Oh to be a Teacher

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At the end of a particularly enthusiastic, exhausting, sweat pouring, first hour lecture class by 8 AM on melting heat transfer today, I was greeted by a “Happy Teachers’ Day Sir”. I uttered a sheepish “Thank You” and left the class. Thrilled.

India is one of the few countries that celebrate Teachers’ Day. A list of other countries can be found in this Wikipedia page. There is a World Teachers’ Day celebrated on Oct 5 but its intention is more to commemorate teachers’ organizations worldwide and to provide support for teachers and to ensure that the needs of future generations will continue to be met by teachers. Not a direct one for appreciating the Teacher for what she does. Those of us teaching in India for a while would know the Teachers’ Day celebrated here is of a different kind.

In India Teachers’ Day is celebrated on September 5 (today), the birth-date of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the former President of India. His greatness as a teacher is legendary. An anecdote is in order. Dr. Radhakrishnan has served as a teacher in many of India’s premier Universities (which then was under the British rule). Once when he was teaching in an University in Mysore and he wanted to relocate as a professor in an University in Calcutta. On the day he was to leave from Mysore (500 2020 km south-west of Calcutta) by train, he needed to travel from the suburbs of Mysore to the Mysore railway station. He was carried in a chariot (the then 6 door Mercedes Benz), pulled not by the horses, but by his students!

The above incident I learnt from a talk by Prof. N. V. C. Swamy – former IIT Madras Director – arranged in celebration of Teachers’ Day in the past. This year, a panel discussion is being arranged tomorrow (Sep 6) in view of Teachers’ Day, the topic being “The IIT Degree: A Passport to Material Prosperity….?” Provocative isn’t it? Hope to attend it and see what is discussed.

To end on a personal note again, last year same date I was walking in a narrow corridor just about to enter a class, when one of the research degree student – who had in an earlier semester, taken a course with me – stopped me and without any warning suddenly fell at my feet. And rose and uttered a polite “Happy Teachers’ Day Sir” and went about his business.

I was shaken. Falling at my feet; Jeez.

The incident left me disturbed and I couldn’t take the ensuing lecture properly. Images of our politicians who receive such greetings all the while in all of the public stages, irrespective of the age and pedigree of the fallen and the fallen at, flashed in my mind. Is this some kind of joke that this kid has played on me? I am not even his “guide” (research supervisor) for me to suspect of any other “motive” for his actions. Then I was reminded of R. K. Narayan and his tirade against this one human falling at the feet of another business. And I was also reminded of the meaning of a sashtanga pranam and why we (should perhaps) reserve it only in obeisance to the Lord. And here is this kid whom I hardly know for an year or so and he is falling at my feet for what he believed as what I deserve for my teaching to him. I was troubled by the question “Am I doing the right thing to this kid to deserve this tribute?”.

A senior colleague later that day told me it is normal in North India to fall at the feet of the teacher (the kid who did this to me being a North Indian) and relieved me of the effects of a temporary bloatocracy my ego was suffering from. Pooh! So, after all, I don’t have to think myself as doing something superlative and in the lineage of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. It is just normal for kids to fall at the feet of their teachers in (North) India. Thank Goodness. I receded to my two-feet-small, average, like-any-other-teacher, self.

And life became normal again.

Until today.