Teachers' Day: What happens when a student endeavours to meet his school teacher after 50 years? 

Teachers can make such a huge difference in our lives, even those teachers who are not our teachers directly, like Marie ma’am, teach us via their gestures and their attitude
MS Neelakantan Iyer with Marie ma'am | (Pic: MS Neelakantan Iyer)
MS Neelakantan Iyer with Marie ma'am | (Pic: MS Neelakantan Iyer)

It was June 2019. As a hotel management teacher, academician and coach, I was engaged by a resort group based in Bengaluru to coach their staff. I had the weekend off and I mulled over what I could do.

I have been in touch with Betty ma’am — Miss Beatrice Fernandes — our primary, secondary and higher secondary school teacher at St Xavier’s High School (Loyola Hall), Ahmedabad. And during one of our conversations, I found out that her sister and one of the teachers from my school, Marie ma’am, was in Bengaluru.

Recollecting good ol' days
Marie ma’am, the name evoked a host of memories. To this day I remember her compassion, how even when she was passing any student in the corridor, she would greet them cheerfully. And if she ever passed a student who was reprimanded, she would go out of her way to make them feel good.

Here was a true teacher, when comes another?

Now that I was in Bengaluru, I had to meet her.

Betty ma’am assured me that she would pass on my request to Marie ma’am and all I had to do was wait.

Ring, ring went my phone on a Saturday afternoon and lo and behold, it was Marie ma’am. “Neelakantan, good afternoon. Betty called and texted your number to me last evening but since it was late I thought I better not text or call you. I would be delighted to meet you and guess what, you will be the first student to meet me after my move to Bengaluru. Why don’t you come over for lunch tomorrow Sunday? I shall text you the link to my place,” she said. I  was excited, to say the least.  

I promptly arranged for a bouquet and my commute. Now all I had to do was wait.

The phone call
Ring, ring went my phone again that day, in the evening. I noted that it was Marie ma’am. I hoped and prayed that there was no change of plans.

“Neelakantan, Betty just called to tell me you may be a vegetarian. I thought I should check with you,” Marie ma’am inquired, being the thoughtful person that she was.  

I realized then the next day was Sunday and they being Roman Catholics would have Sunday morning service. I  promptly shared, “Ma’am, since tomorrow is Sunday, you’ll need to go to the church, I believe? My coming for lunch might be inconvenient. I could come down for tea instead…,” I trailed off as I suggested. As expected, the suggestion was brushed aside sweetly.

“No, Neelakantan. We are not attending the Sunday service, we are going this evening. Hence, you can come for lunch. Try to be here by about 11.30 am. We can have a cup of tea or coffee, catch up and then have lunch whenever you would like to.” And that was that.

Meeting the ma'am
It was Sunday morning and I was in a taxi, sitting beside a bouquet which I wanted to present to Marie ma’am and I was making my way to The Martin Farm, Sarjapur, where she resided. As I gazed out of the window, I recollected my school days, particularly Marie ma’am, whose reflex on seeing any distressed or discomforted student was to comfort them. It is always the little things, isn’t it?

When I reached Martin Farm, where my former teacher — then Miss Marie Fernandes now Mrs Marie Martin — resided, I found that she was waiting at the door for me.  

After I  had handed over the bouquet, to which she exclaimed “This is beautiful Neelakantan”, we realised that it has been over 50 years since we last saw each other. We stood there for some time, soaking in that sublime feeling of happiness, an emotion a thousand words would fail to express.

After catching up, we proceeded to lunch. I had to protest to stop her from serving more than my stomach could handle. “Neelakantan, you can eat this you are young,” she said in the stern-sweet manner of hers. I said, “Ma’am, that was five decades ago, I am 55 years old now.”

The big reveal
Post a very heavy lunch, while we were seated on the verandah, she gently inquired why I took the pains of meeting her when she did not even teach me, nor was she my class teacher. 

I was tongue-tied for a minute, as the cat was out of the bag. Then I held my nerve and replied...

“Ma’am, from Class I to Class VII, I have seen your compassion. On spotting any boy crying, I have noticed your impulsive instinct to pick the little boy up and comfort him. I’ve seen you escort kindergarten students to the washroom, and help them wash and clean. I’ve also seen you sit next to a boy with an open lunch box, coaxing him to eat. I am sure you must have comforted me too at one point or the other, that’s why you are special. Hence, I just wanted to meet you and thank you for your compassion.”

I also shared my experiences as a teacher at the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, New Delhi, which she was delighted to hear.

I shared my ordeal with Marie ma’am, of being paralysed at 28, proving to the world that I am still capable. As our conversation drew to a close, she held my impaired hand and said, “Neelakantan, I shall pray for you.” What a beautiful gesture.

But first...
Posing for a photo seated on the couch, which her granddaughter had offered to click, I joked, “Ma’am, apologies for my salt and pepper look. No one would ever believe you are my teacher.” She laughed at brushed this off saying, “That’s because they don’t know I colour my hair!”

As I prepared to leave, Marie ma’am said, “Neelakantan, thank you for coming over. Do come over whenever you are in Bengaluru.” She held my arm, the one which is impaired, and walked me to my taxi.

I waved to her from my taxi for as long as I could see her. And the whole journey, I couldn’t help but think how we both have aged.

Compassion trumps all 
But her compassionate gestures lived fresh in my mind, motivating me to pay it forward.

Teachers can make such a huge difference in our lives, even those teachers who are not our teachers directly, like Marie ma’am, teach us via their gestures and their attitude. My heart was bursting with gratitude.

And this is what makes for a fantastic Teachers’ Day story, a tale of how a teacher’s kindness can transform the lives of not just those on whom the kindness is bestowed, but all those around as well.

(MS Neelakantan Iyer is a former teacher at the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, New Delhi. He is now a Spoken English and IELTS tutor plus a published author  and motivational speaker.) 

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