Teachers who stick to a syllabus bore me to death. I have always enjoyed being taught by teachers who didn’t mind crossing boundaries and trespassing into other subjects. Arithmetic mingling with geography, history with chemistry, or, for that matter, English literature taking a u-turn into physics. Teachers who lead you that way are eccentric for sure, but I am quite convinced that they are the ones who make learning a gloriously enjoyable experience.
I am reminded in particular of my English teacher in school. He made us read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and while he was teaching that book, he introduced us to events leading to the French Revolution in magnificent detail. It was not clear whether he was teaching European history or English literature. And we thoroughly enjoyed all this, especially so since he didn’t stop with the French Revolution. Soon enough we were learning about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his retreat from Moscow. Needless to say, we used to look forward to his classes, for each class exposed us to ever new surprises. And the surprises didn’t remain confined to history alone. They bordered sometimes on sci-fi as well!
“Do you know what an atom is?” he asked us one day in the middle of his lecture.
Some of us knew, some didn’t. So, he went on to explain the basic structure of an atom, telling us what neutrons, electrons and protons were. He described how sub-atomic particles revolved around a nucleus at unimaginable speed even as the physical body that was made up of the atoms, like the black board for example, clung to the wall betraying not a single sign of any movement.
The students stared at him in puzzled silence.
“You see, an atom is a bit like the solar system. The sun in the middle and the planets circling it ever so restlessly. But you and I continue with our lives without bothering about such matters. Yet, we are continuously seated on a gigantic ferris wheel! Isn’t that surprising?”
We nodded our heads vigorously. True indeed, how stupid of us. But then he went on.
“Is it possible though that the solar system is merely an atom, one amongst endlessly many that are sticking together to make up some colossal structure?”
We scratched our heads.
“Well, look at the black board. It is merely a collection of endlessly many atoms and each atom has a queer resemblance with our solar system. Let’s put together trillions of these solar systems and may be they will begin to look like a solid body. Perhaps like a stone on a ring worn by yet another super-gigantic creature. An infinitely large brobdingnagian individual, who loves his ring, but doesn’t know that there are nano beings living somewhere in his ring. He has his life to lead with no idea at all about the love and hate that keeps us busy as well.”
We listened to him open mouthed and stared back at each other. Some smiled stupidly.
He suddenly raised his voice several decibels and came up with an even more dramatic possibility. “Suppose by accident, some of these subatomic particles crash against one another. They are circling at such immense speed that the atom might explode. Right?” He smiled.
We nodded vigorously once again.
“An atomic explosion of sorts! What will happen to the black board if such an explosion were to occur? It will disintegrate into splinters. No?”
Yes, that did look like a possibility, however absurd.
“And what will you do with the blackboard if such an incident were to take place? You will have it thrown away. You will have no use for it, right?”
Yes, of course, a splintered blackboard should be quite useless in a classroom, we agreed.
“But now, suppose such an accident occurs in our solar system.” He said this and waited for our reaction.
We didn’t react. We were quite dumbfounded.
“Well, an atom in the giants ring stone would have exploded, thereby destroying the stone altogether. The giant will be puzzled for sure. Why did the ring disintegrate? he could wonder for a while. Then, since he has other important work to do, he will not worry too long about the broken ring. He will simply take the ring and throw it away. Just as you said you will throw the blackboard away. Right?” He came up with a stage whisper as we continued to remain spellbound.
This sci-fi story has stayed back with me for a long, long time. I think it was 1958 when I heard this imaginary tale.
I have often told you about this teacher. His name was Utpal Dutt, one of the best stage cum cine actors India produced. Only few know how good a teacher he was too, before changing his profession.
I have no doubt in my mind that it was he who inspired me to take up teaching as a profession.