Since I am a teacher and have been for two decades, it’s only natural that I share my experiences with my teachers. As far back as I remember the first memories I have are of Ms. Mary in the Kindergarten (KG) class in Carmel Convent School. It was a Catholic School but Ms. Mary was not a nun. I remember her bright pink nails matching the bright pink shade of her floral patterned sari. I remember being excused for games when I was just recovering from a recent bout of some fever. She did not impact me but I have these flashes of memories of art and craft in her class, being in the school orchestra (I was tinkling the triangle) for the Christmas party and her dictations of difficult words in English and my first 10/10 with the three stars.

My next memory is of Mrs. Kahlon, my English teacher in the first grade. Again it’s the art and craft class that flashes through my mind and her intricate ballet steps but what I do remember is my demonstrative reading in front of the class when for the first time I realised I could read without a break.

In second grade I discovered that teachers with a bun can be strict and that I disliked Math. Mrs. Tully, our Math teacher would constantly be writing on the board and hence I was the victim of some bullying by my seat partner; who for some reasons known to her only had taken an instant dislike to me; which incidentally Mrs. Tully did not notice. Maybe that is the reason when I am using the board today I try to have eyes at the back of my head – self-preservation, I guess!

The third and the fourth grade are the classes which have a deep impact on me. I believe that was the stage of my coming of age. The two nuns teaching me in those classes could not have been any more of a contrast in personalities as these two were. Sr. Xavier whose quiet and demure persona showed me the power of peace and Sr. Francis whose turbulent yet fair nature gave a deep sense of justice that I still possess. I remember witnessing a miracle in third grade (for me it was nothing short of a miracle). 

One day coming back from Games class we found the class in an uproar. Nancy, one of the students had misplaced her cardigan and she was accusing two girls of the theft. We were just in the middle of a screaming match when we sensed a quiet presence amongst us. Sr. Xavier had materialised like a ghost and had heard the whole diatribe. The class fell silent and Sr. Xavier very calmly told the two girls who had been accused of the theft to come forward. First she offered the girls to own up and assured them that no action would be taken against them for speaking the truth. But the girls did not bat an eyelid. Then to our utmost amazement Sr. Xavier folded her hands and asked us all to pray and that God would tell her who the culprit was. After a minute of silent praying; during which all the other girls had surreptitiously peeked at the two girls in front to see if any of them was cracking; we were told to open our eyes and Sr. Xavier  in her quiet, placid tone told us that Bhawna –one of the co-accused had taken the above mentioned garment. I am sure the rest of us were all flabbergasted and when Bhawna ashamedly agreed to have done the deed, we all never ever underestimated that stoic nun to whom God talked in prayer and told her all our misdeeds!”

I have never forgotten Sr. Xavier and her patience in putting up with my dislike of numbers and anything remotely connected with numerals. Decades later when I when used to recall her face, I wished for her patience and placidity in my life and the power of belief. Now as a teacher myself I suspect her confidences with God were based on logical deductions of past records and general observance but I have never tried to take the magic out of that ‘miracle’. For me she was a true Zen teacher.

Grade fourth is where I met Margaret, the girl who would not speak, won a prize for my craft of a house made from a shoe box , took up my love ‘basketball’, became adept at yoga and gymnastics and was ‘discovered’ by Sr. Francis for my fluency of speech and diction. Margaret and the other Catholic girls of the class used to go for a separate session in Moral Science period while the rest of us – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and one Buddhist girl would have to read the allotted text book stories, summarise the moral and answer questions. Studying in such a cosmopolitan class and reading those stories of equality, fairness and justice I really took the adage ‘All men are equal in the eyes of God’ to heart. 

In 1984, it was still ‘men’ but I was thankful to Sr. Francis for placing me just in front of Margaret and asking me to be friends with her. I was happy too, little realising that it was an impossible task. Try what I may, I could not get her to speak. For that matter nor did any other nun or teacher. If you asked Margaret a question she would only smile and lower her head. In the true tradition of the Catholic nuns we used to share our lunches irrespective of who got what from home. When Margaret was offered lunch she would politely take a bite and smile but no word ever came from her mouth. After a few weeks of my frustrated and increasingly dying missionary zeal, I was forced to ask Sr. Francis for help. The good nun annoyingly gave me a smile – not unlike Margaret’s and told me that God rewarded patience and it was the effort which counted not the end result!!

