Monday, September 5, 2016

Teacher's Day

Long before Hallmark completely littered the calendar with "special days", we celebrated September 5, in India, as Teacher's Day; a day when we paused to reflect over how our teachers had shaped us.

I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers. So I thought it might be a good idea to rekindle the spirit of the day, by highlighting one such teacher, every year.

Today, let me tell you about Ms. Mary Fernandes, who taught us English in 8th and 9th grade.

Like many kids, I liked to read books mostly for the stories they told. I had no appreciation for the art of good-writing until Mary teacher (as we called her) brought it sharply into focus.

The difference between good and mediocre writing is often not content, but how that content is skillfully unwrapped. A good writer understands the state of the reader's mind, which once ensnared, can be coaxed to go wherever the writer wants.

Before Mary teacher, I had no love for poetry; mostly because of how we were tested on them. We had to memorize long quirky poems, including the goddamn punctuation! Any deviation was penalized. It was like memorizing a page of computer code; any small error in reproduction, and the code wouldn't compile. I hated it then, and its memory makes me angry even after all these years.

In 8th and 9th grade, I learnt how to let myself enjoy poems. I still hated the way we were tested; but I began the slow process of forgiving William Wordsworth, John Milton, and their ilk for their years of torture. The most important thing I learnt was that the best way to read poems, was to read them aloud - even if people around you gave you strange looks.

In terms of our writing ability, all of us are a work in progress. We read, we learn, we change. And our writing changes with us. In many ways, it is like our signature. With age, there are subtle shifts, lots of rounding of edges, and a move towards directness and simplicity.

Most of the time, this change is gradual, but sometimes there are drastic  "phase transitions". High-school was like that for me - I heard my own voice for the first time.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson I learnt was the irresistible pull of a story well told. I remember laughing uncontrollably, while we read a Don Quixote story in Mary teacher's class. I wanted to stop laughing; I knew I was embarrassing myself. But I just couldn't. The harder I tried, the worse it got.

The bulk of my writing these days is technical or semi-technical. The goal is to illuminate, rather than to entertain. While this imposes some constraints, narratives are just as important (unless you are writing a manual), in technical writing. It is perhaps the only writing lesson I try to actively cultivate in my students.

People like stories, and scientists are people. The papers I enjoy the most have many elements of good story-telling. How did we get into this bind? Who/what are the key actors/methods? How do things unfold? What is the moral of the story/paper?

For that lesson alone, I am forever grateful to Mary teacher's role!


Mitu said...

Saw the title and was curious about what a teacher had to say about the Teacher's day. :) Enjoyed reading this post. Small events sometime leave big impressions.
Share this ode with your Mary teacher, if possible.

Sachin Shanbhag said...

Thanks, Mitu.