I remember the day Lillian Boog breezed into our class. Tall and willowy, her straight black shoulder-length hair and slanting black eyes accentuated her Indo-Japanese heritage, and her 1000-watt smile could dispel even the sombre Siberian gloom. My classmates and I were bewitched.
Lillian Boog scanned the classroom, and when her gaze fell on me, a warm peace floated up my navel. My shoulders relaxed, my limbs felt heavy, and I heaved a great sigh, as if I only then realized I’d been holding my breath. Her look filled me with serenity.
When I went home that day, I had interesting happenings at school to regale my mother.
"Ma, guess what? We have a new class teacher whom I’ve fallen in love with! I too want to speak English the way she does! And she looks so much like Zeenat Aman!"
"I’d love to meet her," my mother replied. Evidently she shared her impressionable daughter’s gushing admiration for this new person in her life.
In her first class Lillian Boog shared one of her favorite poems William Wordsworth’s The Daffodils. The sky was overcast and a gentle breeze wafted through the classroom window. We were already transported to the English countryside… She asked us to close our texts and just listen to her read the poem. We then reconstructed the poem with the help of word-images evoked by the poem. Although none of us had ever seen a daffodil, she recreated the beauty and character of the flower through interactive teaching. Poetry was so alive and sensuous. “A host of golden daffodils” never seemed more real. That very evening I memorised The Daffodils. Even today I can still rattle off the poem.
Lillian Boog knew the art of tailoring her teaching to learners’ requirements. Her greatest asset was her ability to level with us. For the first time, I met a teacher who considered herself a co-learner and who journeyed along with her students. We delighted at the nuggets of wisdom and knowledge we discovered along the highway of education. Her lack of intellectual snobbishness and an I-told-you-so attitude singled her out as a different teacher, despite the fact that she was just out of college and expected to conform to popular stereotypes. When she got to know us better, she disclosed that her father was a Japanese dentist who chose to live in Madras, a city in South India, after World War II, and her mother was Indian. She was exotica to her students.
I looked forward to Lillian Boog’s classes. As a teacher, she was a natural, and far ahead of her times. She believed in the centrality of the learner and thus drew the best from her students. We learned without being aware of it. She dared to cross boundaries of traditional teaching by encouraging independent thinking. She inspired us to express our opinions and tolerate those that were tangentially different from ours. Most of all she listened. She “walked the talk” and led through example. Her standards were high, but she never belittled a student who did not meet her expectation.
The whole class would wait with bated breath as she distributed our English test papers. She would call each student to her table and discuss the answers. She should praise us where we deserved it, and show us how to write better. She graded our papers with individualized comments that were perceptive and compassionate.
My paper would always be last. I guess it was her way of acknowledging me. When she called out my name, I tiptoed to her side with anticipation and excitement.
"Wonderful, my girl! "she exclaimed.
"Girls, let’s give a big hand to Nandini for the highest score – 70 percent. This is equivalent to 85 percent as I’m very strict in corrections."
Across my paper she had scrawled, "I'm proud of you, Nandini! Keep up your excellent work!"
I was speechless with joy. Secretly I resolved to raise my standards even higher next time. Lillian Boog was a reinforcer.
I bloomed in Lillian Boog’s class. Thanks to her mentoring, I discovered hidden talents—writing, quizzing, and debating. She spurred my love for reading, and we often discussed books that we both enjoyed. As an adult, I realize that this was the Pygmalion effect in action -- the expectations of significant others in our environment often motivate us to fulfill those expectations.
I lost Lillian Boog when she quit teaching because of personal reasons. Why did she leave without even saying “Good Bye?” I hoped that somewhere, sometime, I’d see her again… Later when I taught high school English, Lillian Boog was my role model. Today when former students tell me that I was a special teacher, I’m filled with a sense of déjà vu. Lillian Boog was my role model and I tried hard to live up to her example.
Towards the end of 2002, I came across an obituary that Lillian Boog’s mother passed away. My heart pounded as I scanned the familiar name over and over again. My eyes regressed over her name and I spelt it aloud to reassure myself that it was she. Could it be the same woman? My favourite childhood teacher?
I made my move—a phone call to Lillian Boog. Would she remember me? How should I introduce myself? As a starry eyed student who adored her as a child and still does so? What if she refused to meet me?
"Mrs. Boog? I’m Nandini… I was C.R. Nandini, your former student from the batch of 1976 at Church Park. Do you remember me?" I spluttered.
Her voice came across the line.
"Are you the girl with curly hair who used to sit in the front row?"
"The soft-spoken sensitive girl… are you still the same?"
The voice was unmistakable. Despite the intervening years, it had not lost its lilt and impeccable accent. Although she initially found it difficult to identify me by name, she soon fit in the missing pieces.
She plied me with questions.
"So what are you doing now? Where do you live? Are you in touch with some of your classmates?"
Lillian Boog suggested a reunion in Hotel Taj Coramandel in Chennai.
February 15, 2003, was a great day for me. I was excited as a new bride. Just as the river meets the ocean, I walked straight into her encompassing embrace. I gave her a bouquet of yellow roses—the nearest I could get to the daffodils. She looked as youthful and radiant as I had seen her the last time. Our conversation was natural and spontaneous. She told me that she had switched from teaching to a corporate career. The intervening years blurred into insignificance. It was yesterday once more.
When I apologised for tracking her, she remarked, "As we grow older we need to touch base, to reconnect. I too have done this many times."
Her words were wise as always.
I was overcome when she wanted me to autograph one of my published articles. As I scrawled across the page, I realised our roles had reversed. The teacher and the student merged in synergistic symbiosis.
I found Lillian.