I have always loved mathematics. My fondest memory from high school days is spending hours with my grandfather solving hundreds of problems.
One Sunday, during my mathematics marathon at his home in Cuttack, I got stuck with a geometry problem. I took it to my grandfather, but the solution escaped even the wizard. Finally, he said, “Ask your teacher tomorrow.”
It was not a very helpful piece of advice, as the entire class was terrified of the math teacher. I was better off than most because I was good at math, but the stern disciplinarian filled my heart with dread and going to him with a problem was not something that I looked forward to. However, the problem needed to be solved. So, the next day, I gingerly walked into the staff room.
My teacher, preoccupied with a huge pile of answer sheets that needed immediate action, said, “You can come over to my place on Wednesday morning with your father.” I nodded and scurried off. It never occurred to me that this might be a disproportionate effort for solving just one problem.
My father, then a lawyer, was quite willing to take me to the teacher’s house.
On Wednesday morning, we reached my teacher’s home, which was in one of the narrow lanes of Cuttack. You had to jump over a stinking drain, carelessly covered with a slimy, moss-covered stone, to get to the door.
A short, portly lady, looking older than her mid-thirties, opened the door. She was my teacher’s wife. Hanging on to her sari were three scruffy-looking children with faded clothes and curious eyes. . The house was small and dishevelled. The main door opened into a courtyard of sorts, with warped doors leading to a couple of rooms and a tiny kitchen.
The entire picture left me shell-shocked. My teacher, an aristocratic-looking man, was always dressed in starched whites and I had imagined a matching environment at his home.
He was helping a few students on the verandah on one side of the courtyard. Seeing my father and me, he came over and told his wife to take my father inside, while he took a look at the bothersome math problem. I showed him the question and he took just a minute or two to solve it. It was, as my grandfather had expected, a minor deduction that had escaped us.
I was ready to return home, but my math teacher’s wife had prepared a cup of tea for my father. As I waited, I listened. The lady knew my father well and she was sighing over the sorry state of things in the family. The salary was never enough. The house needed constant attention. The children’s health was another issue, as the filth all around made them sick.
I was 14 then. Yet after all these years, the distressing picture and the lady’s laments are fresh in my mind.
Sixteen or so years went by. The early 1990s saw my husband and me in California, where our two daughters attended an elementary school. I volunteered to assist the Grade 2 class teacher. After a few weeks, the teacher became comfortable with me and we would chat about this and that during lunch.
One day, she was visibly agitated. When I asked her about it, she blurted out, “I’m exhausted. I have two growing daughters and I am a single mom. With my kind of salary, I cannot afford to employ regular help at home.” Before I could react, she added, “You probably do not know that the janitors in our country are paid more than our teachers.” There was bitterness in her voice. “I have nothing against the janitors. It is good that they are paid well, but should the teachers be ignored?” She stopped, took a deep breath and said with an embarrassed smile, “Sorry. I was just venting. This month has been tough, with the mortgage, the car loan and non-stop bills.”
Another 16 years passed.
Our older daughter Neha finished her undergraduate studies. Having long been passionate about education for poor children, she decided to become a schoolteacher. Her first job was teaching English to teenagers in New York’s South Bronx. The school was in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the U.S. and notorious for gang violence.
A month or two after she moved into her rented apartment and started teaching, I visited her. I was surprised on seeing the stacks of unpacked boxes lined up haphazardly by a wall. Neha is usually very particular about setting up a new home, but now she simply had no time. She would return home from school, quickly eat what I had cooked, and immediately get to work grading or creating lesson plans. I had to wonder what she ate when I wasn’t there.
One evening, after dinner, she wanted to step out. “I am going to the grocery store to buy some granola bars. Do you need anything?”
I was quite surprised and asked, “Why granola bars?” Neha had never been particularly fond of them.
“No, not for me, Mama. For my kids. Most of them don’t eat breakfast. Some just eat a bag of chips in the morning, and maybe drink some soda. That makes them cranky and restless in class. I can’t expect them to learn anything if they’re hungry.”
I noticed that things did not end with granola bars. Neha would buy paper, sketch pens and storybooks. One day, she went to a ramshackle hardware store near the school to buy rope and long wooden boards. She carted these to her classroom and fashioned them into bookshelves so that her students could have a “library.”
“The school is paying you back, right?” I asked her one evening, eyeing the latest round of purchases. Neha laughed, putting her arms around me, and I felt my heart contract. As a teacher, she had a pay check-to-pay check existence. Obviously, it was not easy for her to incorporate the extra expenditure.
Now, a few years later, Neha works for a multinational consulting firm. She misses teaching, she misses the kids, but when we talked about it recently, she said, “I feel guilty saying this, but I don’t know how I could go back to that life. For the first time in my adult life, I am actually able to save money.”
Coming from India, I had always thought that underpaid, underappreciated schoolteachers were particular to our country. But it definitely is a global issue.
I have heard many a lament that the days of good, dedicated teachers are gone. But when a profession comes with such distinct disadvantages, how many people can afford to be idealistic?
*This was published in The Hindu Open Page on September 2, 2012