By Sonali Kokra Sep. 05, 2019
After I flunked a dozen-odd kindergarten interviews, I was told by my parents that I’ll spend more time with my preschool tuition teachers – Julie Miss and Rosy Miss. I may not have learned my letters and my poems, but I learned something – and that something was imagination.
There are some of us whose greatest achievement from the age of five to 15 can be summarised in four odious words: “She has great potential.” The child who consistently underperforms, even though people around her are convinced of the existence of some latent volcano of potential just waiting to erupt.
I was that kid.
I was so decidedly that kid that if Amitabh Bachchan was to scornfully ask me, while showing off his abundance of wealth, “Tumhare paas kya hai?” I’d probably blurt out with throbbing emotion, “Mere paas potential hai.”
Let me take you through the journey of my fabled potential. It was born in the home of two sisters I will forever remember as Julie Miss and Rosy Miss. They were my preschool tuition teachers. And they found nothing odd about a toddler’s desire to marvel over the architectural wonders that are anthills, even as she found herself unequal to the task of counting.
Allow me to explain. Julie Miss and Rosy Miss entered our lives a few months shy of my mother’s 25th birthday. I was a little over two years old at the time, and uniquely gifted at perplexing my young parents on an almost daily basis. Where their firstborn was so obscenely obedient, she might well have been fashioned out of a feather plucked from an angel’s wing, their second (me) was a hellion come to life.
My sister was the kind of insufferable child who practised her reading and writing without being told twice and quietly played with her dolls after. By the time she was three, she had been accepted to all the schools my parents had applied for. As her younger sister, less than three years apart, it was assumed I’d follow in her footsteps. Except, by the time my second birthday whistled past, there was no telling whether my counting would start at one or five or nine. It would be another year before I’d finally get around to remembering that “a” was for “apple”, and another six months before I could successfully differentiate between apples and tomatoes.
No one was surprised when I flunked every last one of the dozen-odd miserable kindergarten interviews I was made to sit through; but mum was inconsolable. One school’s principal had even wondered aloud if I was mute, altogether. I’m told there was some talk about homeschooling and special schools, but eventually it was decided that I’d go to a local nursery for a year and continue being tutored by Julie Miss and Rosy Miss for next year’s interviews. I was to spend even more time with them every day.
And they found nothing odd about a toddler’s desire to marvel over the architectural wonders that are anthills, even as she found herself unequal to the task of counting.
It might sound like torture, but it was the best thing that could have happened to my childhood. Perhaps my mum instinctively knew that these two weirdly calm women were the best chance her strange daughter had at learning. I may not have learned my letters and my poems, but I had learned something — what that something was, she couldn’t put her finger on — in my four months with them.
That ephemeral something was imagination. I’ve always maintained that I get to live my dream of being a writer every day thanks to the unflinching support and encouragement I had from of my secondary school English teacher. She saw something I didn’t know I had, and took it upon herself to hone it. So I’ve always known, deep inside, the life-changing impact that a good teacher can have. And yet somehow, shamefully, I’d forgotten all about Julie Miss and Rosy Miss and their quiet acceptance of the confusing kid that I was without once making me feel like there was something wrong with me.
I eventually did get into a fancy school the next year, thanks to the twin powers of generous donations and connections, on the condition that I would repeat nursery so I could “catch up” with the other kids. But I continued being tutored by the two sisters for another three years. Most of my memories from that time are of scampering around the park next to their home, adopting a circuitous path to learning. There’s the time I spent weeks mesmerised by the meticulousness of worker ants as they went about building their “palace”. I remember the giddy delight I felt when Rosy Miss showed me pictures of the interlacing chambers and tunnels within, from a heavy, borrowed encyclopaedia. I remember Julie Miss wearing a different flower in her hair every day for a fortnight so I’d be inclined to remember their names and colours. I learned how to count only after they convinced me that Tuffy (their dog) communicated to humans through a set number of barks — four for water, five for food, and 10 for a walk.
Alphabets became my friends only when I realised that I’d need to learn them in order to write letters to my grandmother if she went on her vacation. The woman never took a vacation in her life, but it got the job done. In the three years I spent with them, Julie and Rosy Miss taught me how to read, write and count. But more importantly, they taught me kindness and curiosity, and imagination and empathy.
I went on to become a moderately successful student in school, to my parents’ eternal relief. I hovered close enough to the top to convince everyone of my “potential”, but not so close that it might be mistaken for any real inclination to shine. Every three months, I’d bring back a report card with a variation of the same message: “She has great potential, but needs to apply herself more.”
So much so that my unrealised potential became a recurring joke within the extended family. It never perturbed me as a child, but it definitely amuses me as an adult. As a child who, on being asked to colour a ball red, once asked her teacher, “Which one, rose red or earth red or mirchi red or Maruti (our car!) red?”, and came back with a remark in the diary for being oversmart and rude — which one of us needed to do more applying?
I remember both Julie and Rosy Miss laughing gleefully when I recounted the tale of my oversmartness. I was rewarded with a big bar of Five Star and taught three more shades of red — ruby, scarlet and brick. The memory still makes me smile. And I remember them every time I annoy people with my obsession with over-describing the hell out of everything around me. It’s made me a better writer, I think.
In a world filled with classrooms committed to the Darwinian process of weeding out the weakest, misfits like me need more teachers like Julie and Rosy Miss. Without them, the world would be a lot less colourful. In my case, literally.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.