Thursday, April 12, 2012

John Keats, Thangamani and High School English

I was struck by a very intense nostalgia on listening to the beautiful song "Innisai paadi varum" (Thulladha Manamum Thullum, 1999) this morning. Gonna try reproducing what I wandered through.

I had this poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (John Keats, 1819) as a part of the curriculum in our High school English paper and Mr Thangamani was my English teacher back then. I somehow exactly remember how he taught us this particular poem, picking up verses from one of the then popular tamil movie songs "Innisai paadi varum". It was the earliest instance of "Comparative Literature" I ever went through.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter -- Keats

கண்ணில் காட்சி தோன்றிவிட்டால்
கற்பனை தீர்ந்துவிடும்
கண்ணில் தோன்றா காட்சியில் தான்
கற்பனை வளர்ந்துவிடும் -- வைரமுத்து

(Roughly translated as)
If reality meets the eyes, then imagination will come to an end. As long as the reality remains elusive, the imagination is alive. 

Thus Mr Thangamani explained the poem to us quoting Vairamuthu and this explanation has somehow stood the test of my memory so far. I just realize that, for me "Ode on a Grecian urn" was how Thangamani taught it to us comparing it with a popular movie song, more than anything else. I mean, I think that's the legacy a teacher can leave in his students, in the limits of a classroom. 

The above Keats' verse used to be a very famous ERC (Explain-with-Reference-to-the-Context) question that appeared in the exam papers frequently and I remember, I quite enjoyed explaining it. Even after graduation from a rigorous university curriculum, I can still say that - English Paper I in Tamilnadu's Matriculation board was the most "demanding" exam, I ever wrote in my life. In just about two and a half hours, we used to answer four essay type questions (each in about three pages), ERCs, short answers and a whole lot of grammar. I mean, it used to be a race with time to complete the paper, answering all the questions. We used to come out with aching hands, totally enervated.

Diverging ... 

Only for the sake of it, I reminded myself of the way we were forced to learn English in our High school. I think, language papers need to be taught in such a way that students look at the linguistic nuances and write what they "experienced", rather than reproducing things that are dished out on a paper or student guides. We were "trained" or "coached" to recite and write things by-heart than being "taught" to appreciate the aesthetics (of say a poem). I see it as one of the many fundamental flaws in our educational system. I definitely had a few teachers who were different and encouraged self-written answers even if it wasn't completely flawless and Mr Thangamani was definitely one of them.

In the hindsight, I could understand that there was a really clear dichotomy in the way science teachers and language teachers (Tamil and English) were treated by the school management back then. Because science and maths scores are going to land us into the professional courses at universities, there was/is a stigma that a high school's reputation is proportional to the science & maths scores it's students secure at the final exams. So, the teachers who taught language papers were treated with relatively less importance and respect by the school management and this attitude quite naturally crept into the students. That is probably the reason, why many of my friends didn't have a really good relationship with our language teachers.

I realize that this piece has wandered a lot (and enough) without any specific agenda, through my formative years at high school.

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