By Tara Rajendran, MBBS, MFA
On a morning a week ago, I came across this heartwarming Instagram reel of a kind teacher, which inspired me to reflect on the incredibly impactful role played by the two kindest female mentors in two stages of my academic life.
The Bi-Colored Pencil
It was the first few months of the fifth grade in our Apostolic Carmel Lady Immaculate convent all-girls school, and I had just transferred to a class where the medium of education was English; up until that year, I studied in classes where the medium of education was my mother tongue, Malayalam. In the initial months, I felt like I was walking around an unfamiliar place with a blindfold. Except for yes and no, none of the words made sense. Most teachers were unaware that I was new to this medium of communication and education, making them think my genuine bewilderment was me being recalcitrant, defiant, or a little slow. This invited several punishments, and it was hurtful for a 9-year-old to get regularly scolded and humiliated in front of the class.
One weekend, I was down with a fever and was on my way to the doctor’s office with my uncle. I saw my mathematics teacher—Sathyakumari teacher—in the pharmacy, which was unexpected as I lived far from the school. I smiled, nodded, and continued to walk ahead. But she stopped us by calling my name and walked towards us. She said she is here to visit her sister. She was warm and kind and spoke to my uncle, and that’s when she learned about my medium-transition.
A few days later, I was called to the staffroom. Now, what did I do? was the only thought running through my mind as I walked towards the staffroom. I stood at the entrance of the long hallway, waiting nervously. Sathyakumari teacher called me inside.
“What about you and I make half an hour in the lunch break to discuss some mathematic problems for the next few weeks?” She asked me in my mother tongue. I nodded. It was particularly difficult for me to comprehend the question stems in English, and she understood that. And then, she very kindly looked into my eyes and said compassionately, “Don’t treat me as a teacher; consider me like your mother, okay?” I am going verbatim here. That is exactly what she said.
For the next few weeks, every afternoon, as soon as the lunch-break-bell rang, I would run to wash my hands, gobble up my lunch, take a notebook and pen, run to the staffroom, and pause outside the door to stop panting. She was waiting for me after quickly finishing her own lunch on all those days.
Then came the second unit test, the major test before the half-yearly examinations. The mathematics paper was set to a total of 20 marks. By the time my eyes slowly reached the last question, which was to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle, the bell rang. Someone came to collect the answer sheets, and I panicked and wrote the perimeter of a square instead. I knew very well that I was writing the wrong answer, but I couldn’t remember the right answer. A few days later, Sathyakumari teacher walked into the class with a bundle of corrected answer sheets. Our roll numbers were alphabetically ordered, and the answer sheets were usually arranged per the roll number; thus, I, with my T name, belonged at the end. However, she called my name first: 19 out of 20. She called out all other answer sheets in the order of roll numbers. Twenty students had secured full marks. Sathyakumari teacher was known for gifting the top scorers in mathematics something sweet and small (as a token of encouragement to the toppers and as a symbol of inspiration for the rest) out of her pocket on every single test, major or minor. This time, she presented twenty of them with a blue and red bi-color pencil; for the wide-eyed 9-year-olds in a Southwestern Indian town in the early 2000s, this was a treasured present. After the distribution of twenty pencils, one pencil remained in her hand.
Little did I know that one of my life's most surreal, encouraging moments would happen in the next two seconds.
“Students, our Tara secured 19 out of 20, and she made that mistake because she didn’t have enough time. If I have your permission, can I give this pencil to her?” The whole class said yes. I walked up to her, received the pencil, and returned to my seat amidst my classmate’s applause.
Five years later, I met Sathyakumari teacher again around my 10th grade board examinations, and she said: “You are in my prayers. Prepare well.”
A piece of my heart always belongs to her!
Finding Freedom in Close Connection
We were allotted mentors for the year on my first day of medical school at Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), in Manipal, India; mine was our physiology professor, Dr. Subbalakshmi Narsajjana Krishnadasa. We met regularly that year. She also explained certain topics I found challenging to follow after class. She encouraged my research interests and was the first to tell me about the research grant opportunities for medical students. I was comfortable sharing my dreams outside medicine—music, writing, and cinema. “You were a bit different from the rest,” she shared in a recent conversation.
The deep, candid exchanges fostered a meaningful and satisfying connection. Maybe that level of connection is why the mentorship continued beyond medical school. She strongly encouraged me when I chose a slightly different academic trajectory to learn and explore the intersection of music and medicine. What could have been a lonely journey to a PhD wasn’t so because of her. She was kind enough to patiently review every revision of my research proposals and manuscript drafts cover to cover. Her vast experience in research has helped me improve my research writing. Her guidance in writing manuscripts proved invaluable. She would text me before my important meetings to see if I had taken everything to the meeting. When I indulge in self-deprecating talk after manuscript rejections, she reminds me of my strengths. At the same time, she wouldn’t bat an eye when she wanted to say, “I strongly think you need to rewrite this part.”
She also doesn’t hesitate to say, “I learned this from you. Thank you for teaching me that.” When she did not have answers to my questions, she stood by my side as I searched for answers. She made me feel we were one team! She often said, “I can see me in your place.”
I had the intellectual freedom to incorporate her suggestions or not, which, to me, is one of the most important aspects of a mentoring relationship. I had the freedom to be vulnerable without being misunderstood. I was provided the freedom to text her anytime I was in need. She is one of the first to read my short stories, listen to my Saraswati Veena recitals, and look at my interviews as soon as they are live. I was 19 when we first met; I am grateful that 11 years down the lane today, she remains my mentor and moral support.
Mentoring: An Essential Component of Professional Development for Women
Mentoring is a one-to-one relationship in which an expert/senior person voluntarily gives time to teach, support, and encourage the mentee. A 2022 systematic review reported that women were less likely to report having a research mentor, and women had less access to informal mentoring. In recent years, several conversations have been initiated around the need for institutional efforts promoting formal mentoring programs and access to informal mentoring to promote an equitable academic career environment for young women in medicine. It was the institutional mentoring program in medical school that helped me connect with my mentor in my first year. Creating opportunities where women can find mentors—who not only guide them navigate through their careers but also their emotional-safe-spaces—will greatly help in professional advancement.
I can never thank you enough for the kindness and generous encouragement (both of) you showered on that young girl who walked into your desk/cabin apprehensively! I promise I will pass the baton in the future!
Dr. Rajendran is a physician-musician, author, and TEDx speaker. She is pursuing a PhD in classical Indian music at Annamalai University, Chidambaram, India. She is the founder of "Oncology and Strings," a leading advocacy lecture-concert program advocating the importance of inculcating music into palliative oncology infrastructure. Follow her on Twitter @TaraRajendran. Disclosure.