It is often cheering, indeed thrilling, for one to travel back to one’s past. And that is precisely what is happening to me today as I remember the days I spent teaching children and young adults in the years of my ambition-filled youth. Well, time goes by and youth goes fugitive. It happens to all of us. It has happened to me. But, like everyone else, I really wish I were young again. And why do I have that feeling? It has all got to do with the launch of my career as a teacher --- and I was a student of English literature at Dhaka University at the time.
And those were wonderful days. I remember the very first day I entered a classroom at Scholastica in early 1980, pretty nervous but trying desperately not to show it before those little boys and girls. As I began to speak to them, the door of the classroom flew open with a loud noise, as if a storm was raging outside. Within moments, the storm rushed in, in the shape of a student who had overstayed his time outside at recess. Looking sheepish, the boy asked me if he could come in (he was already in after that flying kick). I told him he could enter the classroom if he could demonstrate before his classmates that flying kick again, this time by going out of the classroom. He was properly contrite. Decades later, as I was taking a cool walk along Dhanmondi Road 27, a car screeched to a halt beside me and out stepped a young man, screaming, “Sir! Sir!” He came towards me, smiling beautifully. Suddenly he knelt and touched my feet, as passersby looked on. He was the student with that long-ago flying kick! I gave him a big hug, asked about his family and career. He told me he and all his schoolmates missed the times when I taught them. That was a defining moment.
In those days, a small group of friends (there were three of us, Javed Kareem, Shah M. Hasan and myself) did quite a good amount of tutoring children in the afternoon and evening, mostly around the Dhanmondi area. The good bit about it was that Dhanmondi Road 8 was also the place where the American Cultural Centre was situated. Between our tuitions, at different spots of course, we met at the centre, read a lot, flipped through all the information on education in the United States we could lay our hands on, before moving on to our next round of teaching in the evening. Those were times of idealism for us. The little boys and girls we taught have all grown into parents of wonderful boys and girls. Life has its own charms blossoming in different ways. As for Javed, he is with the Kuwait embassy in Dhaka and has done well for himself. Hasan always wanted to go to America, which he did in 1981. He is a happy man there, with a beautiful wife and a charming daughter.
I began teaching Spoken English at the Dhaka YMCA in early 1979 when I was finishing my honours studies at Dhaka University. It was purely a happy accident which took me to the YMCA. A couple of my teachers, both bright young men --- Khurshid Sir and Khwaja Moinul Sir --- introduced me to the YMCA people and the next moment I was a teacher. It was wonderful instructing people of generally my own age on the use of English in proper, formal conversation. To be sure, there were all the pitfalls as well. Once, when I asked a student about his year of birth, he confidently told me, “I born in 1963”. I corrected him, informing him of the place of ‘was’ in that sentence. He nodded his head in understanding. I then asked him about his father. This time, he was not willing to make any mistake. “My father was died”, he told me. That was most enlightening!
Being young and being a teacher carried for me some other charms or dangers, depending on how you look at it. There is the story of the teenaged girl who kept making mistakes in English but who nevertheless kept writing little love poems to me. For no rhyme or reason she would hang around wherever I was --- in the classroom, on the playground, anywhere. In the evening, as I walked by her house to tutor a student nearby, she would stand, with that love-struck look, on her verandah just to have a glimpse of me. Now, that was lovely, wasn’t it? And there is the tale of that other young woman at the YMCA who would turn up every day for classes even though she needed to be there only three days a week. She said she could not go through the day without seeing me!
My friends and I used to tutor foreign students based in Dhaka through their parents being diplomats or working for some international organizations. There was a wonderful boy I taught three days a week in Dhanmondi, near the spot where you have Medinova Hospital these days. The pay was good. Even better, the parents were exceedingly gentle and caring. One afternoon, having come from the university and having had no lunch (I planned on having a shingara or two at a restaurant nearby after the teaching was over), I began checking the homework I had given my student. At that point, his mother, a fine and beautiful and sophisticated woman, walked into the room and told me, “Mr. Ahsan, don’t go away after teaching. Have some soup with us.” Feeling diffident and yet tempted by the offer, I told her it wasn’t really necessary. Her answer was, “I insist.” Moments later, I was at the lunch table with the lady and her husband. The soup arrived and I was happy that at last something good was happening. Imagine my consternation, then, when the soup turned out to be lentil soup (patla daal), the same that we all had at home and almost always at the dining room of Mohsin Hall!
For a while I tried teaching English to a Korean woman whose husband was a diplomat at the South Korean embassy in Dhaka. She was young, she was shy, she was like a fairy straight out of a folk tale. One evening she and her husband asked me to stay back for dinner. The main item on the menu turned out to be rice which smelled unusually disturbing for me. I kept a cool exterior and asked them if that was the way they prepared rice. “There are many ways”, said the man, “and this is one of them.” I had two spoonfuls of it, decided I couldn’t take any more of it, told them I was really full from the heavy meal I had had earlier (which wasn’t true at all) and said goodbye. Then there was the time when the wife of the Egyptian ambassador --- and I was teaching their daughter --- treated me to some bitter black coffee one afternoon. Thereafter, every time I was there, the lady would ask me to take a break in teaching so that she could have coffee with me. And so there I was, gulping down the bitterness of the coffee even as I marvelled at the finely structured, almost chiselled beauty defining my hostess. I told her she reminded me of Jehan Sadat. She was thrilled.
Ah, my friends! Time flies, we get weather-beaten, bright afternoon gives way to grey twilight. And then comes the night which never again breaks out into dawn.