They had told me not to be worried and so I was. When I came out of the shower, that dress was on the bed. The one that I wore to get my picture taken when I had to get my passport made. “Smile, but don’t show your teeth, not your teeth, arre don’t stop smiling, but remember no teeth, you’re not helping the nice man with the camera,” my mother had shouted; I wore it to a dinner at my father’s club where the tikkas were too spicy, the conversations were too loud and nobody carried me in their arms when I wanted to fall off to sleep.
My mother parted my hair sensibly to one side and planted a kiss on my cheek. Powder puffed and pretty for my first meeting.
The mahogany desk loomed before me filling up my six year old vision. The florescent tube lights winked off the polished edges and my father hoisted me on one of the matching chairs. She sat across the same desk, a dark green sari printed with tiny pink, white and yellow flowers wrapped impeccably over broad shoulders and a matching dark green blouse, hands together, fingers crossed. She looked down over the rim of her glasses and smiled her effortless smile.
“Hello, How are you? ” she said. Her voice much like her smile was clear, deep and her accent was borderline British.
Blind panic that had been barging down the walls of my consciousness receded. The light that had been brazenly glinting off the pristine white tiles on her office floor suddenly dimmed to a soft glow and the fan that until a moment ago had been whirring noisily quietened in reverence to her voice. My father smiled at me expectantly and my mother implied with a look that I should respond to the greeting. And then, I started to bawl.
It was rough, being a border in the now defunct boarding school at St. Mary’s. I cried a lot, hated the discipline and most of all missed my parents. When I felt particularly miserable I would sit on the green benches outside her house and dwell in my childhood misery, waiting for her to make her trip back to her office after lunch, seeing her reminded me of the first time I met her, when my parents had handed over the baton of my responsibility into her hands. I felt safer and closer to home simply by watching her. Her shoulders were always military straight, and her walk, though slow was purposeful. Hordes of girls in blue pinafores would leave their lunch time revelry, games of “Saakli” or “Hide and Seek” and run towards her to wish her a good afternoon. She would smile and reply sometimes, and sometimes a silent, thoughtful nod sufficed. The fear that I felt as a six year old was now a mixed with the wonderment of seven year old. How one person could inspire such a mix of emotions, I will never be able to fathom.
Our morning assembly was the school’s daily tryst with Mrs. Matthew and my ingrained a fear of dirty canvas shoes, unpolished black shoes, lost hymn books and awry ties (things that were checked by the house prefects when we entered the hall) came from there. Even though the purpose of it all was to make sure that we were in full uniform for another day of school, I was always associated it with having my hair parted and combed that day by my mother. We were entering hallowed halls of education, and Mrs. Matthew was our high priestess.
I never knew her as an English teacher, but I remember the assembly in which she pointed out the careless scrawl on the notice board that had misused the word “practise” and gave the entire school an impromptu lesson in the difference between “practise” and “practice.” The respect that we, as Mary-ites, have for the English language, written and spoken was a direct result of her endeavors. Maybe that’s why us Mary-ites are known as snobs, Mrs. Matthew set our standards high, and nothing less than that is acceptable.
And in spite of her busy schedule, her multiple responsibilities as a role model to 3000 little girls, one day during her daily walk, she called out to me and asked me how I was doing in Math, I was flabbergasted. No, I was not doing very well, I didn’t like it at all, but I was trying very hard and would continue to do so. She nodded and smiled.
“That’s what I want to hear, think of it as a story, something you’re being taught in English class, and it will become easier.”
How did she know that I was doing badly at Math? How did she know I was doing well in English? She just knew, because even though under her the school went from the enrollment count of 840 to 2700, Mrs. Matthew knew what was going on in with every single one of us. With one look, she could quarter you down to size, or she could give you the reassurance and encouragement you needed.
When the decision was made to close the boarding section of St, Mary’s down in 2000, she called me to her house one evening. I did not like the idea of leaving the lush gardens, the simple sunsets over the basketball court, the smell of lichens on the massive trees in campus when it rained and the “SMS” in ornamental stone by the front gate that made my chest swell with pride. I did not want to leave my friends, my teachers, and my safe haven. Most importantly, I did not want to leave behind, Mrs. Matthew, the embodiment of the past 10 years of my life, and the picture of the ideals that I wanted to encompass when I grow up.
“You will continue to pursue your writing, yes?” the same deep clear voice that asked me how I was 10 years ago.
The farewell was brief and unsatisfactory.
As I write this, I realize that this is the story of so many others, the thousands of girls, who under her watchful eye and easy smile had gone on to take their place in the world. I consider my experience no different from anybody else’s. So —
Thank you Mrs. Matthews, for taking the hands and for sowing the seeds of flowers of many hues in our minds. You will forever remain our teacher, our guide and our inspiration.