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I have loved all my English teachers without exception. I don’t know what it is about English teachers that set them apart from others, but there is something, of that I am sure, with rare exceptions.

Sister Bernice was my English teacher in tenth grade who I remember with mixed feelings. An excellent teacher, she was also a strict disciplinarian. Not only did she teach her subject but also tried to instill certain values in her wards, sometimes going overboard in the latter. Her rules were many and included ones like sitting up straight in class, not letting the smell of the dead rat in the corner of the class affect you (Like really?!) and not scratching your head at any cost. I remember thoughtlessly tucking away a stray hair behind my ear and being called out for disobeying her diktat. My feeble ‘But I wasn’t scratching!’ was as usual dismissed summarily. Your hand just could not be anywhere on your hair or head during her class and that was that.

Being one of the better students in her class, I was always under her scrutiny. She took extra pains to find errors in my work. I didn’t mind though, since I loved the subject and by default, her. That is till she disbelieved me yet again in spite of my being a more modern version of King Harishchandra. Perhaps you haven’t heard of him? A legendary king, his name is synonymous with truth and honesty.

During the English period post lunch we were usually tasked with writing compositions on different topics and/or given grammar lessons and impromptu tests afterwards. One afternoon, Sister Bernice had set us exactly one such impromptu test and I had got down to work on it happily. I especially remember the cheerful mood I was in that day. After finishing the test, and giving it a second reading, I felt the usage ‘in time’ wasn’t right. Erasing my first answer, I wrote ‘on time’ (“The train was on time”) in its place and waited for the rest of the class to catch up.

Sister Bernice’s method of marking answers in these kind of tests was to ask us to grade our own papers as she read out the answers. When she read out ‘on time’ the class groaned. ‘Did anyone get the ‘on time’ right, anyone at all?‘ As she looked around the class, on her owl like countenance (and I mean no disrespect by that, she did resemble one!) there was a smug and knowing smile that clearly stated she knew that no one could have got it right. ‘Indians always use ‘in time’ and the usage is wrong!’ she explained.

In the meantime my hand had shot up as soon as she asked if anyone had got the answer right. Presently she noticed me and slowly walked towards me. ‘Show me your book!’ she said. I did, happily, for wasn’t I the only one who had got it right? One look at my notebook and she dismissed my claim. “You erased your answer and wrote it after you heard me read out the right one.” she accused.

I was mortified. I have already mentioned how I was cast in the same mold as King Harishchandra, with the same virtuous and truthful nature. It is true I had written a different answer earlier, erased it and written a new one over it, but it had all happened before the teacher had started giving out the correct answers. Obviously, her decision being the final one, there existed no court of higher appeal for me. I had to be content with getting one answer wrong in place of an all correct score that I deserved rightly.

In my heart I knew that she knew I had not cheated. She was merely trying to prove her earlier statement (that Indians always said ‘in time’ and never ‘on time’) right. Or else she didn’t want the fact that I got it all correct go to my head. Yup, the earlier generations were big on ‘not letting anything go to anyone’s head’. I know a bunch of people from my own generation who still believe this nonsense and are stingy with praise for even their adult friends.

Anyways, I was unhappy about what happened that day. Years later in the present though I accept that she was old school, someone who never said a word of praise to any student, someone who thought it was no big deal putting down a student undeservedly, believing it would be good for the student in the long run, make them a better person spiritually as Wodehouse would say. Nope, I don’t share her views or even agree with them. I believe in giving appreciation where it is due and in the wonders an encouraging and kind word can bring about in lives.

© Shail Mohan 2021