I have been talking to teachers and teacher trainees for years now in the context of teaching and training, and during these talks, I have always loved telling them stories. While a few of these stories are born of my own personal encounters with life and people, many others are by authors from across the world. Here is a story I love deeply for its profound wisdom as well as for its immense power. A story like this works silently with us, transforming us with its magic. No one goes through the story – and allows the story to go through them, as my guru used to say – remains the same, so beautiful is it.
Jean Thompson stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall and told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard. Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath.
And Teddy was unpleasant. It got to the point during the first few months that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then marking the F at the top of the paper biggest of all. Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, no one else seemed to enjoy him, either.
At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s records and put Teddy’s off until last. When she opened his file, she was in for a surprise. His first-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh.” “He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around.”
His second-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”
His third-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy continues to work hard but his mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem.”
By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard.
Her children brought her presents, all in beautiful ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy’s, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissor grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents.
Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume behind the other wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed behind just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.”
After the children left she cried for an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. Jean Thompson paid particular attention to the one they all called “Teddy.” As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. On days where there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and. well, he had also become the “pet” of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.
A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he’d had in elementary school, she was his favourite. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy.
He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still his favourite teacher of all time. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honours. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favourite teacher.
Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favourite teacher, but that now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.
The story doesn’t end there. You see there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering...well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom.
And guess what, she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And I bet on that special day, Jean Thompson smelled just like...well, just like the way Teddy remembered his mother smelling on their last Christmas together.
They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference."
Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."
One of the truths I keep telling teachers is of the enormous power that a teacher wields. Her power is God-like.
An ancient Sanskrit verse that every Indian is familiar with says:
Gurur brahma, gurur vishnuh, gurur devo maheshwarah
Guruh sakshat param brahma, tasmai shree gurave namah.
[In Sanskrit, it is gurur brahma, and not guru brahma; and it is gurave namah, not guruve namah.]
Translated, the verse says: The guru is Brahma, the Creator; the guru is Vishnu, the Preserver; and the guru is Shiva, the destroyer. The guru is the Supreme Brahman itself. Before that guru, I bow down.”
What the verse says is literally true as far as the student is concerned. To him, the teacher is the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. She has the power to make him, to preserve him, or to destroy him.
I remember the days when my own daughter was a school student. On some days she would come home from school and dance in joy the whole day. Her reason for happiness: Her teacher had said ‘good’ to her. Her teacher had appreciated something she had done or said. That was enough to make her happy for the whole day. And if the teacher rejected her, or rejected something she said or did, throughout the day she would be in deep gloom.
A word of appreciation from the teacher, a smile, a pat on the back, stays with the child not only a whole day, but an entire lifetime. And so does a frown, or a word of rejection or criticism.
For, as every parent knows, the teacher is the most important person in the world of a young child. Her authority is far superior to that of the father or the mother. You may be the greatest authority on your subject in the world, but if the teacher contradicts you, it is the teacher’s word that your child would accept, and not yours. The younger the child, the more true this is. And it is in their younger years that children are most impressionable. That is the age at which children are made, or destroyed.
Transactional Analysis tells us of the enormous power of strokes. The positive and negative strokes we receive as children make or ruin us. We are made what we are by them. These strokes shape our life scripts, and we are what our life scripts are. Our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, our self-image, the nature of our relationships with ourselves and with others, the nature of our intimacies or lack of it, our drives, our ambitions, our aspirations, are all, says Transactional Analysis, determined by these scripts. Every time a teacher praises or ridicules a child, the child adds something to his life scripts, which determines his destiny, makes him what he is. It is in this sense that I say teachers have the power to make the child, or to destroy him. Every teacher is really Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara – the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer.
A personal experience.
Little Anu had just come back from Kerala when Miss Pisces, her primary school teacher who taught Drawing, asked her class to paint a well.
Green is the permanent colour of Kerala: the whole state is green round the year. But when the rains come, it becomes a mad riot of green. And Kerala gets incessant rains for months at a stretch. In the words of Arunadhati Roy, a Keralite, “By early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads.”
This is the Kerala that little Anu had seen.
Most homes in Kerala have a well. Her home in Kerala too had one. A very deep one, which gave cool water round the year. Cool water and plenty of exercise – you had to haul water all the way up with a bucket and a rope. The well had a laterite wall and this had a moss coating most of the time. However during the rains the wall, inside and outside, disappeared behind thick moss and ferns. Ferns and moss grew on the inner sides of the well too, much of the way down. And the water itself had a film of moss floating over it. Everything turned green.
And this is what little Anu painted when her teacher asked her to paint a well. The well she had seen in her home in Kerala. A green well.
Miss Pisces took one look at her work, held it up for the whole class to see and then said, “Look at Anu’s work! How stupid! How can a well be green? It has to be brown!” She paused for effect and then asked Anu, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” And she laughed, ridiculing the little girl before the entire class. Fifty titillated little girls joined her laughter at those last words, while little Anu hung her head in deep shame.
It took years for Anu to regain her self-confidence. Perhaps she still hasn’t fully. At critical moments, those words come back to her, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” Like when she is performing on a stage. Or when a speaker has said something in a meeting and she does not agree with it and would like to question it. She chooses to keep quiet instead.
Such words have a way of haunting you for your life.
Because the teacher is the Creator and the Destroyer.
It is amazing how callously teachers abuse students. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were conducting a short refresher programme for railway school teachers at Chakradharpur. It was a large group – as I remember, there were a hundred teachers or so. During an exercise, we asked the teachers to list on a piece of paper the abusive words each one of them routinely shouted at their students. The swearing words, the galis. When we listed all the galis, they filled four pages! And words like moron and idiot were the mildest of galis on the list. Almost sweet to hear compared to some others that were part of the teachers’ daily volley.
Teachers like Jean Thompson use their enormous powers constructively. Other teachers are like mighty giants who do not know their own strength and cause irreparable harm by destroying the very children they are expected to nurture and nourish.
The ancient masters who composed the words of that old Sanskrit prayer knew of the enormous power the teacher has to create, to preserve and to destroy. They meant exactly what they said. A teacher is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The trimurtis, all in one.
Each of us has a choice before us: to be creators, or to be destroyers. Each one of us can choose to be a Jean Thompson, or a Miss Pisces.
I loved Jean Thompson’s final words very much – what she whispered, with tears in her eyes, when teddy thanked her: Her words were, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."
Incidentally, Shiva in that ancient prayer is not really a destroyer, but someone who destroys the evil so that the good can be born, who destroys the old and decayed, so that the young and healthy could be born. But when teachers destroy in their ignorance and callousness, they destroy the best: young hearts, young lives, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, innocence, power, creativity, resourcefulness and all else that is good in humanity that the child represents. They destroy life’s best promises, they destroy beautiful tomorrows.