Nabanita Sengupta explores taboos around teenage values in a compelling read
Mrs. D’Souza taught at the school. A thorough city bred woman, she had come to this place with her husband, who was in charge of the fire safety and security department of the factory at Ghumi.
The tiny township fascinated her. The greenery all around, the British style bungalow with sloping roof and high ceiling, the small garden patch in front and a bigger courtyard — all these mellowed her heart. She was drawn to the quietness of the place that stirred itself to make some noise only during certain times of the day — such as at the beginning and the end of school time, the afternoons when children came out to play and at the start of the various shifts of the factory, the main lifeline of the little town, when people filed on the single straight road connecting their estate to their workplace.
Contrarily, all her life she had lived among various noises born out of movement. The windows of their apartment in Kolkata opened into one of the busiest streets of the city — the street that did not sleep at any point of the day. Honks, whistles, shouts, sounds of passing vehicles — her ears had forgotten the music of quietude. Now, surrounded by silence, she felt rejuvenated; and was seized by a sudden desire for action. Perhaps, the energy that an urban existence had sucked out of her, now remained untouched within her body, and that in turn, stirred in her a desire to do something; to find an outlet for the unused life force that had accumulated within her.
She loved to teach, a passion from her younger days, which till then had only found sporadic manifestations in her career as a wife of an engineer with a risk management specialisation. It was inevitable that within this small township, she and the school would find a symbiotic requirement for each other. Her husband was either in office or buried nose deep in files at home for most part of the day, The children were grown up and out of the nest. Mrs. D’Souza had time on her hands.
School kids, especially those at the threshold of teens fascinated her. She was intrigued by the hormone induced unruliness and iconoclasm that characterised this difficult to handle age-group. Adolescence, for her was both intriguing and challenging. And now, well settled into the post-middle-aged complacency of a woman who has led a more or less satisfying life, she thought she could explore this particularly interesting period of growth towards adulthood.
She often remembered her own children at this stage — the daughter and the son — both suddenly turned into you-don’t-tell-me-what-to-do types! The memories of their tantrums and obstinacy at any sign of authority still made her smile. Now, both of them were in their late twenties. Separated by a couple of years, the siblings had regained their composure. It was as if with the shedding of the teens another new personalities emerged from their being — personalities that made them more understanding, patient and caring and with the swoosh of a magic wand that impetuous, querulous nature had vanished!
But she had enjoyed their teens — their energetic righteousness, the desire to change the world, the longing for some kind of positive action — all these would fill her with a sense of happiness and pride. She understood those as the blooming of that courage and integrity which would remain lifelong with her children, safeguarding them from turning towards evil. Their itchiness and impatience that often bordered on rudeness, were the birth pangs of something positive within their soul — the birth pangs of the consciousness that made them recognise that this world was not the rose tinted one they had experienced in their childhood. It was a recognition of the world’s true colours, the colours of love mixed with that of hatred, peace with war, kindness with cruelty and all the greys between the binaries. She was eager to enjoy those doldrums of that age once again
Students of ninth grade knew that they were going to be assigned a new English teacher. Anticipation ran high in the class. And speculations too. When Mrs D’Souza stepped into the class, she could feel the eager eyes taking in every bit of her handloom cotton sari clad, no-makeup, no-accessories getup. She felt as though the class had been wound up by some invisible key on a high alert position which would require a gradual attempt to move towards a more relaxed and open mindset.
Raya still remembered the day when Madam D’Souza entered their class for the first time. Initially, she did not seem impressive. In fact, the commonplaceness had put her and her friends off quite a bit. When anticipating something new, we often colour our expectations with the exceptional, forgetting that the new person or object might, in all probabilities, resemble the old or the common. But before the class ended, almost all of her classmates, including herself, had fallen for the unassuming charm and openness of Mrs. D’Souza.
