My heart thudded painfully as I stepped off the last stair and faced a seemingly endless corridor. The double row of doors yawned open as though they were hungry mouths. Did the Principal say left? Or right? No left. Yes, left! I turned uncertainly, stopping at the first door and then stared; appalled! From the blasting noise it would seem that some, primitive, tribal ceremony was on. I could glimpse, blue and red-clad girls in every posture possible. One was industriously powdering chalk pieces and blowing smoky, chalk-dust clouds at her companions. Creating the right ambience, I suppose.
Taking a deep breath, I plunged in, hoping against hope that my mere presence would miraculously change the scene to the sedate classroom I had read about in my training school textbooks. No such luck, though. By the time I had reached the teacher’s desk, only the girls near it gave me the benefit of their attention, by staring at me, their mouths agape. As they looked me up and down, I surreptitiously felt my saree at all vantage points, wondering if anything was not in place. Was my bindi smudged and extending to my nose? I stared back, forcing back the wave of panic threatening to swamp me. Just when it had nearly engulfed me, a youthful voice sang out, “ Ma’am is here.” Gradually the noise abated, as the girls scooted around and found their places. And then sixty five pairs of eyes stared. Was the look curious or hostile? I decided that I rather not analyze.
I lowered my eyes, trying to gather together the frayed ends of my dignity.
“I am your English teacher.” My voice trembled a little.
Did I really hear that? I looked up and suspiciously looked around. The faces were guileless. My fertile imagination! To emphasize my words, I wrote in my best hand, ENGLISH, on the blackboard. Instantly I heard a distinct snigger behind me. Not turning around, I held my breath. There! There! I heard it again. I slowly swiveled round, scrutinizing each face. Not a single smile was to be seen, yet the very air was laughing at me. I tried blaming my imagination again, but I could feel the colour mounting from my neck to my cheeks.
As my head reeled with embarrassment, a girl, suddenly, got up from the front row and turning her back to me, swaggered down the aisle. Anger lent me some courage and I called out. “Hey! You there!” No reaction! As the girl continued her ramp walk, the class turned as one body to look at her and then at me, anticipating an entertaining interlude.
“Where are you going?” But the girl just kept going across the last row, now decidedly rolling her hips. Just when I realized, that I could no longer hide behind the barricade of the teacher’s desk, she reached the rear door and banged it shut.
Then she turned, looking at me for the first time. “Ma’am, the breeze was chilling.” Her large, innocent eyes prevented any reproof. But each of the other sixty four faces had a Cheshire-cat grin.
I slowly let my breath out. My breakdown was complete. A career, that had seemed secure and comfortable during the months of training, was all of a sudden fraught with potential risks. This is not for me! I can’t do it. I am a failure! I screamed at myself, silently. My legs had turned to jelly and I sat down heavily to an inevitable, cree…a…ak. My head jerked up expecting a merry outpour. But there was total silence. My confusion deepened as I realized that the focal point had changed. Following the flow of concentration, I perceived a figure in the white nun’s habit at the classroom door.
“Mrs Basu, a moment, please.” I hurriedly scrambled to my feet as the Principal cheerily inquired, “ So how is the class? Any problems?”
“Oh no! None at all!” I managed to stammer, “It is an excellent class.” My fertile imagination was an instant help.
She turned to my tormenters. “Well, do you like your new teacher?”
“Yes, Sister,” came the chorus.
“She is very good,” added one.
“We enjoyed her class,” volunteered another.
I nearly fainted and clutched at my faithful supporter, the teacher’s desk.
The Principal glanced at the almost-clean Board and remarked with a wry smile, “I can see that.”
When she left, I turned back to the class. Astonishment, confusion, and suspicion; each struggled for predominance. But none of these reflected on the upturned faces. Instead there was a hint of conspiracy in the air.
It was then that it hit me—like a sledgehammer. All those boring training school lectures about how a bond, a rapport, a relationship between a teacher and her students is the basis of any learning. Now, it made instant sense.
Because right in front of my eyes, I could see it, pulsating and alive, the thread that linked these sixty five hearts to mine.