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K. S. Markose – My First ‘English’ Teacher
(The ‘Pressing Force’ behind my prowess in English)
After spending six playful years at Kavumbhagam South U. P. School, Tellicherry, under the loving care of the teachers - the ‘special care’ for a colleague’s son - I started my ‘school life’ in its full sense in the Fifth standard in the prestigious St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School (now St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School) in 1987. I have already translated into words a few snippets of my memories of the six years that followed - the ‘Golden Era’ of my past.* In this anecdote, I am recalling some sweet moments that played an elemental role in the making of myself as of today. Unlike the earlier chapters of my ‘memoirs’, I have chosen to write this one in English not for no reason - I am writing about someone who made me a ‘lover’ of the language. If you see my writing skills in English at least as ‘good enough’ to be ‘presentable’, he is the first in line to take the credit. Yes, my beloved ‘Markose Sir’ - Mr. K. S. Markose - The teacher who taught me English in the Sixth standard.
If you are at least a little bit surprised at this point, it’s not your fault! Of course, ‘Markose sir’ was NOT my FIRST teacher of English - simply because English had been a part of the curriculum right from fourth standard. In my case, the credit should go to none other than my father, himself a teacher, who gave me the first lessons of the language while I was in the second or third standard. Even from the ‘school point of view’, Markose Sir was only the third in line. Yet, if I have deliberately credited him with the title of my ‘First ‘English’ Teacher’, it’s not without reason. Let me tell why...!
Among the people of our state, there is a ‘common fear’ of English as being a ‘monster’ of a language. It’s not a ‘localized phenomenon’, but a widespread one, observed in most parts of our country. The most startling evidence of this ‘phobia’ can be seen in the performance of students of schools and colleges. Not only the ‘less educated’ lot, even high - profile professionals like Magistrates and Judges are not immune, if we go by the reports from some Maharashtra Courts. I don’t think I need to stress that if at all anybody can at least attempt to make a change in this scenario, it would be those who teach the language in schools. But, alas..! What do we see...? Teachers who try to teach English, NOT in English, but completely in the local language...! I don’t know why they opt for this near - ridiculous practice - It may be that they think of it as a better means to allay the fears in the minds of the students towards the language, or is it that they also are suffering from the same problem...?
Given these circumstances, I am more than happy and proud to ‘announce’ that I was not a bit affected by the ‘phobia’, thanks to my father. For a lion’s share of his teaching career (or, at least the duration that I can remember), he was teaching English in one class or other – mostly in seventh standard. He used to tell his son - still in his early childhood - stories from the books that he used to teach in the classes. Naturally, the child developed intense interest in the books and the language as such. His interest was so intense that he used to keep a close watch when his father evaluated the answer papers of his students after examinations. Before long, he started picking up the intricacies of the language - while he was yet to start learning the language ‘officially’ at the school. Sometimes, he even managed to detect mistakes in the students’ answer papers...!
Then he stepped into fourth standard - where English becomes a part of the curriculum for the first time. Having already gained some grasp - a commendable level for a child of that age - of the language, the classes spelling out the alphabet and munching a few very simple words seemed somewhat boring to him. Right from the word go, he was longing for ‘challenges’ to take on. His first year with the new school was also not much different - the same old story, albeit with a slightly better level - there were some little phrases like ‘a cup on a saucer’, ‘a fish in a pond’ and so on. Yet, it was a far cry from being satisfactory to the explorer in him.
Then there was that momentous leap – from Fifth standard to the Sixth. From crunching little words to munching lengthy sentences. It started with a series of revisions of the textbooks. For the children who barely managed those ‘cup on saucer’s and ‘dog under tree’s, the ascend to ‘The Bangle Seller’ (the first lesson in the new English textbook for Sixth standard) was too steep even to look at. Every page in the textbook assumed gigantic stature, armed with ‘high-power’ phrases and sentences. The section titled ‘vocabulary’, given at the beginning of every chapter, apparently aimed at giving some idea of the meanings and usage of unfamiliar words used, didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than frightening the students even more. On the other hand, to our ‘little warrior’, it was the right kind of challenge. At last, he’s got something worth fighting with.
