Chinnamma teacher was a terror to the motley crowd of 10 – 12 year olds of middle school. She taught Malayalam, the language spoken by those of God’s Own Country, Kerala which lies down south of India. If you had seen the thin, stoop shouldered woman with salt and pepper hair clad in her simple cotton sari you would have been wont to wonder what it was that was so terrifying about her. If you had tried telling that to the crowd of school girls who took her classes in St. Joseph’s school, Alapuzha, back in the 70s, you would have probably got varying reactions, enough to stump you. Looks of incredulity, pity at your lack of grasp of affairs, and probably hoots of laughter from the more daring ones at your total ignorance. Now, let me see, if I were there in that motley crowd you tried talking to, would I have been incredulous, pitying or hooting?? Hmm…
My father was posted to Alapuzha as DSO (District Supply Officer) and we were soon settled in a rented house in the sleepy coastal town of Kerala. Venice of the East is what Alappuzha is known as. The Government school close by refused to take my sis and me into 4th and 6th grades. They stuck to the then (questionable) policy of giving admission to those students arriving from outside the state only to the same class as the one they passed out of in their previous school. Father decided to try his luck elsewhere and landed at St. Joseph’s Convent. The nuns, impressed by our respective report cards from our old school saw it fit to give us admissions to the grades we were entitled to join. Their only stipulation was that we take extra care and catch up with the rest of the students in Malayalam as till then we had been studying Telugu as our second language.
Do all those who sit back and criticize the children who cannot speak their mother tongue properly have anything to say of the hardships of said children whose parents are in transferable jobs in a country like India, and move from place to place, sometimes at the whims and fancies of the higher ups, studying the different ‘mother tongues’ of the people of different states, for each of whom their mother tongue is THE best and has to be studied at all costs!?? But I digress.
We children were fluent in speaking the Malayalam language, recognized the alphabets and could read and write small simple words as well. My parents promised the Principal that we would keep up with the rest of the class. On that assurance my sis and I were given admission to the 4th and 6th grades as we rightly deserved.
The school had already been open a few weeks when my sis and I joined. My first day in a new school and new class went off peacefully. The children were welcoming, helpful and tried to make me feel at home. It was a no-Malayalam day and hence I didn’t get to see Chinnamma Teacher.
The second day of school dawned bright and clear. The first hour, allotted to Math went off smoothly. Being a new girl in class has its special place. Every teacher who walks into class and sees a new face wants to know who you are, the name of your previous school, why you have moved et al. At ten years of age one feels important and thrilled to be singled out by the teachers and having to answer a few of their questions and also be smiled at in welcome.
After the Math teacher left, in walked a thin middle-aged lady with gray hair, draped in a pastel colored sari. The lines on her face were harsh. No laughter lines there to smooth her features. Very austere look. To crown it she had a permanent mocking look on her face that made you feel quite small indeed.
As soon as she dropped the books she carried on the table, she asked the class if they had done their five pages of cursive writing work she had given as homework. She must have noticed a few hesitant faces or else being a teacher she must know instinctively there would be at least a few who hadn’t done their homework. She asked those girls who had not done their work to stand up. I had not and yet I did not stand up. After all I was a new student and the other teachers had not expected me to have done the homework they had given before my arrival to the school and their class. As if on cue, she immediately turned to me and in harsh tones demanded,
“Home work cheytho??” (Have you done your homework??)
“Illa” (No) I answered.
My classmates stepped in to help me unasked, chorusing,
“Puthiya kuttiyaa teacher” (New student, Teacher)
She turned on them sneering.
“Jnaan chodicho??” (Did I ask you??)
The class went silent.
“Puthiya kuttiyanengil??” (So what, if a new student?)
Since I had joined the previous day, she continued, it had been my duty to have found out what the next day’s timetable and what the home work to be done was, then to have done it and promptly presented it in class. She never asked me my name or that of my previous school. There had been no smile of welcome or the usual ‘best of luck’ or ‘do well’. Instead, she ordered me to join the other children who hadn’t done their homework and had been asked to stand in a row in front of her table. We were asked to extend our hands. She gave us each two of the juiciest with her long cane.
That was Day One, with Chinnamma teacher.
