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The Teacher Who Changed My Life

By Colonel K THAMMAYYA UDUPA (Retd)
Last updated on: September 05, 2022 08:32 IST
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'On this Teachers Day, I once again bow my head as I remember all the teachers who had taught me in school, college, military academy, army courses and so on.
'But Ms Shantha Potty Aunty, this one more head bow is specially for you.' says Colonel K Thammayya Udupa (retd).

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
 

Ms Shantha Sankaranarayan Potty joined our school as a Mathematics teacher when we were on the verge of a changeover from the Senior Cambridge system to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) system.

Although for us, at the middle school level such a changeover should not have mattered much, the universal reluctance to change did take its toll on some of us.

One of the factors which caused much consternation amongst us was when we learnt that CBSE Mathematics was not just Mathematics, but 'Modern Mathematics'.

It was in such circumstances that Ms Potty started teaching us Mathematics.

Soon we realised how wrong we had been in getting caught up in the fear mongering about Modern Mathematics.

Soon, Ms Potty became a highly respected teacher of Mathematics in our school.

She was a no-nonsense teacher, absolutely focussed and not given to any attempts to get cheap popularity amongst the students.

Her ability to make a subject like Mathematics popular amongst the students endeared her to all of us.

She had the reputation of being very fair, highly conscientious and clinically methodic.

In short, an ideal teacher.

Mathematics has never been an easy subject for a large cross-section of the schoolgoing students.

It is a common practice for many such students to take private tuitions to supplement the learnings from the regular classes.

It is also a common practice for many school teachers to supplement their regular income by taking private tuitions after school hours. But Ms Potty was not in that mould.

Yet, she had an open house for the students who would drop in to request her to clear their doubts.

Ms Potty commanded immense respect across all classes and even amongst students who did not take up Mathematics in the higher classes.

I remember an incident, though not the exact context, when while explaining something she concluded, "I will not wish this even for my enemy" and with the chalk she had in her hand, went back to the blackboard and started writing on it again.

One voice from amongst us piped up, "Ma'am, do you even have any enemies?"

It was a genuinely innocent question. After all, how could a teacher with the persona that she had, have any enemies?

There was pin-drop silence in the class when the hand on the blackboard stopped writing.

"Who said that?" Ms Potty asked, her face still on the blackboard.

"I...", said our classmate who wearily raised his hand and even got up gingerly, not sure what to expect.

Ms Potty turned around to see who it was.

For the first time we saw her smile in class. Actually she was beaming!

She quickly turned back again to continue from where she had left off on the black board.

All this happened in quick time and there was lot of grace in her actions which further enhanced our adulation for her.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

As a mathematics teacher Ms Potty was a star and we idolised her.

But there was a problem.

I was the only one having the problem.

I have always been extraordinarily respectful towards anyone who has been my teacher.

The accomplished teacher that she was, for me Ms Potty was placed on the highest pedestal.

I was probably her biggest fan, because of her ability to take the drudgery out of mathematics.

Then what was the problem?

My performance in mathematics was like that of any other average student. So this was not a problem.

My overall behaviour in school was also like that of any other average student. So even this was not a problem.

The problem was that Ms Potty and her husband Mr L Sankaranarayan Potty were close friends of my parents.

In my warped manner of thinking as a young schoolboy, I could never imagine a revered teacher in an informal setting, like coming over to our house on a social visit to interact with my parents.

One evening, when Ms and Mr Potty visited our home, for the first time after she had become my mathematics teacher, I was out playing with my friends.

When I was almost home, I saw their vehicle parked in front of our gate.

I quickly retraced my steps and made myself scarce from there only to return home a good quarter of an hour after they had left.

My fidgety response to my parents' queries about the delay in returning home did not go unnoticed.

The next day when Ms Potty asked me in school about my absence from home the previous evening, I muttered something sheepishly.

But it did not become an issue, neither with my parents nor with her.

It became an issue the next time they came home. Unfortunately, I was in my own room and not playing outside when I saw them alighting from their vehicle and opening the gate.

I left whatever I was doing and just scampered out from a rear door and was nowhere within earshot of my parents for the next two hours.

When I returned home, well after the guests had left, I was taken to task by my parents.

I had no justification for my behaviour. In fact I was soundly admonished that such behaviour was an insult not just to them as parents, but also to the guests.

The next day in school, I was with my head down when my most respected teacher, Ms Potty chastised me for absconding from home the previous evening.

Thus, I had been collared not just by my parents but even by Ms Potty for my strange behaviour whenever they visited us.