It was at this juncture that ‘Markose Sir’ stepped in - as the English teacher in 6B. Right from the beginning, his ‘professionalism’ was evident in the way he went about his task. He belonged to that rare, ‘endangered’, species of teachers who didn’t believe in teaching English in Malayalam even in Malayalam Medium classes - It’s not that he never used Malayalam in the class, though. He did step down the ladder occasionally, but just the right number of steps enough to drive the idea through. In short, he knew that he was supposed to be teaching English. And that gave a kind of great relief to a ‘certain somebody’ who happened to be the class topper, for, after a long wait of two years, he could find someone whom he can ‘take for granted’ in terms of quality of teaching the language. And that is why I award him the accreditation - My First ‘English’ Teacher.
Days and months flew past, and we are now heading for the first ‘major exam’ – the Quarterly examination preceding the ‘Onam’ holidays. Markose Sir was somewhat ahead of the schedule with the classes. Even after he completed the portions supposed to be covered before the exams, he still had almost two weeks’ time to prepare the students to take the challenge ‘head on’. So, he decided to force some ‘revision’. And from the very first day itself, he was forced press his cane into ‘service’ - his expectations were a little too high for the students to satiate - or was it that the students could not put in efforts good enough to meet his expectations? Don’t know.
Anyway, for me, the ‘revision routine’ turned out to be a ‘blessing’ - I could find more and more opportunities to ‘play around’ with my skills and enhance my repertoire of vocabulary, as Sir stuck to his basic principles. We knew of any number of teachers who used to ask for Malayalam meanings of English words - but no chance even to dream of that in Sir’s class - he taught English...! I simply loved his style. This was precisely the kind of teacher whom I wanted. I was smiling my way through, even as many of my classmates struggled to cope.
And then came that day - that eventful day that made all the difference. Sir had chosen the first chapter - ‘The Bangle Seller’ - for the day. Even as Sir managed to mint new questions every few minutes, many of the students fell prey to the flurry of intriguing questions. The first salvo that came my way didn’t cause any trouble - it was some rather simple one. It seemed that Sir was not much ‘impressed’ by his own performance.
Then came that ‘beauty’ - a real gem of a shot. Sir wanted the meaning of the word ‘scream’ (to cry loudly, as the textbook spelled it out) - in every sense the ‘toughest’ word he could find in the entire chapter - and he wanted me to answer. And... Yes, you guessed it right - the question stumbled me. For the first time in history, a question passed me unanswered. Even though I failed to answer, I didn’t even bother to see whether anybody else would get it right. The very fact that I could not defend the shot meant, among many other things, that nobody else in the class would, and I was the least interested in how my classmates would fare. The moment the question was ‘passed’, I had started my mental ‘preparation’ - to accord a ‘red - carpet reception’ to Sir’s cane. I didn’t have to wait for long - within a couple of minutes, the ‘game’ was over.
As Sir approached our bench, wielding the cane, I closed my eyes just for a moment - No, NOT to pick up courage, but to calm my heart down - and then I was ready. As Sir came to me, I stretched my right hand out at full length. The cane rose in the air, waited for a moment, and then stooped down to kiss my palm - A ‘cute’, ‘smart’ sting. For the first time in life, I was accepting a punishment for not answering a question in the class. A short pause, and then the cane rose and came down once again to plant another kiss close to the reddish stripe left by the first. And then it was over. I withdrew my outstretched hand and sat down. The strokes did hurt, but it seemed that somehow I LOVED (?!) it - after all, I deserved it, right?
