I’m reposting this essay to correct last week’s spacing problem.
Can a teacher who is deficient at her subject be a lasting positive influence? We’ve all encountered experts who do harm. I had two science teachers who were knowledgeable in their field but who taught so badly, one even sadistically, that I still approach science with dread. But I was influenced for the good by a teacher who was unskilled in her field.
In 1968, when my family moved from England to Connecticut and I coincidentally lost my vision, the education of blind students in public schools was a new development. In Darien, I was the only such student, which was typical of the other towns in Fairfield County. An itinerant teacher was hired to travel from town to town to assist blind students in gaining adaptive skills and to transcribe tests and essay questions from print to braille. In the memoir I’m writing, I depict the first itinerant teacher who filled that role. To avoid overcrowding the memoir with characters, I don’t mention that by my high school junior year, the Fairfield County workload became too much for one person and a new one was assigned to Darien. Something of this second itinerary teacher’s story deserves to be told.
I first met Mrs. Supna Bell (as I’ll call her), when she arrived at our house wearing a sari, as Mum told me afterwards. She gave me a soft-spoken greeting and gently but firmly shook my hand. Teenagers are hopeless at guessing the ages of adults, but I thought she was under thirty. Though she had normal vision, she told us she’d been raised at a school for the blind in India because her father was the headmaster. I don’t remember, if I ever knew, why she came to America. She was married to an American, but I don’t know whether her marriage happened before or after her decision to emigrate. She spoke perfect, American-accented English, but again, I don’t know how that came to be.
Unfortunately, her braille skills were poor, and she made errors transcribing test questions from print to braille. I was a slow braille reader, so mentally correcting her errors made me even slower, and they distracted me from concentrating on the tests. Once in a while, an error of hers made a question incomprehensible. I’d complain bitterly to my mother. But when Mrs. Bell stopped by our house to drop off a test or go over something with me, she had such a gentle way about her that my annoyance dissipated. At the beginning, I’d point out the errors, and though she stayed calm, I could tell she was mortified. In time, to spare us both, I’d only ask her about errors that affected my ability to comprehend a question.
But there were more important reasons to remember Mrs. Bell.
One afternoon I asked her about Kamala Markandaya’s 1954 novel, Nectar in a Sieve. The novel depicts a woman starting out in rural India as she progresses through marriage, infertility, a cure, how she bears numerous children, how she and her family go from one disaster to the next, and how they arrive in a city where the string of disasters just goes on and on.
Sitting next to Mrs. Bell at the big desk in the room my family had set aside for me, I asked, “Can a life be so bleak from beginning to end? Surely, every life has its redeeming moments, its ultimate vindication.”
Mrs. Bell said, “Yes, I think it is possible for a life in India to be very bleak.”
I hear her soft-spoken answer even now. I doubted any other teacher would have responded so starkly. A history teacher might have talked to me about how poverty is in the process of being eradicated, about the impact of colonialism, and so on. Another teacher might have assured me there is always hope. Yet a third would have reminded me a novel is fiction, an impression, not a factual rendering. Many subjects in high school are difficult, but the responses teachers give their students are fundamentally the same: To every question, there is an answer; to every problem, a solution. So it is beyond high school. A newspaper review of a book about politics and society will praise the author for explaining the problem, but then criticize her for failing to prescribe solutions.
As recent books have revealed (for example, India at War, by Yasmin Khan) famine and dislocation at the time Markandaya was writing had been aggravated by harsh measures instituted by the British during the recently concluded Second World War. Before leaving her home country, Markandaya had observed first-hand this unfolding misery in southern India. By the time I knew Mrs. Bell, in the early seventies, India had been independent and making its own decisions for more than two decades, but life was still hard.
It angered me that Markandaya offered her characters no prospect of relief from exploitation and misfortune. Dutiful product of my education, I needed there to be a remedy. What was the point of a novel whose subject was unrelenting suffering?