The next time they came home, I knew there was no further possibility of escape.

So, after they had been welcomed by my parents and a few minutes after they had settled down, I stepped into their presence, cautiously.

"Good evening, Uncle", I said, my voice trembling, looking at Mr Potty.

"Good evening, Ma'am" I muttered, my voice almost cracking, without looking at Ms Potty.

I did not wait for a response from either of them and quickly went back to my room after marking my attendance.

I heard Mr Potty, a person with a ready wit, commenting, "I am Uncle, but she is not Aunty" followed by laughter from all four elders present there.

Later that night, after they had left, my parents put me through what then seemed to be like an inquisition.

They were by now seriously concerned about how strangely I had always behaved when Ms and Mr Potty were at our place.

They found my actions erratic, more so because there was nothing so abnormal with me when others would visit us. I too had no cogent explanation.

All that I could manage to say was that I found it odd to see my teacher, who I saw in my school and in my class everyday, at home.

What to talk of my parents, I myself was not convinced by my defence.

Amma asked me, "But why did you not address her as "Aunty" today? Here she was not with us in her role as your teacher, but as our close family friend."

This is where I blew my top. "What? Address her as "Aunty"? How can I address her as "Aunty"?

"Do you know, she is amongst the best teachers I have ever seen so far?

"And you want me to call her "Aunty"? Never. She is my teacher".

This response helped my parents rationalise my behaviour so far.

They realised that in my mind a respected teacher was on a much higher pedestal than an aunt. And it was disrespectful to address such a person in any other way.

It was this analysis which helped them to declutter me.

They reminded me that the presence of Ms and Mr Potty at our home had no connection with my school.

I was aware that my parents really enjoyed their company, more so, because they were probably the only other family in our town with whom the conversation would be in our language, Tulu.

Ms Potty and Amma were very close to each other, more like sisters.

"She is your teacher in school and I am very happy that you respect her so much. But here she is my younger sister. How are you supposed to address my younger sister?

"Nobody is asking you to address her as "Aunty" in school. But here anything other than "Aunty" is improper."

When Ms and Mr Potty visited us the next time, it was "Good evening, Uncle", and "Good evening, Aunty", just to keep my parents happy, though personally I felt highly embarrassed and ashamed to address a teacher of Ms Potty's stature as "Aunty".

It was only after leaving school that the formal way of addressing her came to an end and she has remained "Aunty" ever since.

The credit for my lifelong love for mathematics goes to her. I remember, she had introduced me to Calculus, both differential and integral, weeks before she taught the same to our class.

We had a Young Mathematicians club in school. I was lucky she taught me binary arithmetic which was not then in the curriculum, for preparing a chart as part of this club activity.

It was the strong foundation in mathematics provided by Ms Potty that the subject remained one of my favourites when I was in engineering college and even when I was pursuing MBA, for courses like Quantitative Analysis, Operations Research and Project Management.

Whenever I was bogged down by some problem, I would always go back to the first principles she had taught me.

I would often tell myself, "Maybe Ms Potty Ma'am (oops... Aunty) would have solved it this way, maybe she would expect me to approach this problem this way..."

IMAGE: 'On 27 September 2019 a student finally had the opportunity to sit at the feet of his respected teacher,' says Colonel K Thammayya Udupa with Ms Shantha Potty in the background. Photograph: Kind courtesy Dr Sandhya Aletty

After I joined service the occasions to meet her were few and far between. But, thanks to my parents, I would get regular updates about Ms and Mr Potty and their brilliant children Dr Jayashree and Mr Manohar Moorthy.

It was only in September 2019 that I got an opportunity to visit Ms and Mr Potty, in Bengaluru where they have now settled down.

It was only then that I was able to check off a longstanding item on my wish list -- to sit at the feet of Ms Potty, my Teacher, my Aunty.

On this Teachers Day, I once again bow my head as I remember all the teachers who had taught me in school, college, military academy, army courses and so on.

But Ms Shantha Potty Aunty, this one more head bow is specially for you.

Colonel K Thammayya Udupa (retired) is a B Tech (Electrical) from KREC (now NITK) Surathkal. He was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers (The Bombay Sappers) in December 1982. He commanded a RAPID Engineer Regiment and took premature retirement from the Indian Army in April 2007.
Post retirement he served in the Indian Institute of Management-Indore.
He lives in Udupi-Manipal and can be contacted at ktudupa@gmail.com

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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Colonel K THAMMAYYA UDUPA (Retd)