She walked purposefully into the room. Her dark brown hair was tied in a loose ponytail with small flyaway strands sticking up at the sides. She had a jacket slung across her arm, and she was carrying that black stitched bag again, the one I knew held piles of carefully organized paperwork. She was breathing rapidly and seemed flustered.
“Mrs. Gupta!” One of my particularly extroverted classmates was the first to speak. Then a chorus of voices rang out, echoing his greeting.
“You’re back already, Mrs. Gupta?”
“When did you return?”
“How was your trip?”
And so on.
From my seat in the back, I watched as she made her way to the front of the room, greeting students with a flourish of her arm and a breathy hello. I could detect no trace of pain on her face as she briefly explained her situation to the class: Her mother was ill, and she’d had to travel to India unexpectedly to look after her. Though her mother was still in the hospital, Mrs. Gupta had returned for us, her Advanced Placement class, because she had much to teach us in preparation for our looming exam. Her flight had only just landed, but instead of going home, she had driven straight to school, to us.
She relayed all this in a few brief minutes before turning to her lesson plan, ready to introduce her lecture.
“The synaptic cleft between neurons is the space through which neurotransmitters move,” she began.
As I listened, a part of my mind was back home. I pictured myself at night, being kicked out of my room by my older sister, who wanted to sleep, dragging myself down the stairs, cuddling on the couch with my textbook, staring dry-eyed down at the miniature black print, wondering why in the world at two in the morning I was still up studying when normal people were asleep.
And all I did was complain.
How dare I view my situation as difficult when here was a woman who endured so much? Looking at her, you couldn’t tell. She was 8,000 miles and 82 million billion gallons of ocean water away from her dying mother, and not even a sigh escaped her lips. Instead, she was working and seemed to be enlivened by every second of it.
Mrs. Gupta’s entire being reigns over the classroom, even though she is tiny. I watched as she taught, her hands freely gesticulating: shaking three fingers, fist slamming into palm, both arms extended. She spoke as if neurons were prime-time news and we would be amiss to tune out for even a second. Only a woman who found a soulmate in biology could bring such fervor to a lecture that she had repeated innumerable times over the years.
“Nerve impulses can travel at more than two hundred miles per hour!” she exclaimed.
As I sat there in my green metal chair, I had to laugh. Not only was I wrong to complain about how hard I worked, I was wrong to consider myself anything but lucky.
Mrs. Gupta radiated intelligence. It reeled in unsuspecting students like fish on a line. Her notorious classroom, the kingdom of the Gupta Gods, made students ask why, how, and what. It made them question everything they’d known, forcing them to look beyond themselves, beyond their ocean even, past the biosphere, into the Milky Way.
My head was spinning. My fingers tightly clutched the edges of my chair. I could feel the blood pounding inside me, like I was intoxicated by my thoughts. As Mrs. Gupta’s voice played in the background, the ups and downs of her intonation composing a melody, I began to feel a burning sensation in my arm. I forced my fingers to release their hold on my seat and brought my arm up to get a better look. I saw everything.
I saw beyond my light brown skin, into my blood vessels, inside a cell, zooming past the cytoplasm, into the nucleus, focusing on the DNA, on its twists and folds, on its promoters and enhancers. And everywhere were proteins. Proteins that wrapped around DNA, that connected the nucleus to the cytoplasm, that glued the entire cell into a single functioning unit, that joined adjacent cells, that made a human being. It was like I had X-ray vision.
This is what Mrs. Gupta does. She takes students and gives them supernatural powers, turning them into learners who will not give up their intellect for anything in the world. I listened intently to the words of Mrs. Gupta, the woman who embodied everything I valued and aspired to – intelligence and kindness, passion and dedication.
She had been gone for two weeks, and upon setting foot in this country, had run right back to her students. For that I respect her and envy the pure zeal that she gives to all that she does. For that, I can only think that I am lucky. F
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.