Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stranger in Paradise

"He jumped, and rose slowly in the air with a freedom he had never felt, and jumped again when he landed, and ran, and jumped, and ran again, with a body that responded perfectly to this glorious world, this paradise in which he found himself. A stranger so long and so lost- in paradise at last. " - Stranger in Paradise, Issac Asimov

A smile streaked across my face. This is not the first time I am teaching, but this is certainly the first time someone is paying me to teach. All this started when I decide to attend a class instructed by one of my friends. I was so inspired by her enthusiasm and the way she manages the class. I could see that it was not at all easy. You might want to go and ask your professor a question,. However there will be students forming a line to ask you questions. But sure, it looked so much fun. That is when I decided that I will certainly apply as a teaching assistant(TA) for the next semester. It was near the end of the sem, almost all the positions were filled. I knew I had little chance. I was not so much tensed as I was pretty sure that my professor can take me as a research assistant. So I was not so much worried about the fee waiver and stuff. But still somewhere inside me, I felt sad that I might have missed a chance because I applied a bit late into the semester. One day a mail came, "We have an opening for a TA position, are you interested ?". I didn't have to think twice.

So finally the day came for my first class. There were only very few students, which worked out well for me. So I started with my intro and the course-syllabus etc. That is when I thought of all the interesting professors that I have met in my life. How some of the classes are still fresh in my mind.
I still remember the class by my 12th standard Math professor, Venu sir. He was such an inspiration for me. Most students didn't seem to care about what he used to say. But for me, they were golden words. Even now, when the classes go, way over my head and I can't make head or tail of it, I hear my friends saying, "this class is too fast, the prof should slow down". That is when Venu sir's words voice inside me, "You shouldn't ask me to lower my bar of standard, instead try to catch up to mine. That is when you learn your best." I know he is right.
Then there was George sir. He is a fatherly figure. I guess he is one of the professors who can mix class with fun and knowledge. Everyone from the laziest guy to the most hardworking guy used to like him. For he cared for all of them and every one of them knew that.
I shouldn't forget to mention another of my favorite teacher, my language instructor. She is the one who told me why being a teacher is so awesome. "In an office, you have the same files every year and you go over them again and again. But for a teacher, each file before her is an entirely different student with a totally different character, box full of ideas and a very sharp questioning mind." I won't forget that ever.

Then there was this other chemistry teacher. Seeing my nonchalant attitude towards entrance preparation, my parents decided that I should join a entrance coaching center. It was pure hell for me, I didn't want to go there, but my parents can be intimidating at times. So reluctantly I went to the class. I had some classmates as well there. Some lazy, but smart bums (cough .. Alok, Nandi, Karthi..). After a few classes I was bored like hell, I just wanted to get out of there. I hated cramming like that for the exam. Then came this guy. We knew he was supposed to teach chemistry. But certainly he needed a lesson in dressing. His shirt was really faded, he had a chappal (flip-flop) and he had his hair and mustache unkept. After class we named him "Kroor Singh", the then ChandraKantha fame. He asked some simple question to our chemistry expert (cough, cough.. Karthi.). It was simple and she answered it easily. He looked directly into her eyes, in a questioning manner. She was sure of the answer. Right after seeing the attire, I had stopped paying attention. But, I heard her answer and ya that sounded right. Then the most surprising thing happened, he said the answer is wrong. I have often felt that being on the front bench is the best cover up for being absent minded in the class. Very few teachers really pick on front bench students. ;) :D . Obviously this guy was different. He picked on me. I was taken by surprise, I replied that I had the same answer in my mind, but if that was wrong, I needed to hear the question once more. He repeated and somehow I caught wind of the catch. It was some trick question.( Karthi still hates him for that, I am sure.) From that day onwards, I stopped evaluating people based on the dress code. He may not know how to comb his hair, but sure he knew his subject and that was what mattered. I loved his classes while I was there, but only his. As for the rest of the story, I managed to finally convince my parents that I hate these entrance coaching and went back to my favorite profs.

Then there was this professor in our under grad. He was a strange one, quite different from any of the professors I have ever seen. He was the first one who told us that if you want to leave the class you can, he doesn't mind and that he won't be taking attendance. The number obviously dwindled, since for many a mid-day sleep was a better investment than his class. The only people remained after some weeks were the Nine-point-someones ;) :P .. and some of us idiots. There was one more idiot, whom none of us expected to be there. Babu. He is a story by itself, but in short, he entered Ajayan sir's hit list. He was asked to be in all the classes. It was so funny to see him in the class, because even his classmates rarely got a chance to see him. So this prof was teaching us about poles in a system. The question boomed, "What is a pole?". The Nine-point-someones had the crisp, well rehearsed book definition which neither didn't make any sense, nor made any impact on the professor. Then he explained in simple words, with the example of the fan in the class what a pole meant. Babu asked so many weird questions, to the point we thought he was just fooling around, but he was not. That day I saw a prof, who knew what he was saying, was willing to spent any amount of time for genuine questions - a true professional in every sense. Every time I ask / tell some one what is a pole in a system, I remember him. I guess that was my first contact with great professors. Also in the same college was one of my ever favorite professor, Mr. David Solomon. He was our advisor, friend and mentor. Every one likes him. :) . He and Ajayan sir literally pushed some of the best ideas in the department like technical paper presentations etc. They inspired us to become thinking engineers than become engineers who studied to get a job.

Then I met this proud German. Frank Hund. He pushed us far past our abilities. It was hard to keep pace with him. He is, to this day, one of the sharpest minds that I have come across. He was the CEO of the company, he was our techincal advisor. He showed me setting himself as example that "you should delegate a job only if, given proper technical support, you can do it yourself." There was one favourite remark that everyone acquainted with him, would have heard. "You are looking at the trees and you are not seeing the forest".
I heard these same words, from one of my professors here. Lou Cattafesta... I still remember the first time I met him. he looked around the age of 30. I thought he was a post-doctorate fellow. The post-doc who hired me introduced me to him, "This is Lou Cattafesta".. I didn't catch the last name.. I him again "Lou.. what?". He repeated it twice I guess. Little did I know that I was shaking hands with one of the finest professors in University of Florida.He is one guy who can explain things in the most simple words. I have never been in his class, but I can imagine how good his classes will be. There has been situations, when any other profs would have shouted at us. But this guy, he is one of a kind, that does justice to what America calls "cooool..."

My association with some of the best professors here continue. Prof. Khargonekar, Prof.Gader, Prof. Banerjee... Awesome professors for whom I can continue to tell a tale..
Here I am in a place where I have seen the awesome-st professors that I have ever known, in a place where ideas are born, and rewarded for. This is a paradise.

Back to the class, so after the big pause, I continued.. " Where were we, ah !! the pole.. so.. What is.. a pole in a system.. .".
I loved it when the students came and asked all sorts of questions after the class. They even tried out some extra questions I had put. This is so much fun.
Now I need to prepare much more for the next class.

I want to thank all my teachers.I want to silently thank you for giving an opportunity, inspiring hopes and for creating a better tomorrow.

Image - Avatar, Cameron
Text - UF Shands Hospital