She had never a happy thing to say to her class of 10-11 year olds. Her witticisms were all sarcastic, mocking and aimed to strike where it hurts. She being a devout Christian was partial to children of her own faith. The others were just not good enough for her. We, the no-good pagans were her targets more often. Most of what she said about why we were not good enough went right above our collective 10/11-year old heads. We just knew that she implied we were somehow inferior because we were of a different faith, if not in the eyes of the world, at least in the eyes of Chinnamma Teacher.
She herself was a spinster and came to school with her little nephew and niece in tow. I sometimes saw her with them during lunch hour, taking them to the washroom wiping their faces, generally taking care of them. Somehow, I could not connect her with a caring nature and it all looked odd and out of place. For me the worst part of school life was that she came by the same school bus as I did. So no playing the fool or careless happy laughter even after school in the school bus too for any of Chinnamma teacher’s students! Not only would she tick you off right then and there, but would even shame you in the class the next day. So it was more silence and suffocatio, after school hours too. Unfortunately, the place she had to get down came right after mine. So there was not even a small respite.
In middle school Malayalam was Chinnamma teacher’s monopoly, there being no other Malayalam teacher around. I had to be her student for one more year of 7th grade. The best thing about the first day of 8th grade was that strange feeling of elation and freedom we girls had. Oh yeah, we knew soon enough the reason behind it. There would be no Chinnamma teacher taking Malayalam class for us. But there still was that journey home in the school bus. Sigh. One more year of that and mercifully father was transferred out of Alapuzha and I bid the school and Chinnamma teacher goodbye heaving a sigh of relief.
P.S. By the way, my sis and I never gave a cause for our respective Malayalam teachers in school to ever say that we did not know Malayalam as well as those other students who had been studying it from the time they started school.
©Shail Mohan 2009
Reposted from shail-mohan blogs @sulekha.com
Some memories of school, of teachers, espcially the ones who have been less pleasant are like that!
I totally agree with what you say about children who grow up moving around the country, having to face that particular remark about not knowing how to read and writ the mother tongue, by, I am sorry to say, sanctimonious, not in the least well meaning persons, about Oh My! you cant. How terrible. And then a rant to the parents about how they should have kept them in touch. And the teasing, not much of it well meaning either 🙂 The Keralites revel in that , and they do it so well and regularly, without respite.. 🙂 And this is something I keep telling kids in my class, when I seen sly grins and overhear snide remarks: That no one can beat us in parodying, mimicking and generally pulling down another, instead of appreciating effort gone in!
Sorry, I seem to have gone on ranting … 🙂 It’s a sore point with me. Teachers like this [and there are a few even to this day!], and reactions to not knowing one’s mother tongue well, like this!
Shail, a lovely post as always; even in this one your innate sense of the self, and of humour gently assures us, you came through unscathed 🙂 Congrats on that!
Me: Thanks Usha for that coming unscathed remark! 😛 Lol. And about the less said about he not knowing mother tongue matter the better. Though boht my children speak thier mother tongue and that too without an accent, these bashers never failed to point out they should learn to read and write it too. The advice thye gave me on how (and why) I should go about doing it made me madder than Vivek’s wet hen. They stay in one place from birth to death, that too in the same house and they dare advice those of us who move around and undergo the hardships (of course I have never sen it as hardship! I simply love the change) of new places, new people, new schools, new languages??!!! WTH! Anyway what concern is it of theirs as to which language my children know or converse in??!!
Biju Mathews said:
“…She gave us each two of the juiciest with her long cane..” Ha ha 🙂 Reminds me of my school days. The cane was very fond of me. My hands got so used to it that Teachers later started experiments with the other parts of the body 🙂
Nicely written!! Keep blogging!
Me: Come to think of it Biju, thats the only time I got ‘two of the juiciest in school!! 😛
Chinnamma teacher was defnitely suffering from some mental disorder..and partial towards her religion kids..how ridiculous can a teacher get ?…
Me: Yep, I agree with you on that. Anyone who takes out their anger or frustrations on children who are soft targets and cannot retaliate, be they parents or teacher, are behaving deplorably in my opinion.
Agni Sharman said:
It was a nice read!
I heard from some elders at home that most school teachers were the “Chinnamma” types back in the 60s and 70s
Never had your kind of experience at school, all teachers were very friendly and never had a “No Smile” teacher throughout my schooling.
