Thursday, March 03, 2011

To Sir With Love

Years ago in school, a lesson in the English reader, 'To Sir With Love' introduced me to ER Braithwaite - the teacher I searched for among the numerous who I encountered over the first twenty two years of my academic life - the time from pre-school to a masters degree in journalism that is. ER Braithwaite set a benchmark - of a teacher who allowed freedom -free thought, free expression and above all - one who did not homogenise the heterogenous community of students that he taught.

Through school and later college, I was known for my precociousness - not the ill-mannered variety, mind you, but the desire to question what is normally followed as rote, to eke the extra bit out of lessons. I wonder how many students can vouch like me that I still remember the lessons learnt in school - I can still quote poems from the Std 3 reader or joke around about the ways in which I tried simplifying differentiation and calculating the trajectory of a projectile - the latter part with little success.

But the precocious me was also a puppy - a teacher's puppy - easily influenced by teachers who loved their topics, who were able to impart that love for their subject to students. Teachers who stood out because they made their subjects come alive using just a blackboard, a couple of chalks and some well-aimed dusters at errant mischief-makers in the backbenches.

Two English teachers left their mark on me while in school. The first one was a lady named Ranjini Varma - I wonder where she is now. She had innovative games in those free periods that she would have once the lessons for the semester were completed. For instance, imagine a teacher goading students to stretch the limits of their imagination and vocabulary by giving us an emotion or a word and asking us to co-relate it with something tangible. So those who related 'soft' to 'sponge' would get a smile, while the one student I remember who said a 'baby's cheek' got a dreamy look from her and I could feel the power of imagination.

Yet another was Indira R Menon, the gentlest teacher I knew - who time and again made me compete with myself to improve my command and fluency over handling what was essentially a foreign language. The love she inculcated in me saw me ditch the science stream that every semi-gifted student in my era was pre-destined to enroll for and announce that I was going to major in English. Thankfully, long suffering parents knew better than to dissuade me and so began my life-long love affair with the language that would mould my career and personality.

Broadcast journalism was an accident - asked to make a choice between the different streams on offer at my college, I gravitated towards the medium that seemed to have a bigger power over classes and masses alike. And it was there that I met the third teacher - Joseph Pinto - one who preferred Joe over Sir, informality over a formal association. Joe taught us copy writing and sub-editing in the first year of my post-graduation. His reputation preceded him, he made fans of his students through his militant style of teaching. Those fans,who could later be only called 'converts'. So 'word of mouth' was that a wrong step in Joe's classes and he would shred you to bits.

In the first couple of classes, I sat quietly, a couple of benches from the back - my preferred seat through my academic life- gauging him. What he taught me wasn't in all honesty anything I hadn't studied during my degree in communicative english. But it was how he taught it that made the impact. The constant testing of our abilities, literally throwing us challenges and seeing who rose up to it. He hated superfluous usages, hated unnecessary words, worshipped the simple style of journalistic story telling that wove 5Ws and the single H. The lessons learnt in those years came in handy years later, when I was training young trainees in the art of copywriting.

Over the years, since college, Joe and I lost touch -  for while in college, I was never one of those who made a conscious effort to get into a teacher's good book. And so it was but normal, that there wasn't an exchange of email ids or the promise to stay in touch. I have seen very little of Pune since 2001 - the year I left Symbiosis and moved to begin my career with Aaj Tak.

Years later, I think in 2009, when Facebook had become a rage, I received a friend invite from a Joseph Pinto - the name rang a bell but the recall wasn't instant. You don't expect your teachers to send you a friend invite on facebook, do you? It was when I saw my Symbiosis seniors and classmates on his long and fast increasing list of friends that I made the connect. Joe was getting back in touch with me and I wondered if he remembered who I was. Turns out all it took to jog his memory was a description of where I sat in class. Strange isn't it, considering that we were not the only batch he taught, but one notch in a series of academic years and thousands of eager faced journalism trainees that passed through Symbiosis' classroom.

To date, he meticulously reads most of what I write- is unforgiving with loose usages, meticulous with criticism and effusive when he likes something that he reads. What more can you ask for in a teacher? He's my ER Braithwaite and as he celebrates his 60th birthday on Sunday, I wanted him to know the role he played in my life. That's the gift he sought from his students, that's the least I can offer him.

I can't be in Pune on Saturday as he holds court with his wife and daughter over tea and biscuits. I am sure a number of his students - old and new will weave their way to the Pinto household to be with him. I can't be one of them, but I don't want Joe to be in any doubt that my wish for him is that he continues to inspire many more students to discover their individuality and pursue their convictions.

Here's raising a toast to you, Joe - To Sir With Love.