[4 MINUTE READ] The long journey of a small gesture
I was an ordinary student in school. More than praise or punishment, what I experienced was a comforting anonymity.
There was an English teacher who taught me during my last four years at school. His name was Joe Sheth. A well-dressed chain smoker, unflappable and charming to the lady teachers. I would watch him in casual banter with them during the school assembly, admiring his other worldly confidence. Removed from the uncertain maze of chattering corridors, immune from the confident sneers of the insecure, he stood within his own effortless game.
During a race on sports day, the front runner slowed down on the home stretch and gestured to his friend to catch up so they could breast the tape together. It led to a commotion at the finish line. The spirit of competition had been undermined before a large and impressionable audience. While a posse of indignant teachers lectured two tired and confused friends on the field, Joe Sheth watched with a wry smile, as the eternal conflict between the ignorance of youthful rebellion and the wizened fears of the tamed played out.
He had no wisdom to share. No ideas to give. He was not a nurturing guide. He was witty, enigmatic and detached. A natural role model for most adolescents.
During our 10th standard midterm exams, the English paper included a choice on writing about a memorable summer holiday or the meaning and purpose of religion. I took the rare chance at a school exam to write something not drawn from books but from my own observations. The only line I still remember from that essay is the opening one written with the image of a temple in my mind.
‘Religion is like a pillar. We take its support when we lose our balance’.
I spoke about the beliefs and rituals that underpinned daily life in my home and the anchoring effect they provided to my family amidst the fluidity and fragility of each passing day. Of the inevitability of our fears and the need for faith in the mystical to rise above them. It was a warm and quiet conversation with myself.
Once back from vacation, on the day of our English class Joe Sheth walked into the classroom and took a seat at his desk. He picked out one of the essays from the answer papers and said it was something he had to share with the entire class. Forty faces perked up with curiosity and expectation. He did not mention whose essay it was but began reading it out with his usual flourish and panache.
A surge of energy swept through my body as I realised that he was reading out my essay. As I type these words more than three decades later, I can still relive that soaring feeling in my heart.
He read slowly, pausing to look up at the right places to let a point sink in and taking the right lines up to a crescendo that heightened their impact. At the end of what sounded like his operatic rendition of my essay, he sent a brief nod in my direction, concluded his discussions on the answer papers and got on with his class.
In the span of a few minutes, he cracked open a window for me into another world. Where I could allow a central aspect of my own nature, which didn’t seem to have much tangible value, to build roots and find its voice. As time fills the space between that moment and today, the remnants of that small but significant gesture by my teacher on my life remain.
To discover and acknowledge the intuitive nature in each child is the privilege of a rare teacher. This seeds a natural cycle of learning that does not rely on external competition but on the much larger canvas of self-acceptance and introspection. The outside world can be understood, when we first understand ourselves.
I remain an ordinary student of life. How much I learn, how well I love or how simply I live – remain as unexceptional as my class rank. Useful for others to judge how well they can get along with me but of limited use when left to oneself.
There is much about the world and my life that I don’t understand. With age one assumed this would change, but it is not entirely true. The things we are more aware of might change, but an ignorance towards what unifies it all remains.
We can live our lives in search of answers. Or we can live it letting go of the endlessness of questions. How we choose depends on how much we trust ourselves. And the smallest things can build that confidence. Like the acknowledgement of an essay perched amidst old entangled memories, that enabled me to first listen to a voice within me. Gave me the courage to earnestly question convention and its false ideas of who I was and why I am here.
Joe Sheth died young, more than two decades ago. But the enduring influence of his small gesture on my life reminds me, that long after we are gone, the light imprint that we leave on the lives of others continues to nurture the human spirit in ways that are hard to imagine.