A real teacher knows the art of luring her students with a story and keeping them engaged. She teaches her students while entertaining them. And the students too take a lot of interest in learning when they linger in the spell of a master storyteller.

What child is not fascinated by stories! The storyteller knows for certain that mere preaching is not teaching and that learning stems from the curiosity created. She also knows how the rightly chosen stories could play an effective role in educating people. It is the ancient way of imparting education. And this has proved cent percent successful.

Grandmothers, mothers and teachers everywhere tell stories to children when they are grown enough to listen. Jijabai metamorphosed her son Shivaji into a grand rebel by telling stories of valour and of the unconquered. She was certainly a best teacher.

Shahrazad of ‘One Thousand Nights and a Night’ told stories and through her stories she was able to metamorphose her husband, a blue beard, into a loving human being. She was certainly a good educationist. If these storytellers are not the best teachers where is teaching to be found? And is it not our duty to remember them to others especially when we are celebrating Teachers’ Day in our country?

On this day let me go down memory lane to remember the best teacher I had in my life. She was a student of my father, who was a good tutor and a hard task master. She told me that once he rapped her on the head so violently that she was unable to use a comb for months.

“Did you misbehave?” I asked her. “No!” She said. “No one can be inattentive when he coaches. If perchance one was, your father would kill one with his look.” She then added with a laugh, “I was punished for merely confusing tomato with potato.”

She taught me the alphabet, both Tamil and English, before I was sent to the village thinnai school. Her method of teaching was so appealing that I can clearly recollect her ways. She gave much importance to curves in the alphabet. “The curves…the curves,” she would instruct, “take care of them. And they will take care of your handwriting.”

She would take me to the backyard of the house, scoop a few handfuls of sand and flatten the mound to the size of a slate. She would then inscribe a letter beautifully and artistically on it, hold my forefinger in her hand and guide it along the curves of the letter.

I was instructed to continue practising for an hour or so. A little later, I was asked to place pebbles along the curves of the letter till I became quite conversant with the letter by writing it meticulously in the air. And, when I did, she congratulated herself by showering kisses on my bony brown cheeks.

She spared all her leisure for me. Quite often she played the elephant, and I was the mahout. She took me to the open terrace of the house and taught me kite-flying, which she herself loved so much. And at night, she suffocated me with informative, instructive, enlightening and enthralling stories – stories she had read and stories she had listened to as a child and retained in her memory, perhaps for me.

In those days she housed thousands and thousands of riddles in her head and astonished me with them. And when I felt sleepy, she put me on her lap and lulled me with her melodious lullabies.

She was so attached to me, for she had no other child to play with. It was she who made me love good food. I ate like a prince. By my father’s grace, I continue to do so.

At night she took me to the terrace and introduced me to the grand old dame in the moon, unwithered by age, cooking dosai there. How many stories and legends did she tell me about the granny and other strange beings on the moon? I have lost count.

When I began attending the thinnai school, she carried me on her hip and instructed the schoolmaster to give his whole attention to me. But the old man with his thick glasses never noticed me escaping into the paddyfield and then into the woods. I came back to school just a few seconds before the stroke of the closing bell.

The first few weeks went on like this, for I had nothing to learn in school. The old man was teaching only the alphabet, whereas I was able to spell out three-letter words, like ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘rat’, and four letter words, like ‘book’, ‘food’, and ‘love’.

Hence, the thinnai school master was below my standard and I cared a straw for his teaching. I listened to the songs the workers sang in the fields to break the monotony of their work, and tried to imitate their tunes in my own way. And above all I lent my ears to the warbling of birds.

One day I was caught. It was not the schoolmaster who caught me, but the best teacher I had in my life. “What are you doing here, when your friends are learning in the school?” she asked me, red with anger. I had no answer. I only blinked. At that age I knew no strategy. She grabbed me by my arm, dragged me to the teacher and yelled at him: “Why is this boy away from the class?” The school master shivered.

One of his faithful students came to his rescue. Just a couple of days before, I had punched his nose for stealing from my satchel the eggs I had stolen from a crow’s nest. He stood up and said: “He runs away like this every day. The moment our master turns to the blackboard to write, he disappears from the class.” With a whimper he added, “Please tell him not to punch my nose again.”

That evening she came to the school as usual to carry me home. But she didn’t speak to me even a single word. She was grim. That night she didn’t tell me stories, though she silently fed me with a sumptuous supper. She kept quiet to all the questions I asked. She punished me by her silence. I wept. Still in silence unbroken, she wiped my tears with the loose end of her sari. “Hereafter I’ll attend school regularly, though I learn nothing there. Please speak to me,” I cringed before her.

My first, best teacher didn’t budge. She was everything to me and her silence hurt me a lot. It was my habit to get up from bed only when she shook me out of sleep. When my eyelids parted, my eyes saw only the smiling fair woman. But unfortunately on the morning that followed the silent night, I woke up to see the fair woman with the usual smile missing.

“From today I won’t run away from school…believe me,” I said. But there was no smile, not even a single syllable of approval. She started preparing me for school. She carried me on her hip and my satchel on her shoulder. I was looking at her all the time, craving for a smile, if not a word. Obstinate woman! Her cheek muscles didn’t move and her lips didn’t part.

She left me in the classroom and looked daggers at the old schoolmaster. No sooner did she leave than he began to vent his insulted feelings on me. She took me home to lunch and carried me back to school. I was completely upset, for I found no smile on her face. I had never seen her with such a gloomy face, for she had been with me ever since I was born.

It was time for the home-going bell to ring. I saw her coming towards the school. The first swing of the bell made me rush towards her. She sat me on her hip. But there was neither a smile nor a word from her.

“I didn’t move out of school. I’ll never again run away from the class,” I broke the silence. She looked at me. She smiled. Her lips parted. I heard “good boy”.

I hugged her neck. She kissed me on my forehead. Silence gave rise to peace. After that great lesson, I never absented myself from any of the classes. I was present, at least physically. How could I ever afford to lose the smile and the words of my mother?