Our teachers made us aware that we knew nothing. That is the beginning and end of all our knowledge. Socrates also said, 'I know that I know nothing'. That was what we realized when our great teachers used to teach us.
LAST SUNDAY I was thinking about my teachers – the whole clan of them. Much ink has been spilt over education and teaching on Teacher’s Day. But after teaching for three decades in colleges and universities, I have come to a conclusion that there is no certainty that good teachers make good students, But there is all certainty that good students make good teachers. In my school days I did not like teachers giving homework. But even at that time I liked a teacher who used to give me something to take home to think about besides homework. Those teachers used to teach us little, they used to inspire us more.
Today, I remember those teachers. “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge” – wrote Einstein in going to describe the vocation of a teacher. We had one middle-aged teacher Gyanendra Ghosh, a tall, starkly built Caucasian figure but out and out a Bengali in his mind. He was a social activist and had robust health. In his locality, he single-handedly developed a road for public use when the government did not sanction any money. This teacher used to teach us English grammar. That year I was admitted to class VI. In his first period he told us about Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon : “ One small step for me, One giant leap for mankind’.
Gyanendra babu imagined himself to be another Neil Armstrong. He used to say, grammar is a small step for you, one giant leap for learning a language. The first day he tried to alleviate the fears from our mind about 'Tense'. “Don’t be tense over Tense’- he used to say with a guffaw. Even today we remember the confident face of GG sir. He used to carry a side bag - something common with all our teachers that time. But the unusual thing about his bag were the victuals inside he used to carry for the students. Some biscuits, some fruit, some nuts – but never any chocolate or junk foods such as chips. GG sir used to tell us, "Boys, never take junk food from outside". He used to teach us about hygiene, health, and food habits, and we learnt grammar ourselves out of fear of his punishment. He was a stern taskmaster. He roused fear, and at the same time love.
In my university days I met different types of teachers altogether. I could never imagine that a renowned Professor of English could speak so beautifully in Bengali in the M.A. class. I was totally taken aback by his confident gestures. Language is nothing, ideas are all, he used to say. The whole class used to be mesmerized by Gauri Prasad Ghosh who taught us Antony and Cleopatra. He used to end the lecture after two full hours and all the time he talked in smart English except for the brief introduction in Bengali.
In M.A. classes in the Asutosh building we met all the famous teachers from Jyoti Bhattacharjee, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Arun Sen, Kajal Sengupta and Dipendu Chakraborty and the inimitable R.K. Sen. That short and stout man used to begin his classes on Paradise Lost Book IV by addressing us: ‘My friends’…. The whole class used to enjoy his robust voice and compared his gestures with that of Satan, the most magnificent character in the pages of all literature of Europe. Satan not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense Shelley and Blake glorified him.
We also used to glorify R.K. Sen. One day he asked : “Do you understand, boy”. To prove that I was attentive to his grand lecture, I used to say, yes sir. He at once got furious one time, “You understand! I didn’t understand it even after reading for my whole life!” Next day, the same question, “Do you understand?" This time I was a bit cautious and sais, “No sir”. Again the same sound and fury over my answer: “How will you understand? You have two girls this side of yours and two girls that side of yours! You are getting almost sandwiched. How will you understand what I say?” he grinned.
But I was not angry. I simply felt that I understood nothing. It is a very difficult thing to understand Paradise Lost so easily at one sitting. After that I have been teaching for the last 30 years, still I feel that I understood nothing of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This awareness is all that a teacher can instill in us.
Socrates was wise because he knew that he knew nothing. Many of us, even many of our scholars never realized all their life that they know nothing. They live in a blessed ignorance. Our great teachers are those who make us aware of our ignorance. On the Teachers Day that has gone by I simply remember their faces and words. That is the best homage paid to them.