I remembered my Malayalam teacher at ASAN Memorial school in Chennai when I read you blog. Her name was Jhansi teacher and was the most fun part of my entire schooling, cause I started Padam onnu when i was in my eight standard (it was our 3rd language)
Me: Welcome to my page Agnisharman. I cannot say all teachers were like her. We had pretty good teachers too. Nice to hear about your Jhansi teacher. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Keep visiting.
It is amazing how teachers become a integral part of our formative years. Some teach how to be and some how not to be. A good post. Childhood memories are the best part of one’s life. BTW, Telegu inka guruthuntha?
Me: You said it PRG. “Some teach how to be and some how not to be” That’s the essence, not only of teachers, but true of each and every person we come across in life. Whether we learn that lesson well and to our advantage is what life is all about. As for Telugu, I studiied it for 5 years. I also know a smattering of Kannada 🙂
All I have to say is if you thought your teacher was tough, that is because you don’t have a boss.
And I guess you know why it is called the mother-tongue, right? Because the father never gets to use it!
Keep them coming.
Me: Ha Sal, why do you think I decided to stay at home and be my own boss not to mention that of threee Martians too?!! 😛 As for mother tongue, oh yeah I know a father never gets to use it as he is never around!! 😉
We had an accounts sir in school, he would fail all students who wouldnt go to his house for tutions….
I had a first ranker sitting in front of me in exams and my papers used to be ditto … i would copy everything from her.. she would get full marks… and me would always get 2 marks less than the ones required for passing… however he never failed us in final exams….
i know such teachers can make a mess of school life…
infact at one stage I had decided tht if he came to school i would bunk… and i bunked school almost 4 -5 months !
Me: This is another of those problems. Teachers take tuition at home and give higher marks to those who go to them for classes. I have faced this situation during the school days of my own children. I told them not to bother and that the extra marks those children got did not matter. Of course the unfairness used to rankle them.
Shail- I can so relate to this post- having gone through something similar myself. My childhood years were spent out of India. When I was in the 6th standard we came back to live in a small town here in Maharashtra where there was no English medium school.
I was used to speaking Marathi at home with my parents but of course switching from English to Marathi medium at school was quite another thing! However, fortunately, my teachers were very helpful, and I made the transition without any major problems.
Too bad that you had such a bad experience with your Chinnamma teacher. She evidently knew nothing about child psychology, or maybe just didn’t care!
Me: I agree, she definitely knew next to nothing about child psychology or did not care. Many of our children face this difficulty of adjusting to new language especially in our country with so many languages and inter-state transfers.
Oh Shail! there are teachers like Chinnamma teacher everywhere. We had a matron in our hostel who was so irritated seeing any couple together so while she was always happy to see someone’s dad alone but a mother along would throw her into a weird fit. I think sometimes life’s bitter experiences becomes part of them.
I totally am with you on the mother tongue thing. People are so judgemental as they please when it comes to how much one should know the language. They don’t care if one is good in at least one Indian language. No siree!
Me:Lol @she was always happy to see someone’s dad alone but a mother along would throw her into a weird fit.
Exactly my point, is it not enough to know one language?? Anyway, it is a personal thing. It is not for others to tell us what language to speak or how many and how well we should be knowing those languages. I think the crowd back home used to feel jealous when they heard my sons conversing with each other fluently in Hindi though of course why it should bother them as long as they could converse in Mallu with my children is beyond me! 😛
Poor unhappy woman … no wonder she was horrible to the students! Teachers like your Malayalam teacher remind me of Snape in Harry Potter – unfair and difficult!
Me: Lol Ritu, yeah Snape does come to mind!
err I do empathise with a 10 – yr – old’s frustration at being treated unfairly.But I have a soft corner for old unmarried women trying to act tough and then succeeding beyond their wildest dreams in their endeavours…..sorry.I cant bring myself to condemn ur Chinnamma teacher though she so richly deserves it.Glad about the keeping up with everyone else part.Guess u guys did more than just keep up,right?
Me: Lol, I do condemn teachers and parents who take out their frustrations on children. They can go and hit a punching bag or bang their heas against the wall rather than use children for target practice. Of course the least they can do is take on a suitably equal adversary! I have seen too many children suffer and parents are also equally guilty of this mistake.
