Remembering My High School English Teacher

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(Photo from Facebook.)

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My high school teacher Mr. S. Deuri just passed away. This is my simple, brief tribute to his memory. I hope the thousands of students he taught over some thirty years find this little eulogy worth reflecting.

Swarnendu Deuri taught English prose and poetry at Scottish Church Collegiate School in Calcutta. He was a simple man. Like his peers, he was also grossly underpaid. You wouldn’t believe how little money they made back in those days. It was basically impossible to make ends meet with that salary, even though unlike today, expenses were much lower. Thus, when he retired perhaps in late eighties or early nineties, whatever pension the state government allowed to him was miserable. For twenty or thirty years, a gifted teacher and a superior human being like him lived in poverty. This is his story, but this is not just his story. I’ve known scores of teachers like him who were forced to live a very difficult life until their death, and their lifelong dedication to their professions was never truly recognized.

This is truly one of the saddest stories of today’s India. Dedicated teachers are forgotten.

But I don’t want to forget Mr. Deuri, whom we fondly called Deuri Babu Sir. Our Bengali medium school Scottish Church, a missionary school founded way back in 1831 by a Protestant educator during early colonial days, had some of the most brilliant teachers of our beloved city. In my memoir I’m now putting together, I’ve mentioned some of them: Shyamadas Mukherjee of mathematics, Nitya Sengupta and S. Maity of chemistry, Tarun Dutta of biology, Bijan Goswami and Amiya Roy of Bengali, Samar Kaviraj our game teacher who also first taught us progressive Bengali poetry, and then English-language teachers such as Reverend Santosh Biswas, our famous principal A. R. Roy, and of course, Deuri Babu.

Mr. Deuri was Christian, I remember. Shyamadas Mukherjee and Bijan Goswami were Hindu. It didn’t matter. To us, they all belonged to the same religion: humanity.

Each of these teachers, and many more, have enlightened us with their vast knowledge of the subject they taught. But the real reason I remember them is not because of their superior dexterity in teaching their subjects, but the way they dealt with us some of the smartest yet rowdiest students exploding with adolescent energy. These teachers awed us not with some other teachers’ frightening prowess to whip, whack or cane — skills that I also remember with horror, but their love, encouragement and inspiration. Mr. S. Deuri was a man I remember fondly for his exceptional skills to read our young minds, and harness our indisciplined energy into constructive studying and thinking.

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(Photo by Pradipta Ranjan Das, Scottish Church Collegiate School alumnus.)

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I’m going to tell you a story: a real-life story from my final year at Scottish Church School.

I was perhaps the class monitor (British relic where a student is handpicked or voted in to be in-charge of keeping fellow-students in control between the class periods). One morning, I arrived at school, and class friends told me that an unknown person wrote an obscene sentence on the black board, explicit that he wanted to have sex with the sister of one of our peers (Oh God, we thought!!). Nobody knew who wrote it, and yet, nobody had the courage to do anything about it. They were all waiting for Mr. Deuri to come in: he was our class teacher that year, and the first period was his English literature. As the class monitor (or a self-styled monitor, I don’t remember now), I knew I had some responsibility; yet, I did not want to erase the sentence off the board because then perhaps they’d put the blame on me. I carefully erased the most obscene word off the sentence and left the rest of it to be dealt with by our Deuri Babu Sir.

He came, saw it on the board, bowed his head and remained silent for half a minute, as if to decide in his mind what to do next. Then, he slowly lifted his head, and gently but firmly told us that it was some sort of a sexual perversion, and that we should never condone such behavior. That was the first time I heard the word perversion. We kept listening to him.

Unlike many other teachers we saw those days — both at home and school — he did not explode in anger. He did not curse. He did not swear. He did not stick out his cane (in fact, he never had one). He used a substantial amount of time from his literature period to tell us what brings out this type of obscenity in us, and how to control a public expression of such vulgarity.

We, including some of the rowdiest elements our school ever saw during those violent years, kept listening to him in complete silence.

We never had any sex education in our school life. Ours was an all-boys school, and not knowing girls until we entered college or university made our minds even more confused and cluttered with complexities especially about sex. India has not changed much over the years, and lack of education on sex and gender equality is a horrendous, nightmarish problem India faces today.

There are not too many teachers like Mr. Deuri who even now could keep their poise in an extremely tense situation, and help understand their students the difference between good and bad, and more importantly, critically analyze where the differences exist. With more teachers such as him at home, at school, at workplaces and in the society, India would be a much more intellectually advanced and modern place.

I would definitely remember Deuri Babu for his discussions of English literature. He taught us Robert Louis Stevenson and Shakespeare and Dickens and Robert Frost and Mark Twain and Browning and Keats and Wordsworth and Shelley. He taught us new words and phrases that I used all my life. He bragged to other students and teachers about some of us (including yours truly): I remember how happy he was about my précis-writing abilities.

But I shall truly remember him for his real genius of knowing our adolescent minds, and help us resolve our emotional complexities, in a kind, delicate, caring way.

I am going to miss him a lot.

Bowing One Last Time to This Wonderful Human Being,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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(Photo from Facebook.)

