwina Ma’am encouraged him to think of himself. Namely, as bright, bold, brilliant, nay, audaciously brilliant. As part of an intellectual elite.

That boy was me, and those two years with Edwina Ma’am, as my class teacher, who taught me English, changed my life. From a weakling, I went on to become outspoken, confident, and, of course,  very good at English.

That year, we dashed down with  the cavalry of  Light Brigade, and  sailed the Aegean Sea, with Ullyses, and woke up at dawn with Abou Ben Adhem. We were at the Battle of Trafalgar, and we were at the Roundtable with King Arthur and his knights. Ma’am took us on each of  these journeys,  carefully prefacing each lesson with an entire period or two explaining the context of each poem and prose excerpt. The next year, Ma’am taught us Grammar from Wren & Martin, and drilled us day in and day out. The customary school pic taken that year is below : 

Indeed, to boys & girls from troubled backgrounds, she was a counsellor- gentle, firm, a figure of solid reassurance. She never had to raise her voice : she carried gravitas & kindness with her, and radiated peace. For 40 years, she served the community, drawing the humble pay of a schoolteacher, simply dressed and dedicated to the Church & Christ.

I left the school, and many years went by. I left Bombay (as it was called then), and some fifteen years later, made my way back to the school. She had been promoted to Vice-Principal by then, but her office was locked, as it was a holiday. I left a note at her door, saying simply : “ I am what I am because of you”. The note had my landline number.

Another decade and a half went by and she retired from the school. Ma’am’s mother passed away, and as she was sorting her papers in 2013,  she came across the note again. She had tried the number before, but recorded message had always said that the number did not exist anymore. This time, she tried MTNL’s changed number service. Hey presto, she had the new number.

On the eve of Diwali 2013, I picked up the phone, and a remarkably melodious and young voice said, can I talk to Narayanan??  I said, who is it?. And Ma’am replied, I am Edvina. I was stunned. Through the mists of time, some 32 years in fact, I was in touch with my teacher.

I did not know it then, but she was in the last stages of a losing battle with ovarian cancer. The cancer had spread, and chemotherapy was being tried, in big doses, in a futile attempt to hold back the tide. 

Edvina Ma'am had not got married, ànd her brother came down from USA to be with her.

Grateful students looked after her, took her to hospital, and ran errands. She was always puzzled, by her students's devotion : "I just did my duty and taught them to the best of my ability. I don't think there was anything special about my teaching"

Even though time was already running out on her, I am happy I was in touch with her, through weekly phone calls, in the last two years of her life.

When I finally met her in August 2015, 35 years after she taught me,  I prostrated myself in namaskar before her, my Guru, and she raised me, and blessed me, and made the sign of the Cross over me.

The cancer finally claimed her on 24th December, 2015, just 3 months later. Her beloved Christ had finally had mercy on her, a day before Christmas.

She has, indeed, gone to a better place. But she has left an imprint on me, like the way a mother does, on a son. Indeed, I am one of her sons today…..

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