My English Teacher by Bharti Bansal

(Nitika Mam, this one’s for you.)

I have always been low on confidence.  By low, I mean you could jump off a cliff and still wouldn’t reach the level my confidence sits at. An asteroid hit my childhood with lack of worth and I have been feeling the impact ever since. 

We seldom have a grand, life changing event. Most times, it is a set of little things, like a coffee cup breaking that sets off a spiral. For me, things were pretty easy. I knew of my own presence as a compass which would seldom point towards life (don’t get me wrong,  a compass never points towards true north. My life has been north all this time).

By the time I reached class five, I had already fallen in love. My heart, the size of my little fist, had already learnt what butterflies were. Alas! They were going to grow into monsters in the coming years from heartbreak, but I was happy at first.  I believed my first-ever love was true love, because that’s all I had seen on TV. I kept waiting to fall so he could catch me in his arms, and we could just keep looking at each other.  It wasn’t the mild, sweet breeze in class that set off this love but a long tight slap that he  hit me with. Instead of bells ringing in my ears, it was my heart. Love at first fight, I believed. 

When we entered class five, I was excited to grow up. We were going to have our first ever board exams, and our first ever vaccination drive on school campus. 

We were playing in a group when we spotted two new teachers sitting on chairs, one with beautiful curly hair that I only dreamt of having. To say she was pretty, would be an understatement.  She was simply beautiful. The kind of beautiful that I had watched on TV. It was Dill Mill Gaye but for my teacher. I was already in love with her. So I told my friend, “I hope she gets to be our teacher.”

Perhaps God did listen to children’s wishes then. I mean, I believed God was there only for this purpose. The world was already beautiful for me then. I believed the world had no problems more worth watching over. But talk about a little girl’s heart, split into halves, one for the boy, and one for the teacher out of utter admiration

I believe when a child admires you, it is the utmost truth of their lives. You can peel off the layers of their hearts and nowhere will you find lies or pretence or malice. 

I was thrilled when I saw her entering our class in the morning–her big, beautiful smile and glimmering eyes had all little hearts enticed. She was going to be our English teacher. Now don’t get me wrong, we were kids learning to write letters to the principal for sick leaves and leaves to attend functions at home. The first day started with her asking our names, which I fumbled telling.

She could speak a thousand sentences and we wouldn’t get bored. The first task she gave us was to read English newspapers. All my life, I had seen my aunt reading English newspapers. She would underline big words, look for their meanings and spoke English how we only dreamt of. So, it was enthralling for me. 

As days passed by, my notebook filled up with various new words: progression, precession, enchanted, aspiration and whatnot.

It was a kind of transformation we could witness like astral projection but of our entire being. We spoke broken English, which she was proud of. She divided the class into separate groups to help the students who were struggling with it. I was a group leader of one, too. 

A few months later, she got married and returned after a month, donning a white beautiful saree and red bangles, all the little eyes just saw her with awe. We knew she was beautiful. But our little hearts clapped for her once she entered the class. We had planned a surprise for her–everyone would scream and clap when she entered the class. What else could we have done for her? We could only applaud her existence. 

She knew I struggled with self confidence. She would put me in plays, made me class monitor, asked me to enact dialogues. The boy I liked was the group leader of another group, too. We were in the same play called Hanuman and I. I was the narrator, he was a monkey from vanar sena (serves him right for what he said years later). It was funny when one of their lungis came undone and all of them ran from the stage as the audience cheered along for the ruckus they had created.

Our English teacher was proud of us. Proud of me. And we could see it in her eyes. We were happy kids. She was a happy teacher. We were thinking of changing the world in our own little ways, and she believed each one of us. 

Now, the only flaw with the Indian education system is that it grades everything. Even the confidence. Of course, I was lacking in it. When the grade cards came, some of the students received A, some A* while some of us kids received B. I was one among them. 

How do you convince a child that their confidence lies in the 70-80 percent range? Who quantifies it? Who makes it clear to a child in class five? All I knew was I had been scared from day one of school. And that B wasn’t a good grade. I was heartbroken.

Every day at the end of school, the kids stood in lines and prayed. As I stood in line too, my eyes searched for my English teacher within a swarm of kids buzzing with excitement to finally go home. My feet trembled as I decided to step away from the line. Everyone looked at me. This girl who would never sit alone, held her friend’s hand, never went alone anywhere, was now stepping out from a line she was invisible in. 

I practised on my way what to say to her.  What does a child know of courage? My only act of courage was participating in that play. To say it was scary would be an understatement. I reached where she was standing with other teachers. All their eyes were on me, but I went to her and asked the most curious question: “why did you give me a B?”

Now, it wasn’t such a huge thing to be celebrated. All the teachers stood confused except my English teacher.  She was smiling. Her eyes glimmered like a proud mother. In a way, to me, she was. She put her hand on my head and very sweetly told me how she was proud of me for asking that question.
Later, she told my mother what I had done. My mother recalled how happy she looked. “Ma’am, she asked me why I had given her a B in confidence.”

My mother was shocked too. When we received our grade cards on the final day of term’s end, she had given me an A. ‘A’ for asking a simple question. She knew something had changed  in me. She knew I had struggled with it. The heaviness lifted off my chest, and I could finally thank her. 

A year later, she left. Her memories didn’t. They haven’t left still. Perhaps a teacher does change a child’s life. She did mine. All these words, all these sentences (I know I make grammatical mistakes, a lot of them, but I am trying) later, with my confidence still tumbling down because no adult has believed me in the way she did for a child in class five, I think she altered the way I existed in this universe. She made a space for me to exist without guilt. I could say I was here because she was here when I learnt to claim my space. 

What else could she have done for me, if not give me the audacity to exist without shame? What else can we do for each other, if not to say that this space belongs to us equally and authentically? My English teacher created a world for me where I was the centre of it. I was the sun in my story, not a random rock circling it. 

The curtains have fallen on my life. There is no Shakespeare’s tragedy here. No hero dies for love. Here, Virginia Woolf didn’t kill herself. Sylvia Plath didn’t put her head in the oven. Vincent Van Gogh loved his brother as much as he could, through the windows of the asylum. Literature has been a way to cope with the tragedy of this life.  Mine has been my body, my bones, the flesh, my skin covering all this guilt and shame. But my English teacher came like a whiff of cold wind, she stayed and went away. Like a story. Like a change. Like everything transient that alters history.

Bharti Bansal is a 25 year old poet from India.

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