The relationship between teachers and students in America doesn’t cease to amaze me, not even after six semesters of classes here.
In India, we have a saying: “Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo, Maheshwaray.” In essence, it translates to how one who imparts knowledge is God. I grew up listening to stories of great courage and ardor from my grandmother. One story was about an excellent archer, Ekalavya, learned archery simply by watching his master teach his other disciples. When his Master realized that Ekalavya had learned his skills, he desired the thumb of Eklavya’s right hand as a fee. Without hesitation, Eklavya sacrificed it and became crippled for life, never again able to use the bow and arrow. This is the Indian heritage and respect for teachers. Teachers, we believe, not only impart knowledge, but also shape a student’s identity.
But we are in the 21st century now. I am no longer in the crowded classrooms of Bombay with more than 100 students in a class, where I was just another roll-number. But to find myself in a small class where my teacher actually knows my name and a lot more about me – it is different. The education system in India is funny. We aren’t taught to think for ourselves. Although I was able to enchant my non-Indian friends with my mathematical prowess and knowledge of the eastern world, I didn’t know who Oedipus was. I did not know what my views on war and peace were either. Of course, I was only 17 when I came here and strictly speaking only for myself. I felt as if I was learning the ABCs that my non-Indian friends already knew.
Ironically, coming from a country which holds education and teachers in such high esteem that stepping on a book makes us ask for forgiveness, because books impart knowledge, I never really believed that a teacher could actually shape a student’s identity. My biggest shock was that many Americans called their teachers by their first names. I was shocked at the casualness, and how students fought for their grades and dared to have an opinion different from their teachers. I was appalled when in one class a student insulted our teacher in front of everyone. Did American students have any respect for their teachers?
Yet, I was amazed to realize I had the right to not agree with my teacher over something if I chose to. I was amazed my race teacher actually wanted to hear what I thought about religion. That my law teacher went out of her way to help me settle into class, knowing I had just come in from India and how what American students took for granted was new to me. I was surprised beyond words when my former journalism teacher went out of his way to help me get internships, and constantly motivated me through the thick and thin. Even in Rome, I was amazed when my art history teacher saved news clips about India for me.
Going back to India for vacation two years back, my law teacher, who was visiting India, stayed with my family for a few days. It was an honor for us and we felt very special. That’s when I realized the subtle, yet huge difference in the relationship between teachers and students in America. Here, the relationship is more personal. My teachers in America were introducing me to the world and more importantly, to myself. I was Jinal. And they knew this Jinal. I wasn’t roll No. 78, relegated to the last benches, just another face in the crowd.
Often, I smile at the blissful ignorance of my non-Indian friends. It’s something they take for granted that I wake up in joy to everyday. The fact that my teacher cares gives me a reason to count my blessings and not regret coming to America. While it is still difficult for me to address my teachers with their first names, I’m not sure if I want that to change. What can I say? I have the best of both worlds.
Jinal Shah can be reached at email@example.com.