Living in middle-class America, Mrs. Bell was no longer part of the India depicted in the novel (if she ever was), but she wasn’t above it, either. Her response to my question told me she could feel sad without letting anger seep into that sadness.
I never lost that urge to fix things. It’s why I spent my entire twenty years as a lawyer in public service. Tellingly, Mrs. Bell also chose the path of public service, in her case by assisting blind students. While she could appreciate Markandaya’s novel, in her actions, she was the anti-Markandaya.
I don’t mean to suggest we should shrug our shoulders at other people’s problems. My education in public schools and the assistance I received from state agencies for blind people convinced me of the necessity of the organized action that only government can undertake. But I came to respect Mrs. Bell’s acceptance that not all suffering comes to an end, that for many hope is absent. It is an attitude of humility. Denial of the limits of our powers to solve all problems led to the cruelty of the Victorian workhouse and the communist purges.
Looking back, I have to wonder if my visceral response to the novel also reflected something else in me. The title is taken from the last two lines of Coleridge’s sonnet, “Work Without Hope”:
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
For much of high school, I felt alone and discouraged. Coleridge’s lines voiced my feelings, albeit more bluntly than I would have. I don’t think I said any of this to Mrs. Bell, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she sensed it. In that light, I speculate whether her unblinking response to my question went beyond the novel and showed her respect for my own private unhappiness. Most of us can’t help fighting other people’s sadness. By giving me no easy solution, whether to the novel’s conundrum or my anxiety about my future, she allowed me to sort things out for myself. Society rarely lets us do that. It takes fortitude.
That should be enough for one post, but I want to add two more Mrs. Bell memories.
She administered the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) to me. (This is the college entrance exam that many American students take early in their final year of high school. The test hadn’t been given to Mrs. Bell in time to braille, so she had to read it aloud and write down my answers. I was allowed extra time, either time and a half or double (I can’t remember which). For Mrs. Bell and me, it meant all of Saturday morning and afternoon and also Sunday morning, while my classmates were done by the early afternoon of Saturday.
We sat together at a large table in an airy room of the mansion owned by the Darien Community Association, the town’s active volunteer organization. She patiently recited question after question and, with equal care, took down my answers. Her voice was steady, her demeanor calm. She was scrupulous in reading the questions and multiple choices neutrally, and she gave no hint either of agreement or disagreement with my answers. Imagine holding a conversation where you express no opinion. That’s how it went for what I’m guessing was between eight and ten hours.
At the end of our Saturday session, she congratulated me on getting through the longest part. Then she went home to her husband and I to a party, of which I mostly remember being wrung out with exhaustion. Mrs. Bell must have been, too, but she showed no sign.
A closing memory. As senior year came to an end, Mrs. Bell mailed me a graduation card. In perfect braille, she’d typed: “You march to the beat of a different drummer.” It was a phrase I’d heard before, but never given any thought to. My first reaction was displeasure. The quotation was a cliché, and I hated clichés. More to the point, ever since I’d lost my vision, I’d battled to conform, to become like everyone else. The whole concept of “integration” was about bringing disabled students into the mainstream. To say I was marching to a different drummer implied I’d failed. But Mrs. Bell would never have insulted me. So what had she meant? Contradicting my urge to conform was the imperative, and my increasing urge, to be independent. I finally realized she’d been saying I was already independent in some essential way that outweighed the obvious ways I wasn’t.
I haven’t been in touch with Mrs. Bell since high school. Some readers may see in my depiction of her the paradigm of East Asian spirituality. I’ve known aggressive Indians, kind Indians, rude Indians, incredibly thoughtful Indians, Indians who try to trick me over the phone into giving them access to my computer: the panoply of human temperaments and character traits that applies to all peoples. I know nothing of Mrs. Bell’s religious or spiritual beliefs. I know only that she was exceptional: a contemplative person who quietly contributed to my better understanding of myself.