Very easily the class was all admiration for their new teacher. They enjoyed her classes which were different from just textbook explorations. Drama, music, recitation, storytelling — her tools made the class animated and eager to learn. The students accepted her with an openness not very common among this age group. So, it was quite obvious that Raya would turn to her when adolescent issues of a co-educational institution started making their presence felt.
Returning from a lunch break, one day Raya reached her seat to find a small piece of paper surreptitiously kept under her pencil box on her desk. Three innocuous words — ‘I love you’ written on it.
Raya’s adolescent sense of propriety was considerably outraged, more so because the discovery was made in presence of two of her friends. All determined to act the ‘good’ girl, Raya decided that the correct course of action would be to complain to the teacher, who could then establish the identity of the offender by examining the handwriting and punishing him. Of course, it must be one of the boys in her class, who else would have such impunity! She was reminded of a similar incident that had taken place in another class quite some time back. There too was a similar declaration of the unruly teenage heart and it was punished with a call to the parents. It was the age when disgrace hurt more than physical pain. Raya wished for a similar retribution here too.
She rushed out of her class and ran towards the teacher’s room. The next class was with Mrs. D’Souza and Raya wanted to meet her before she entered their class so that she could complain to her in detail. Mrs. D’Souza listened to her with full attention but did not say anything. Raya had thought that her sense of outraged modesty would sufficiently work up Mrs D’Souza and was a bit disheartened by her composure. They entered the class together and Mrs D’Souza took the class attendance with a completely unperturbed attitude and then proceeded with their studies.
Raya, that day, could hardly keep her mind on the lesson. Conflicting emotions ran high. On one hand, she was excited about the pending talk, which she was sure would take place after the class, on the other hand she was starting to harbour misgivings about Madam D’Souza’s attitude towards the issue.
For Mrs. D’Souza too, it was a crucial battle. She knew that co-ed set up had its own challenges, yet she felt it to be the best microcosmic representation of the outside world. Still new to the school, she knew it was her one wild card chance to reach out to them. And matters of hearts were always the trickiest. She did not want to attach undue significance to the episode, yet she needed to treat it with consideration, she knew how prickly these new teens were in such matters.
The best course, she thought, would be to speak to them in their own language. One of her personal and lifelong crusades was, in her own words “against the inadvertent insensitive behaviour of anxious parents to their teenage children for the cause of moral and social uprightness”. She had seen two generations of teens — her own and her children’s; and, blessed with a keen perception, she remembered how the mildest of reprimands often resulted in the most volatile reactions.
It was towards the end of the period that Mrs D’Souza put down the book from which she was teaching, looked at the entire class, smiled slightly and said: “I want you all to concentrate on my words. As you are growing up, you will develop feelings that you will find are quite unprecedented and overwhelming. But those are natural, nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. It requires a lot of courage to let a person know that he or she is appreciated. If you like someone, please do not send nameless chits, rather have the courage to strike up a positive friendship with the person. If friendship succeeds, there will be time for more, else the liking is not worth anything.”
She paused, allowing her words to sink in.
Then, in a very casual, nonchalant way, looking directly at Raya, she added, “By the way, I personally, would not have minded having a secret admirer. After all we all want to be appreciated, isn’t it?”
Raya saw her teacher’s twinkling, mischievous eyes look in her direction.
The whole class gasped before they could grasp her meaning. No one had told them before that matters pertaining to the teenage heart could have some kind of legitimacy or acceptability. They had been taught just the contrary — that such things are unspoken, hushed matters, and to declare it was sinful. For the first time in their lives, they found an adult acknowledge their heart burns and even take it seriously. These words showed them that feelings need not always be tabooed and repressed, that one need not be outraged by every trivial issue. The most important lesson was that friendship should be the stepping stone towards other relationships.
With these few words, Mrs D’Souza had won all their hearts.
Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of English by profession and creative writer by passion. Translation remains one of her chief areas of work and interest. Her works can be read in various journals, anthologies and e-zines.
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