I remember tearfully stumbling over some words that we had to weave into sentences when I was in class seven or eight. For the life of me, I could not understand what “in good stead” meant. Our English teacher KK Rao, who had been to Cambridge, saw me struggling, looked at my multiple attempts in my notebook and his face broke into a half smile.
“Why should that be so difficult for someone who scores so high in dictation?” he asked, ruefully. I thought he would follow that up with a scold in front of the whole class. As I cringed, he added, ‘I thought my teaching of English was meant to stand you in good stead!”
It was a few moments before the meaning dawned on me and I realised he had made the sentence I had been struggling with for half the class. But those are three English words I have never forgotten. Every time I come across them, I think of Mr Rao.
His teaching did stand me in good stead, helping me score higher marks than those who went to fancier schools than me and whose English Readers were ahead of the one taught to us in Kendriya Vidyalaya – we did in Class 8 what they did in Class 7 and I never heard the end of how they were better off at their missionary schools than I in my government one. But when we went to the same college, I not only scored higher but seemed to know better than most of them about grammar, syntax and about authors and novelists.
That is because of the two mantras that Mr Rao armed us with – when in doubt, always consult Wren and Martin. And read, read and read – recommending Hans Andersons to primary teachers, Enid Blytons for those in secondary school and an eclectic mix of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens at high school. “Read whatever you find easy to read, but read,” he said.
When I was caught surreptitiously reading a Mills and Boon in school, the book was confiscated by my teachers. I might have had to pay a lot in disciplinary action - and probably should have – but Mr. Rao came to my rescue. He read the book through, found nothing offensive and all that he said was “This is too early for you. But at least the English is correct.”
Mr Rao’s credo was - you cannot speak, if you do not read and if you do not read, you will never be able to clear your essay writing tests.
I remembered that when I sat for competitive exams and cleared all the essay writing tests and when I became a journalist and my editors exclaimed over my turn of phrases and how little they had to blue pencil my reports for grammar or construct, I realised Mr. Rao’s teaching of English had really stood me in great stead!