Well, so that was it - the first ‘Red Letter Day’ of my school life. Of course, it was NOT the FIRST instance of my receiving a caning in the class, neither was it the first for me in St. Joseph’s. Yet, it’s special to me - really special, being the first instance of my getting one for something directly related with studies. Being at the top of the class in studies, I had never given such a chance to any other teacher before (or after, till I found my next ‘Challenger’, Mr. Benny Francis, my beloved teacher of Mathematics, on whom I had earlier elaborated in another write-up in this ‘Memoirs’ Series**). And that gives Markose Sir another ‘credit’ - of being the first teacher to win that ‘prized chance’ to gift me with the sweet kiss of the cane for failing to answer a question. (Well, I should mention one more fact here - that Sir brought the ‘revision routine’ to an abrupt end on that day. He didn’t even bother to ask any real serious questions in the class thereafter, forget revisions - I don’t know why...! I had even asked him this in person at a later time, but he didn’t give any solid reason either - he didn’t even remember it at all!)
The incident had a perfect, positive, impact on me - it strengthened my love for the language manifold. From that day, I started my unrelenting quest for mastery. As my friends and classmates struggled even to find the path ahead, I was pursuing a ‘Long March’ - towards that ultimate goal. I wanted to utilize every possible opportunity to hone my strengths.
By the time I was in Eighth standard, I had started taking notes of other subjects - like Chemistry, Biology, Physics, History etc. - as well in English...! Even as the teachers dictated notes in Malayalam, I would perform an ‘online translation’ and take it down in English - and if, at any point of time, I was asked to read the notes out, I would do a ‘reverse translation’ and read the notes out in Malayalam, without giving even the slightest hint of the ‘mystery’, as if I am reading directly from the book. (While I managed not to arouse any suspicion in the minds of teachers, my classmates also ‘helped’ by not pointing out slight mismatches with my version and the actual notes given by the teachers.) By the time I was in Tenth, my notebooks - especially those of Chemistry and Biology - used to resemble those of English medium students...!
In the meantime, I had started venturing into the world of literature as well. I started by writing short stories, poems etc. in Malayalam. Then, I decided to extend my venture to English as well, and one of my earliest attempts in this direction - a short poem titled ‘Teachers’ managed to grab a place in the Golden Jubilee Souvenir of the school - My first work to appear in print. Needless to say, it would have been a kind of an ‘honour’ to any student, and especially to me, flavoured with the added pleasure of the fact that it was the only contribution in English which came from a student of Malayalam medium classes. Everything else - other than advertisements (!) - that appeared in English in the Souvenir came from either the teachers or some talented students from English medium.
Even though I bid farewell to school life years back, it didn’t deter me from pursuing my exploration of the fascinating terrains of the language. If at all it made any difference, it was that it gave me more opportunities to sustain and even enhance my determination. Even after my college days and during my professional life till date, I have never missed any opportunity to sharpen my skills - for I believe in the adage ‘Man never ceases to learn’ - and I know I will remain a student forever.
Now, I have a number of colleagues and friends who look up on me as a ‘reference standard’ for the language. For them, I am almost an ocean from where they can fetch as much water as they all need - or a ‘walking encyclopaedia’ of English that can cater to their hunger for knowledge. And to me, it feels as if I have still reached nowhere - even after striving my best over all these years, all I have managed is just a couple of droplets from the real ocean of English, the language. And this anecdote is my salute and my tribute to the teacher who inspired me to scoop them up and treasure them with pride.
*:'This article is a part of a series of write-ups by the author on his memories of his school days, referred to as 'a few snippets of memories'.
**: This write-up was written after a few other articles included in the author's 'Memoirs' Series. The write-up mentioned here (on Mr. Benny Francis) is available as a seperate entry.
› Note: The above anecdote is a ‘true - to - life’ narration of the experiences of the author. Every effort has been taken to ensure that the incidents are reproduced exactly as they happened. However, I do not summarily deny the possibility of slip-ups because the scenes are reproduced from the memory of the author. However, I have taken utmost care to keep the essence of the words and deeds of the persons involved.
~ വിജി പിണറായി ~
~ Viji Pinarayi ~