I never saw Margaret after fourth grade as my father was transferred to Chandigarh the following year and my mother, sibling and I moved to Srinagar where I started fifth grade in a co-ed school in Rajbagh, but I have never forgotten that shy, silent, tall Catholic girl who would not speak to anyone. (No, she was not born mute, Sr. Francis made that absolutely clear). Its only recently that I have understood the motivations for Sr. Francis’s firm advice - that I make friends with the ‘quiet one’ - and understood the meaning of “....God works in mysterious ways....” My tryst with the deaf-mutes of the Valley made me appreciate Sr. Francis’s ‘experiment’ in a big way when I learned the rudiments of sign-language in just three days.

Sr. Francis was also responsible for instilling the creative germ in me and giving me an identity of a fluent speaker in school. Her selecting me for a speech on the school stage in the auditorium on Children’s Day was a catalyst for my future as a ‘good speaker’ of the English language. And to this day when I give ideas to my son for his DIY projects out of reusable things, I always recall the most ideal teacher I ever had.

All the above-mentioned teachers were my class teachers as well as English teachers with the exception of Mrs. Tully. My two years of fifth and sixth grade in New Era Public School, Rajbagh, Srinagar were a culture shock for me. I have never forgotten the first sting of the stick on my palms when I had not brought my art book, or the boys of my class snickering every time I answered teachers in English. There is no exceptional teacher I remember who influenced me. I remember being immediately put to read the text in English and Social Studies due to my fluency by the respective teachers. I suspect today, they were fearful of mispronouncing words and so used me to while away the reading part. It was my first exposure to cramming and rote-memory and suddenly Math and Science took precedence over Art and Craft, Sports, Music, and the rest of extra-curricular activities. There was just one muddy courtyard that the whole of the school assembled in and there were no games for girls.

I was used to huge play-fields, beautiful lawns and flowery gardens and a huge banyan tree under which many a girl had sketched, laughed, talked, composed music or shared secrets under the watchful eyes of the nuns. That dusty courtyard, which incidentally is still there in 2016, gave me the creeps. I think those two years of being laughed at for speaking in English, left the first effects of a life-long prejudice that I have against Kashmiris – (my students made me realise that I was terribly prejudiced to which I agree cheerfully). So the unremarkable two years of my life, in which I came face to face with the first vestiges of a patriarchal society, and the collective oppression of females under the beauty myth (Kashmiris place a lot of onus on ‘milky cream skin’, a colloquial I have heard half my life) came to an end when I got admitted to the missionary school of Mallinson Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Srinagar.

There were no nuns there but I did have some semblance of a Catholic school system and some unforgettable teachers. Mrs. Walter was my English teacher in seventh grade and made quite an impact on me when she confided that the staff room was not impressed with the ‘new girl’s’ handwriting but she had defended me as to the expertise I had of her subject. I remember Mrs. Walter’s dark skin matching mine and her long, black tresses plaited or tied in a bun and her figure in the saris she wore. She was alluring and at the same time graceful in her movements and speech. I loved her class and the remarks she gave my compositions even though my handwriting was illegible for some years.

The next teacher on the pedestal of my idols is Mrs. Durrani or Durrani Ma’am as we would call her. She was quite dynamic and my first impression of hers in the eighth grade was of a sophisticated and articulate lady who knew her subject well. She was actually friendly with the girls, something I encountered for the first time. My most memorable experiences with her are the Display projects; the choir and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreams rehearsals. I found that I could not speak in front of others, that I had a deep bass voice useful for choir singing and that I had a remarkable memory for dialogues and I could act too. All this happened under the tutelage of Durrani Ma’am. Of course she was not responsible for my stage fright (years of browbeating by my paternal cousins in Srinagar had done it). But I discovered my creative side for making charts and the first hand experience of correcting other people’s compositions under her tutelage. I guess that is when the first seeds of teaching were implanted in my mind.

I had meant this post to be a tribute to my teachers. I was amazed at the clarity of my memories and it was a warm nostalgic trip. I actually got an insight into ‘what makes me tick’ as a teacher as so many of my students ask me. I wouldn't have had it any other way.