It was an afternoon class.
I was teaching a small group of students. It had only been a few weeks since they had started with the course. They were anxious-
The anxiety that marks the early months of medical schooling until every student finds his own means of coping with the stressful curriculum.
I feel the first year of medical school demands the most intense mentoring. The transition from secondary school to medical college is a huge transition for the student. Most students do not even know what to expect. The syllabus is vast and complex. The environment is unfamiliar and intimidating. From the protected world of secondary school where they receive individual attention and ample guidance, they suddenly find themselves insecure in an environment where they are expected to be independent. Dissection is a nightmare for many. Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry start off simultaneously, and before the students have oriented themselves to the curriculum and to their new environment, they are already into the second term. In most colleges, the orientation programme is only a formality. It does not really orient the students to the curriculum. Many students fall prey to stress and anxiety. It reflects in their performance. However, mentorship is never given the necessary priority in medical colleges in India.
Every new batch takes me back to my own MBBS days. I remember how frightened and lost I had felt in my first year. However, there was more human touch to life in those times. And so, with friends who were empathetic and sensitive, we managed to scrape through our first year. That ceases to be the case today. And so, it pains me to see our children end up as victims of depression, anxiety and personality disorders by the end of the curriculum.
This understanding has moulded me as a teacher. I mentor them in my own capacity. I make myself receptive and approachable, bring in warmth into my interactions, and focus on making learning an enjoyable experience. I teach them to love their subject so that they lose fear of it. I help them set goals, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and overcome the obstacles that come in the way of their goals. In my role as a teacher, I am inspired by Randy Pausch’s perspectives. His book, ‘The last lecture’, is a book that every teacher must read.
Students are like clay- raw and mouldable. It is up to us teachers to carve them into something beautiful.
So, as I addressed my students that afternoon, I tried to be as interesting as I could. For this was the worst hour for a class- right after lunch. They listened and responded.
All, except J.
J yawned. He distracted me because he was so restless. I could tell from his eyes that his mind was far away. Occasionally, he looked around or fiddled with his pen. All in all, he was completely disinterested.
‘Could you tell me why, J?’
The mention of his name made him snap out of his reverie. He hadn’t heard the question. He hadn’t heard anything at all. I repeated my question. He gave me a blank stare.
‘Sleepy, after lunch? Or is the class too boring?’, I asked.
He only smiled.
‘Any way I can make this more interesting?’, I asked him.
And then I continued. Following the class, when they were doing the experiment on their own, I went to J’s group. I concentrated on him and asked him questions as he continued with the experiment. I encouraged him at all the times he did something right.
‘I suppose it is very difficult for you to sit still and listen. You like to be on your feet all the time, right? Too restless!’, I said to him at the end.
He smiled, amused. I could see that he was surprised that I had taken note of his restlessness and inability to sit still. He was grateful for that understanding.
In the subsequent class, I stopped to ask a question to the class.
‘So, where is my favourite student?’, I asked.
‘Yes, J. By now, I am sure you know that I am referring to you’, I said to him.
He answered something, and I nodded, correcting him subtly.
It worked. J loved this attention and he lived for my classes. I was amused to see that he was more attentive than the rest in my classes. When they had to divide into groups, he would come running to the group that I was to take. Over time, I grew very fond of J.
He would respond to all my posts on FB and I could sense that I had become his hero.
J did well in his final exams and made it to second year.
J was passionate about photography. He was a true artist at heart- he could never subscribe to systems. I had seen the photographs he posted on FB, and I could see the artist in him. He had been doing portraits at that time and one day, he asked me if he could click me.
‘I would make a very poor subject, J. I am very camera conscious’, I said to him.
But he insisted. That evening, he turned up with his girlfriend, and we had dinner together. Over dinner, he tried taking a few pictures. But I was very conscious. Following dinner, we walked out and he managed to get a few pictures. His girlfriend left for she had to get back to her hostel on time.
‘Could we take a walk?’, J asked.
‘Of course’, I said.
We walked. Like I always say, cities are very pretty by night and I love walking their streets at night when traffic has thinned.
That was the beginning of our friendship. Until then, I had only known J as a student. I knew little about his personal life. We spoke a lot- about childhood memories, about parents and grandparents, about movies and songs, and about a million other things. When it was time for me to leave, he looked at me and said:
‘Today, I feel so happy. You are really special.’
He was trembling with excitement and happiness.
‘But what makes me special?’, I asked.
‘I don’t know. You are different. When you teach, you always have that little smile on your face. You are in love with the things you talk about. I love your happiness. I always wonder if it is possible to be this happy. You are not like the rest’, he replied.
‘You are special too. After all, you are my favourite student’, I said.
‘Yes. And I hope it will remain so forever. I couldn’t bear to see someone else take that place’, he said.
That night, he put up my portrait on FB and tagged me. I was overjoyed.
I shared very special moments with J. We loved walks and we loved conversation. There was something very special about our relationship.
I thought about it one day. I was aware that our emotions had stepped out of the confines of a student-teacher relationship though we had never expressed this to each other. However, I had to be mature enough to handle the relationship very carefully. It is one thing to feel, and it is quite another thing to act upon it. I could sense that he was going through the same conflict.
He voiced this to me one day- his discomfort pertaining to the nature of his emotions towards me. That was the most difficult moment in our relationship. Until the moment the truth of our emotions had not dawned upon us, our relationship was effortless. There was no worry surrounding our relationship. However, the moment the emotions permeated consciousness, we were uncomfortable.
‘What is it I feel for this person?’
This was a question that troubled both of us. While we both loved each other’s companionship, we did not wish to long for more than companionship and complicate the scenario. And yet, the plane on which we related to each other in our interactions, made it easy to feel that way for each other. We related so effortlessly to each other that it was hard not to fall in love.
Eventually, the worry dominated the joy we derived from our companionship. He stepped back. He brought a deliberate distance between us. This was very uncomfortable because it took out the life from our conversations. When we chatted, we were both careful to keep the conversations rather formal. We would strip the conversations off their emotions and talk. We had to think before talking.
This process was so disturbing that I decided to step back a little further. And so, we distanced completely. We stopped talking to each other. I shifted my focus completely to my career. It was very hard initially because my interactions with J meant a lot to me. However, it was necessary.
Two years later, he texted me.
‘How are you, ma’m?’
I replied to him. We had a conversation.
‘I am so relieved. I feel so happy we spoke’, he said.
I smiled to myself.
Images from the past flashed in my mind.
J yawning in my first class.
Walking on the streets on moonlit nights, holding hands and talking about childhood memories…
Holding hands and running on the beach, the waves lapping up our feet…
Looking into his eyes when he sang for me- ‘Mere khayalon ke angan mein koyi sapnon ke deep jalaye’…
To this day, I have not found the right words to describe our relationship. For it was far beyond conventional definitions of relationships. It was a relationship where I was loved unconditionally. I could be a child, I could be a woman. I could be dishevelled and ugly. I could be immature and stupid, I could be mature and intelligent. I could be all that I was capable of being, without worrying about not being loved.
The relationship was less about us and more about all that we loved. It was always about the enchanting world in which we lived.
What was right? What was wrong? Was it wrong to hold hands and walk? Was it wrong to look into each others’ eyes and sing? Could somebody delineate the boundary between right and wrong? Where does one draw the line? I still do not know the answer.
However, what I do know is that in the realms of the mind, there are no barriers. I like to keep J as a beautiful perception and memory in my mind. And I am aware that he feels the same. That is all we both ask of life. And of love. There is nothing that we ask of each other in real life.
And that makes our relationship special.