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Thanks for the smile, Miss Alice

A schoolteacher who gave a vital life lesson

She was pretty, green-eyed, raven-haired and comfortably plump. I loved her as did almost 50 others in my class. She was my grade V teacher in a convent in Jabalpur. Every morning when she walked into the class and with difficulty raised her plump proportions into a dainty Victorian chair without mishap, the class sighed with collective relief. She simply smiled and quipped, “I am getting too fat.” That invariably elicited giggles from all of us even as we wished her a warm and loud “Good morning, Miss Alice”.

Her “Good morning, darlings” heralded an indulgent mood and made our day. It meant no reprimands and a few precious extra minutes of recess time and games. But the day she responded with “Good morning, girls”, we knew we were in trouble. Even the smallest lapse on our part would mean a sermon on etiquette and values of life in tones so serious that it put the fear of the devil in us. But even when she was very angry she never used the 'ruler' to smack our palms as was the habit of most junior teachers then. Instead, she would banish us to a corner in the class. This ignominy was enough to make us all behave.

She inculcated in us values that have not lost their sheen despite a lapse of several decades. Miss Alice was honest and bold to a fault. But more than anything else she taught us to laugh at ourselves and our faults. I remember an incident where she forgot to arrange for refreshments on Sister’s Feast Day. She simply walked onto the stage, made a public apology for her faux pas and, as a penance for the 'hole' in her memory, gustily sang the nonsense rhyme, “There is a hole in the bucket, dear Lisa”, to much ribbing from her colleagues.

Miss Alice taught us to shoulder responsibilities with a smile and shrug away any momentary dips in life. She had an old sick cantankerous mother whom she cared for with utmost dedication. She, in fact, stayed single so that she could care for her mother. And she smiled through it all. “Smile, darling” was her constant refrain. It became more insistent if one of us scored badly or lost an important race or did not win the 'elocution' competition.The refrain left a lasting impression on our vulnerable minds and taught us to face life with equanimity and aplomb. Miss Alice is no more but her face still shines bright and happy through the mists of time and brings a huge smile to my face. Thank you for the smile, Miss Alice. Thank you for the joy it still brings.

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