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21 thoughts on “Remembering My High School English Teacher

  1. Mr. Banerjee,
    Just finished your anecdote about Deuribabu. Truly speaking it landed on the shore of my heart. I feel really very proud to be a student of this glorious and heritage institution “The Scottish Church Collegiate School”. It makes me feel wonderful that, I am very much lucky to get a chance to study in this school where numerous stalwarts have studied, all of them who are One of the bests in their fields. We came to know about Deuribabu sir, in our school magazines and from our teachers, who were his students the then.
    The phase which you have depicted in your article, was the ‘Golden Period’ of our school. We were not so fortunate to get those legendary teachers. But the teachers who taught us were very much affectionate to us and they fondly cherished us, which will last like precious impression on our lives.
    Thank you for taking me back to those days and a big thanks to you, for using my photograph of the school building which was taken by me and posted on Facebook.
    Regards,
    Pradipta Ranjan Das
    (Madhyamik passout 2009, HS passout 2011, member of TSCCS Alumni Association)

    1. Thank you for writing. I did not know it was your photograph. I’m going to acknowledge it on my blog now. If possible, share the article with your friends and also on Scottish School’s Facebook page. Keep in touch.

      1. You’re most welcome. I took the opportunity to discuss larger issues, remembering how Mr. Deuri and those wonderful teachers tried their best to teach us important lessons of life. That is what we need to share among ourselves.

  2. Partha,

    Thank you for writing this. Very well written. I also have very fond memories of Mr. Deuri. A very simple but classy man…

    Pradip-da (1968 HS batch)

    1. Thank you, Pradip-da for reading and commenting. I hope you can share it with your Scottish friends. I got replies from two headmasters — one current and one previous. Makes me happy to write this little tribute.

  3. “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instil a love of learning.”
    – Brad Henry
    It is our dear Teachers who mould our character, our personality and show us the right direction in our Life. No other personality can have an influence more profound than that of a Teacher. Thanks to all who contributed to this obituary for a beloved Teacher.

    1. Thanks for writing. Yes, you’re right. Then, the next question is, WHAT are they teaching? Is it learning by rote the colonial-Indian way, or is it leaning how to think critically? We must answer that question now.

  4. Deuri Sir had a habit of narrating short stories to us in our “free periods”, one of which I remember still now. It was “The Machine Stops”, I have forgotten the author’s name. It described the predicaments of the human race sometime in future, when, after destroying nature on earth, human beings have taken shelter underground, and have lost the ability of doing the simplest of physical tasks due to over-dependence on machines. And one day, the machines stop working……..I was stunned by the idea in my boyhood days, way back in 1960’s. For someone sticking on to Bengali Literature only, our teacher kindled my curiosity about world literature, and thereafter I started gobbling up anything in English translation, whatever I could get my hands on. Thank you, Deuri Sir, or, may be these things are beyond any thanksgiving…..

  5. What a fine tribute to a wonderful, sensitive man! Though it may be said that he was “rich in teaching skills and in the admiration of his students,” the stress of having lived in poverty all his life is not counterbalanced.

  6. How can I forget the ‘Short Stories’ narrated by him and then engaging our minds to analyse the same…I consider myself lucky that we got him as our teacher…..
    – Subhadip Sengupta (1995 Madhyamik 1997 HS)

    1. Very nice to hear such nice comments from a fellow-student, although much younger. I hope you share it with your friends and colleagues. And then, maybe, organize a memorial for him in February, if possible. I’ll be there.

  7. Great to read such an eloquent tribute to a super teacher! Was a formal school and college teacher and English! Learnt from my students!Now as a rights person advocating sex ed in schools etc. We remain shrouded on this but children today know much too much if one can say that on this feel a gen gap allright!

  8. Its shocking. Yes we all will die one day. Still the news of Deuri Babu’s death is hurting me alot. What a teacher we had. I do share a lot of memories of him with my daughters. How calm he was, his slow and steady words ! And how we all fall in love with a literature just because of him ! May Deuri Babu’s soul rests in peace in heaven. I pray for him with a heavy heart

    1. Thank you for writing. The real shocking part is that he did not get his pension until a week before his death. School headmaster wrote him about it: that he tried to get it for him. I am sure he tried, and I’m not blaming him. But he still didn’t get it for many years after retirement. Maybe, because he didn’t bribe, or belong to a political party there. That is shocking.

  9. Kudos to all who remembered our Deuribabu Sir so fondly… these have busted the floodgates of my memory. Being one among the batch of Madhyamik’86, I had the privilege of being tutored by him, more so as I used to take private tuitions from this hoary teacher. His relentless encouragement and positive remarks about my abilities goaded me to take English as major. He heartily welcomed my decision to follow in his footsteps and a teacher of English language and literature.
    An incident comes to memory of an evening in 1985 where Sir revealed to us how a physician’s wrong diagnosis about his presumed cancer had robbed his peace of mind for the good part of a week till the result of tests done in that regard proved it to be a false alarm. We all were too horrified at the imprudence of the physician in question. Wish the February 2014 one were one such false alarm.
    RIP Sir in the abode of God.

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