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Remembering Ma

My mother was one of the most patient people I knew...and the most amazing of teachers. Married at the age of 16, Ma didn't have the opportunity to finish her college education. She had been a brilliant student in school, excelling in mathematics and languages. In college, in the last math exam she took, she scored a 50 out of a total of 100. She had been able to prepare only 50% of the syllabus after her marriage, unable to attend any more classes. With the encouragement of her college principal, Ma still went ahead and wrote the exam, scoring full marks in the sections that she prepared for. I remember Ma telling me all this without a trace of resentment or bitterness. If there had been any, she had long since accepted the circumstances in which she had to abandon her college education. Instead there was a simple pride in what she had been able to achieve despite the odds.

Ma's love of scholarship endured despite a large family and many responsibilities that would have taxed the strength of any human being. She had studied original religious texts written in Sanskrti, Pali, and Prakrit, under the guidance of Bauji, her father. Ma continued her religious studies after her marriage, under the tutelage of both Bauji and Kaushalya Maraji, my paternal aunt who had become a Jain nun. It goes to Ma's credit, that despite her own interest in studying the Jain scriptures, she never forced any of her children to do the same. She allowed us to find our own comfort zones vis-a-vis the Jain faith, and our own paths to spirituality.

Bauji had also taught Ma vedic mathematics, in addition to the western math that Ma studied in school. Later, when all her children had completed their education, Ma decided to join mathematics review classes for adults. There was an initial learning curve, and Ma took the help of one of my school friends, Aarti, who was pursuing graduate studies in mathematics and was a math wiz herself, to catch up. Again, there was a simple humility in seeking help from one of her youngest daughter's friends. I remember the happiness with which Ma would describe her math classes. When Ma would return from her classes, I would sometimes ask her about her classmates and her lesson for the day, and look at her textbooks and learning materials. Perhaps, that was where my interest in adult education first sparked.

Ma never gave up. She had an abundance of strength and courage, and had the ability to defy the odds, over and over again. When my father's health failed, she put her homegrown skills as a dress-designer and dressmaker to good use, and became an entrepreneur, making and selling girls' dresses from home. Later, she started a business with my father, and when that ended, started a tutoring center on the first floor of our home, hiring graduate students from Delhi University to teach different school subjects, and teaching many of the subjects herself: English, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Maths. I was one of the first students of our 'Jain Coaching Center', benefiting enormously from the tutoring I received in maths, economics, and accounting in my last two high school years. When I passed my 12th board exams, and began my own college studies, I also began to tutor the children who had started coming to our center in good numbers, in English, creative arts, and German. Ma's entrepreneurship and her work as a teacher started me on my own trajectory of becoming an educator, and I couldn't have asked for a better example than my mother in learning how to be a creative, empathetic, and effective teacher.

Ma had the uncanny ability to adapt her instruction according to the needs of her students. More than once, when parents brought their children to our center and told Ma that the child was too 'dumb' to learn, Ma gently reprimanded them. She would say that if a parent uses the word 'dumb' for their child, in the child's presence, then who can blame the child for absorbing that description and playing it out. She would tell the parents, "Pehley to aap apne bachchey ko buddhu aur bewakoof bolna band karo." [First, you need to stop calling your child stupid.] In cases, where Ma felt that the parents' anxiety was harming their child's ability to study rather than helping, she would simply tell them to back off. Such was parents' faith in Ma's ability to accomplish 'miracles', that they would actually heed her.

Time and again, students who had been unable to enjoy their studies and perform well in school, would begin to blossom under Ma's careful tutelage. Her formula was simple: start from where the child is and build a strong conceptual understanding from there; encourage the learner with positive feedback; use whatever tools necessary to ensure that the child understands the material thoroughly; teach the child the skills and strategies necessary to develop her/his ability to become an independent learner--all concepts that I later studied in graduate school here in the U.S., and some that even the readings here in the U.S. had not caught up to. Ma is the only teacher I know who would not hesitate to use English grammar to teach Hindi grammar, or vice versa. "If the child knows what a noun is in English, then use that [cognitive] knowledge to teach the child what 'sangya' is in Hindi," she would say with the insight and confidence borne out of the knowledge that such a creative and flexible approach worked, again and again.

I miss Ma. Among many, many other things, I miss the opportunity to discuss my own growth as a teacher and scholar with her--when I get excited about something creative that I did in my classroom that worked, when something doesn't work, when my students give me positive feedback...when I complete small milestones of my own--my graduation, my first publication...

Yet, there's acceptance that that's not to be, and like Ma, I've learned to process grief with patience and humility, and I hope, grace.

Yesterday, I asked my students to write about a person who has been an important influence in their lives, and many of them chose to write about their parents, especially their mothers. I'm looking forward to reading what they have written. I wish Ma were here, so that I could share it with her as well, and tell her what an important influence she has been on my life.

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