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         Volume 10 |Issue 45 | December 01, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Lessons Learned
(Part II)

Farah Ghuznavi

It's my firm conviction that you can never underestimate the influence of a good teacher on a child's progress - nor, for that matter, the effects of a bad one, in explaining the lack thereof. My own time at Holy Cross School allowed me to encounter a veritable smorgasbord of teaching styles and personalities. And although I didn't necessarily enjoy all of those experiences at the time, examining my memories from a safe distance, I can honestly say I wouldn't have missed most of them; as for the minority of negative ones, they were a small price to pay, all things considered.

While I was never very interested in studying during my early years of school - having found, even before the era of the Internet, many other interesting things with which to keep myself occupied - that changed just in time. Shortly before the all-important Matric exam began looming, I underwent a reformation of sorts. A radical one, in fact. It came about as a combination of the gradual realisation that there were teachers who actually believed in me (for reasons I couldn't quite understand), and the fact that I was letting down the people who cared about me (the existence of the latter I had less difficulty grasping, largely attributing such peculiarities to ties of blood and the lack of alternative options!).

Holy Cross Girl’s High School.

But the single most important factor in bringing about my shumoti was undoubtedly the commitment displayed by some of the exceptional individuals I encountered during my time at Holy Cross. One of these was my diminutive history teacher, whose slight frame belied the fact that she had the "persuasive" capacity of a juggernaut. Early on, Miss Katherine had made it clear that it would take a lot for any of us to impress her. Gaining her approval was the challenge she threw out to me, making it clear that she was sceptical about my ability to do so. In general, I tend to respond badly to being pushed, but on this occasion, it worked. In no other class did I work nearly as hard as I regularly did for her.

On one occasion, when I won a class quiz by managing to answer 8 questions out of 10 correctly - my nearest competitor had managed only 6 correct answers - I waited confidently for her praise. With a glint of mischief in her stern eye, she said only "Ghuznavi (let me be honest, she took pleasure in pronouncing my name as “Gojnobi”), I'm disappointed! I thought you could do better than that!" Then and there, I decided that the next time, I most certainly would…

To be honest, many of our teachers were what would be considered 'characters' today. Like the inimitable Miss Saleha. On one occasion, she began a Bangla lesson with the direly difficult poetry of Michael Madhushudan Dutta (how we hated him for his 'Meghnad Bod Kabbo', insisting that the middle word was well utilised there!). Not surprisingly, we all zoned out, only to emerge to find our teacher ending the hour-long lesson with a passionate denunciation of the Nazis - without any of us ever being sure how she managed to get from one rather disparate topic to the other!

I struggled in a Bangla medium school with parents who were English medium products themselves, and therefore unable to help with homework as Bangla literature in particular got progressively harder from year to year - that too, in an era where private tutors were rarely heard of. In fact, I came close to throwing in the towel where Bangla Prothom Potro was concerned. Surprisingly enough, it was the dreamy, eccentric Miss Saleha who gave me hope. Looking at my made up answers to the questions (I never quite got the hang of "model answers"), she said, "It's interesting how you answer the question paper. Most of your Matric examiners will be looking for model answers, but if you actually come across one who likes the way you write, you could do quite well." Sceptical as I was, in the end she turned out to be right.

Of course, Miss Saleha was not the only eccentric I came across at Holy Cross. And some of the others turned out to be rather more difficult to deal with. Oddly enough, one of my worst experiences was with a teacher who was responsible for my best subject, English. Miss Nilu - and here, for the first time, I will use a pseudonym! -spent a whole year trying to convince us that pronunciation was all. If that hadn't been bad enough, the fact that she was obsessed with American English made matters even worse. "No, girls, no - don't say 'cat', say 'khat'! And it's not 'dog', it's 'daaag'!" she insisted, even as we winced in dismay...

But despite encountering the occasional nutter, most of our teachers were fairly solid, so in my "pre-reform" case there was some guilt for letting down my gentler teachers; and of course, there was a definite challenge from the likes of Miss Katherine. Both of these provided me with a motivation to do better, albeit in very different ways, and literally changed my life.

And finally, there were those teachers who brought out the best in us, just because they made it clear what they believed we were capable of. Like an American substitute teacher we had for a couple of terms. Mrs Webster was young and friendly, and we all loved taking English classes with her - not least because she never attempted to inflict her legitimately-obtained American accent on the rest of us! To our delight, she had little respect for the more archaic conventions at Holy Cross, and there was nothing predictable or rote about her teaching style - assignments were creative and enjoyable. But what was most amazing to me, was the time when she gave me 98% on a creative writing exam, alongside my friend Sabina Akhter Islam who received 95%.

These were of course ridiculously high scores in a system where you rarely scored more than 60% in English First Paper no matter how well you knew the language. All the other teachers were understandably outraged, making the point to her (and of course, to us) that the Matric board of examiners would never consider marking a paper so high. I can still recall Mrs Webster's defiant response, "It doesn't matter whether the board would give a student a score like that. I am giving them those scores - because they deserve it, and because I can. They write better English than I do!"

I very much doubt that the latter part of that comment was, strictly speaking, accurate; but in that instant, she taught all of us that there were things to aspire to beyond what the rules - and the naysayers - said were possible. And In the end, isn't that really what the best teachers strive to do for their students?



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