By Rita Banerji:
The lessons we learn from our teachers often go way beyond our textbooks. Since we just celebrated Teacher’s Day in India, this is my reflection on the lessons about life and living that I learned from my teachers.
1. Everyone has something to teach you. Be open!
Our first teachers are always our parents and grandparents. But an incident from when I was 13-years-old, taught me otherwise. My grandfather was known be a brilliant and very innovative engineer. One day, while I was doing my biology homework in his house, he sat down next to me and said, “Have they taught you about the DNA yet?” I said, yes they had. Then he asked me to explain the DNA and its structure to him with the diagrams in my book. I was surprised, because everyone in the family looked up to him as being the most knowledgeable person. I thought it couldn’t be that he didn’t know! I wondered if he was testing me, which he would sometimes do, and it could be quite intimidating. But he wasn’t! He was genuinely interested in knowing and asked many questions. Even though he was from the sciences, the structure of the DNA hadn’t even been discovered when he was a student! And now he wanted to learn about it. So that afternoon, I discovered with amazement, that my grandfather could also be a student, and I his teacher!
2. Follow your heart accepting that it is the toughest path to choose.
Mary Venugopal, my class 7 teacher, was perhaps one of the very few teachers I’ve known who believed that each child has unique talents and inclinations, that should be encouraged. Seeing how much I loved literature and writing, she asked me to be the school magazine’s junior editor. It would have required me to stay on after school a few days a week, to work on the editing with her. My parents however, who would have liked me to become a doctor someday, thought this was an absolute waste of time and refused to give permission. I was very disappointed. Miss Venugopal then cheerfully said that that was no problem! We could still do it during lunch-break every day; even though it meant that she would get no break in-between teaching classes. At the end of the year when the school magazine was published, I felt such joy and disbelief that I had actually done it! I eventually did go into the sciences, however not to do medicine, but to work with the environment, which is my other passion.
3. If you love your work, it shows. A piece of you will be in everything you do.
I will be eternally grateful to my class 12 biology teacher, Mrs. V. Prakash, for putting the map of the human body in proper perspective for me before I graduated from school! Prior to that the biology teachers I had were either too embarrassed or too disinterested. The human reproductive system was taught in coded language and geometric diagrams, where none of us could be sure of what exactly was being discussed. There were mumblings about “the male organ” and “the female organ” and admonishments for the students who asked questions. Mrs. Prakash on the other hand had life-like, three-dimensional, plastic models of all the human systems, including the reproductive system. She would use these, pulling out and fitting back the organs, to help give us a clear vision of our own bodies. She’d use the proper names of body parts—stomach, pancreas, testis, penis, vagina—with a normalcy, that made us feel comfortable and normal about our bodies. When she taught us, she looked into our faces, and made eye contact, making sure none of us was confused. What made her different from the other teachers, I realize was her love and enthusiasm for her subject. She was not mechanically transmitting information. Biology was her world, and she was drawing us into this world to show us how wonderful and interesting it was.
4. If you tolerate injustice inflicted on you, you will end up doing the same to others.
As professors today race to publish and compete for huge funds from wealthy foundations, their exploitation of students also increases. This I found particularly so in my field, the sciences where research involves a lot of physical labour and time. I watched my seniors literally burn out, working in the lab on their professors’ research till 3 a.m. and then struggling to stay awake in class the next morning. In the end the credit for the research and its publication would usually, all go to the professors. And so, I decided I wanted to design and do my own independent project, and I put this proposal before my department. I also indicated that if an advisor, which was compulsory, was not available, I’d prefer to forgo my thesis. So I was very happy, when one of the professors who had taught me, and was familiar with my work, accepted my proposal. However, over the next few months I found him to be strangely evasive. When finally I told him this was causing me to lose time and doing a lot of damage to my project, he bluntly replied that that’s the only way he would treat a project that was not his. He then suggested I switch over to his research, and he’ll be much more accessible. I was shocked to realize that his intention from the start had been to have me do his research, but he had chosen a deceitful way to do it. I spoke to few faculty members, and though they felt it was wrong, some still urged me to do as he wanted. They said this is how it was always done and that someday I would have my own students and they would have to do the same for me! Translation: take this abuse now, and someday you can abuse others! This was what helped me make my decision to reject my research professor and accept the losses that came with it: work credits, time, and academic honours.
What I realized was that our teachers don’t always teach us the right thing. But if we trust our conscience, we can still learn our lessons from it. The lesson I learned, not just from this incident, but life in general, is that abuse is a cycle. When we negotiate with it, and accept it in our lives, we are bound to inflict the same on someone else. The way we allow people to treat us, is how we will treat others.
5. If you are dazzled by power, image and glamour, you will always be blind to the truth.
One of my professors, Girma Kebedde, loved to trip his students on their own assumptions. One of the biggest eye-openers for me was a book he had us discuss in class called ‘Africa in Crises.’ Much about the perception of famine in Africa was that it has been caused by droughts and was a “natural disaster.” It was a shocking revelation about how the famine in Ethiopia, Prof. Kebedde’s country, was a created crisis because of rampant corruption and greed in governments, multinationals and international organizations.
The ugly truth about that famine (and indeed food shortages the world over) is that it was politically constructed. Hunger is the most powerful tool with which to control people. Is it any coincidence that in India food prices recently shot up by 300% in just a few months, even as the government, in a pre-election bid announced a Food Bill for 67% of India that it said goes hungry, while there were massive quantities of food being secretly stockpiled in warehouses and allowed to rot? Many western countries make ‘food mountains’ of excess food which they dump into the oceans so that global food prices remain artificially inflated, even as millions around the world go hungry. During the Ethiopian famine, when Africa needed food, they were being forced to grow cash crops like cotton and coffee that were in demand in global markets. This also degraded the soil, and made growing food even more difficult. But like the youth of my generation, I too was inspired by that very glamorous, multi-starrer ‘Band-Aid’ song production “We are the World!” It made us all feel like we should go and ‘save the world!’ I too had thought working with some big, international humanitarian or development organization would be a great way for me to help ‘save the world!’
But what sense does it make, when we kill the food on people’s lands and plates, drive them to starvation, and then with much fanfare give them charity? When I sit with my cup of Ethiopian roast coffee, do I ask how many children there had to go without food so that their family could instead grow that coffee, underpriced at their cost, on their farm, for me to enjoy? The ad promoted by a glamorous, over-paid supermodel or movie-star promises to give 1¢ from the profits to children’s food or education in Africa, and we think that we are actually doing charity here! We don’t challenge the system that allows a select club to hoard 60% of the world’s wealth, and control the world—who grows, sells, and trades, what, and where—and then pretend to dole out charity!
Why don’t we challenge this? What I came to realize is that most of us are dazzled by organizations, institutions, and even individuals who have glamorous and powerful images. We aspire to work with them, or be like them. And so we choose not to see the reality of their corruption. We choose not to see that people or organizations we want to believe are ‘saving humanity’ are actually hurting human lives by their political and financial manipulations.
I realized that if I want to be a part of the change in this world that creates a more equal and just living place for all human beings, I must, first and foremost, refuse to be dazzled by the powerful and glamorous images of people and organizations that we are bombarded with all the time. Only then can I see the truth.