We have no idea whether any of us were her pets. She was quite brusque in her ways and did not seem to favour any student over the others. Yet we were fond of her. Of her springy hair wisps of which would escape the tight bun at the nape of her neck especially when she was annoyed with us and in a temper, of her erect dignified stance, of the alert bird like movements of her neck which rose above the dull orange of her high collared full sleeved blouse. In her black and white habit all that springy hair was hidden by the veil. But now the nuns had a new uniform. And what struck us most about the new uniform sari and blouse was the colour. They were the colour of the flecks on our shoes when we ran across the slushy maidan during the glorious rains; the flecks that got us into deep trouble with her because she wanted our shoes to shine in such a way that her face would be reflected back when she inspected them. We loved the way she scolded us.
Most often we would land in trouble after a PT period. We would be downing gallons of water and discussing the intricacies of the games we had played. And there would be this quiet that travelled down the class from the doorway where the diminutive figure would be standing in stern reproof of our behaviour.
“Did I just have an army raid my school?” she’d ask. Her voice would be soft and light, almost conversational. “I thought I was bringing up a group of ladies.”
“Ladies don’t thunder up and down the stairs like that. Out all of you,” she would say imperiously. “Up and down the stairs till you learn how to walk like ladies. I must not hear even a rustle.”
And we would go as quietly as we could, up and down the ancient wooden stairs. It didn’t help that her office was directly beneath.
She taught us English. Every morning, for the whole of our last year in school, the first period was hers. When we entered we would find a pile of our notebooks on her desk and whoever came first distributed them taking sly peeks at the marks she had given us for the previous day’s essay. She would begin by setting us an essay on a topic taken from that day’s newspaper. We had to read them before starting for school. There was no choice. And she insisted that the paper be an English language one. Those were the days when English language newspapers did not reach houses early in the mornings. Some of them came only by midday. No amount of pleading would get her to relent and set an essay on the previous day’s newspaper.
“Yesterday’s paper is dead as a dodo,” she would say.
So we found ways to solve our problem. Those of us who received the paper early had several copies delivered. We would start early to school so some of us could read the ones that the school subscribed to. And we were none the worse for our efforts.
After ten minutes of writing we had to turn in our essays and they would be marked and returned the very next morning. And it was as though the marks were her private priceless pearls. She gave them out so stingily that a six on ten was a miracle. And if someone got a six they would grin from ear to ear the entire day. And if she pointed out and commended something we had written, a turn of phrase or the apt use of a word, we would shoot up directly to cloud nine and remain there for days.
Like all great teachers she taught us much more than just her subject.
And then there was the Great Rebellion. We had all rebelled against something, we forget what and she was most annoyed with us. So she made us all stand in a line in the sun. There we stood in our blue pinafores over our white shirts surreptitiously loosening our striped brown ties, hanging our heads in pretence of repentance, our stomachs full of the giggles that were threatening to break out.
She walked along the line one way looking at each of the bowed heads and let fly in English that was such a pleasure to hear even if we were being told off.
“And to think that young ladies from well-to-do houses have enough to buy big fat teddy bears when out on an excursion but buying shoes is a waste of money they say. A waste of money!”
It was late January and the academic year would end in a few weeks’ time and the board exams would begin in early March. Many of our shoes had holes in them or gaped open at the toes and we had rebelled when she had asked us to buy new ones. Maybe, just maybe, some of us wanted to flaunt all those lovely pairs of heels and some of us at least some of us had beautiful pedicured feet with nails painted in the loveliest of colours. Who would see them inside uniform shoes? Whatever be the reason there were an increasing number of girls who came in ‘civilian’ footwear and collectively refused to buy the black uniform shoes. So she had made us stand in the sun and was now walking up and down the line.
“I have a class now. Stay there all of you, and not a murmur,” she commanded and sailed away to her class.
Of course we obeyed. But then a close look at the line would have revealed all the suppressed activity that was going on in the form of messages passed under the breath sideways without any visible movement of our lips. And then someone would occasionally break out into a giggle and that set off the whole lot of us though we were not sure what it was that was so funny about standing in a line in the sun in the central courtyard and being ogled at by the whole school as they came and went along the corridors. Sometimes we thought there were too many of our juniors walking along the corridors under the pretext of going to the toilet as though there were a sudden epidemic of full bladders.
She came down from her class and took another walk down the line.
“Shameful!” she pronounced.
That was when a cheeky voice piped up from somewhere down the line.
“Shoes can’t be kept in showcases, Sister. But teddy bears can be.”
“Who was that?” she walked up the line to find the culprit.
That was when another cheeky voice said, “You taught us about frugality, Sister. You said it was a virtue.”
Whoever had said that was a master strategist. We could feel the thaw immediately. Some of us dared to look up and caught her smiling. She went back to her office. Another teacher came down to tell us we could go back to our classes. For the remaining weeks of the academic year no one asked us about our absent uniform shoes.
And then we were lost in the crazy world of our first ever board exams. And when our marks cards came we ran our fingers lovingly over the familiar signature in green ink; bold yet graceful: M. Renee A. C.
She was one of a kind.
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