Indian Homemaker said:
“Do all those who sit back and criticize the children who cannot speak their mother tongue properly have anything to say of the hardships of said children whose parents are in transferable jobs in a country like India, and move from place to place, …!?? ?”
It’s good to hear someone say that!!!
Such teachers leave terrible memories in young students’ minds. We had a Hindi teachers who were always the meanest, I think this could be because they are not given much importance by the school, other teachers, students or the parents.They take it out on the kids.
Corporal punishment and verbal abuse should be firmly stopped. I know of children from poorer classes who refuse to go to school because just going to schools becomes a punishment for them.
Me: Lot of changes needed in teaching. I am sure you are going to come up with blogs about possible changes that can be implemented! 🙂 The school experience whould be a wonderful one. Corporal punishment and verbal abuse should certainly go.
Wow, looks like most Mallu teachers are similar. We had a Vijayamma teacher, but she had an uncanny knack of saying some touching stuff in the last class and all the girls would burst into tears :))) After all that terrorizing, I still have fond memories of her!
Me: I have always found that English language teachers are universally loved. Of course exceptions exist, to be fair. But still… I have the fondest memories of all my English teachers and even those of my sons!!
I had my share of Chinnamma Teachers in School too.. only it wasnt with language, it was Math and History in 3rd grade. I was good at putting “shaap” mentally. On this particular day, she did something so totally unfair in my 9 year old eyes that I went to the temple that evening and scolded God saying “If you are really there, I want to see this teacher out of school by the end of this year, else I will never enter the temple in my life again” Sure enough, she left our school mid-year. Was I happy? Oooh yes, I just didnt know champagne existed :P.
Me: Rashmi!!! Mental ‘shaap’ indeed! 😛 I am going to be extra good to you. Lol. I liked that I just didnt know champagne existed 😛 bit! 😀
“Puthiya kuttiyaa teacher”……………toooo nostalgic post :)…I 2 had some chinnamma,annamma,merikutty teachers in my school,who take class for up schools like as if they were teaching B-Tech students….nyways nice post…4 moment went back 2 gud old school days 🙂
Me: Anish, welcome to my page. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Lol @as if they were teaching B-Tech students. Teaching is really an art and it is missing in a lot of teachers.
Have heard of Chinnamma teacher, she might have left by the time we joined. The one whom I’ll never forget is the elegant and always smiling Zelma miss. My mother used to say, “if you’ve become something in life, it is because of her” 🙂 Met her a couple of years ago and she is still the same as ever 🙂
Just saw this..
One thing I got to say is finally someone sees the picture. I am a parital victim of this regarding language. I guess Keralites (and also the Spanish in this scenario if you can’t speak Spanish fluently) expect you to be a know it all and will make snide remarks that are uncalled for and just unappropriate. Though I can speak Malayalam decently, but not fluent I was insulted and lambasted for not speaking like a “naadan” girl, as well as not being the proper malayalee girl (does that even exist?). The funny thing is I got really into learning the language and aimed to be fluent because when I went to India a couple of years back, there were people who made you feel at home and make you want to be part of the culture, but there are many members of my family who believe in ego and status, who will humiliate and tear you apart if you are not a perfect being and you start to feel uncomfortable, and because of this, I lost all interest from it and desire faded since I don’t see much positives in engaging with a community or culture who does nothing but criticize, manipulate, humilate, backstab, and step on you for every little thing that you really can’t breathe, and also think they are entitled and superior to everyone else outside their own community (probably includes people originally from their area but live elsewhere). I speak and will stick with English only now , and use Malayalam (and Spanish too) if needed, which is pretty rare.
I heard you sons speak fluent Hindi. I know a little bit Hindi. Maybe I’ll be fluent in that someday.
Malayalam is the only language whose name is a palindrome! (I think so, but let me know if I’m wrong!)
Yes, you are right 🙂
I had a teacher by name Radhaamma a kerala lady in her early twenties. She was just out of the college and was an expert in pinching. I had not done the homework and she had the knack to fold the lower ear into two and press it and pull towards her and then she would squeeze the skin. It was worst than caning those days. The burning would last atleast for two days and the skin would peel out when it becomes dry. This was in 70s.
Ouch. That sounds terrible. But I know what you mean. Unfortunately such punishments were common in the past.