A Tribute to a Teacher

Oct 27, 2005

Several years ago, I was at the 50th birthday party of a friend. To open the party, he asked everyone a simple question: "Which teacher has changed your life?"

Everyone eagerly responded with memorable stories. Some couldn't decide between two teachers, so they gave two stories. And then when it was the birthday boy's turn, he wiped a tear from his left cheek and said, "Today, I want to announce that I'm changing careers. I'm going to be a teacher." Most of the people in the room knew that the 50-year-old man in front of them had tested positive for HIV; by now, most also knew that teachers change the world, one life at a time.

Today I learned that one of my most influential teachers passed away.

Chandraben, as we called her, was the principal of Amrit Jyoti where I studied from Kindergarten to 7th grade. Together with Bhartiben, Chandraben founded this holistic school after studying educational systems around the world. Back when I was at that school, it was new, small and unwavering in its values.

In a country where the focus is on getting the highest marks on a few set of standardized tests, Amrit Jyoti radically stood strong for a well-rounded education. We had 32 subjects, I think, ranging from cookery to horse-riding to gymnastics. Music was given as much importance as Maths, elocution competitions were a part of English class, we learned three languages simultaneously (and Sanskrit starting in 6th grade!), and meditation and yoga were subjects on which we were graded. There were no set fees for the school, either; people paid according to their family's income. But perhaps the most radical concept at the time, though, was absolute parity between the guys and girls. I remember knitting a cap (I still have it!) just as I remember doing push-ups on my knuckles with my female classmates in Taekwando classes.

Amrit Jyoti was fun, but it was also a lot of hard work. From early morning hours to late evening, we were constantly occupied (and pushed). Our tests were difficult, standards were high, and a strong but healthy sense of competition was always there. And some of the principles were non-negotiable. When I secured a very difficult berth in the national roller skating championship, the principals flatly rejected my proposal to adjust the upcoming exams. I'm not sure I still agree with their decision, but their commitment to their values was admirable.

Most students were scared of Chandraben. In fact, I remember some boys talking about how it was impossible to look at her bright, big eyes without squinting. One day, I was determined to not look away when I saw her, so when I bumped into her next to the water stand on the second floor, I squarely looked in her eyes as she looked into mine. It was strange but my eyes started watering, as if I was just staring at the Sun. Whether it was the respect we maintained for the position of the principal or whether it was something else, I don't know, but she had an uncanny sense of power about her.

Of all the bold new avenues that Amrit Jyoti students had access to, my favorite ones were the assembly sessions. At that time, I didn't know how Websters defined "assembly" but for me it was a time when the principals called all the students in and talked to us about spiritual topics. I used to love thinking about those things (and I suppose I still do :)). In fact, my classmates would still brand me as the guy who asked all these "life" questions; after reaching the United States, in my first letter back to the class, I asked 'em to send me the "assembly notes"! I still remember one question I never quite asked Chandraben, because I thought it was too silly: "If you do meditation with your eyes closed, how is that different from sleeping?" :)

Technically speaking, Chandraben was never my teacher. But it isthrough the creative genius of Amrit Jyoti's values that I seeChandraben's contribution to my life journey. For example, I don't remember how late I stayed up for my Algebra exam, but I still recollect the late night I spent on painting my "Fun-N-Games" poster for a school stall. I don't remember any of my teachers' outfits, but I still vividly recall the tie I wore for "Teacher's Day" when it was the students who conducted all the classes. I don't remember attending many religious ceremonies, but I very easily remember that Chandraben would always ask me (a 10 year old kid) to do the 'havan' (fire ceremonies) for the school.

Thank you, Chandraben. I wouldn't be the same person without your labor of love, Amrit Jyoti.

Our class at Amrit Jyoti is still in close contact with each other. Everyone has taken different routes, but whenever we do something good, we often find ourselves joking, "I still have a little bit of Amrit Jyoti in me." Some say those pure values were lost in the bureaucracy of managing institutions, but if that ever happened, it must've been after I left the school in 1987. For me, Amrit Jyoti will always stay an A+ and for me, Amrit Jyoti will always have shining exemplars in Chandraben and Bhartiben, two women who dedicated their entire lives (choosing not even to marry) to the service of young journeys.

Last February, as I was shuttling to an airport exit, I bumped into two ladies for two minutes. It was Chandraben and Bhartiben, my two principals whom I hadn't seen in decades. Nature afforded me one last chance to say thank-you. I am so glad I took it.


Thank you, Chandraben. I bow to your spirit that manifested in Amrit Jyoti, I bow to your lifetime of service for young minds, I bow to your wisdom in planting saplings in fertile hearts that will bear fruit for years to come. Wherever you go, may you find the boundless joy that you shared with so many of us.

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