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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