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Education

Values that I picked-up in School: A Memoir


“A good life is one of obedience to the law. Wrongdoing is a violation of it. It is assumed that the commands of God are not arbitrary and capricious.“

This article is a tribute to the teachers of St.Thomas School, Dehradun who left an indelible mark on my soul. The nine years I spent there laid a strong foundation for coping with the vicissitudes of the following years. Nostalgia for those years remained with me, for nothing could match the value-based education and discipline that I experienced in the classrooms.

How I overcame my initial anxiety

I vividly remember my first day of school. I was a timid child, not too comfortable with strangers. I clung to my mother’s hand, anxious about what was about to happen, as we stepped into the school campus. My stomach churned as I took in the new sights and smells. The sight of the children already seated in the classroom unnerved me. With all eyes now upon me, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, I knew for sure there was no point asking my mother to take me back to the familiar security of my home – she wouldn’t relent.

As I braved my way into the classroom I was further daunted by the dark interior of the room. When all hope was lost, my eyes came to rest on a framed painting in the corner of the room. It depicted a figure in a white robe, his arms outstretched, and a row of young children seated facing him. A certain calm and kindness in his eyes, at once, settled my nerves. This was my introduction to the personality and world of Jesus.

I belonged to a non-christian family so, to me, Jesus was an unfamiliar figure. However, the moment my eyes rested on the picture, I made an immediate connection with His serene face. As once, I felt my nerves calming, I loosened the grip of my mother’s hand and followed the teacher to the seat allotted to me. As I bid goodbye to my mother, with tears welling in my eyes, I turned my attention yet again to the serene face in the painting and knew I was being taken care of. That image has prevailed with me and supported me through the pitfalls and travails of growing up.

School life, I am sure one would agree, is an amalgamation of joys, sorrows, pitfalls, and blessings. The growing-up years are packed with a multitude of emotions, negative and positive. A lot of times, these years feel like a tight rope walk, a precarious balance, where a minor slip, a careless distraction, a small compromise and one may lose their balance. This is something one may end up carrying the weight of even in the later years.

How Kindness Became My Way of Life

I am grateful that some of my early memories of school are indeed happy ones. My favourite teacher, Mrs Mann taught me in grade five. During the moral science lessons, we as a group were exposed to many brilliant tales of Christ. She passionately shared parables featuring Jesus, stories that impacted me immensely. Jesus came very close to my heart on account of the compassion he showed to all.

In fact, it wasn’t just Mrs Mann’s storytelling but also her genuine concern for the poor that touched me. She would repeatedly talk about this subject and emphasize the need to feed the hungry. Also, while doling out money to them the amount should ensure a fulsome meal. This counselling was the equivalent of two annas, an amount not always available to a schoolgirl.

So saving a portion of my midday tiffin became the norm for me. This enabled me to share the savings with a visually impaired old man seated a short distance from the school. He and I developed an unnamed relationship where both of us looked forward to our meetings. I happily shared my savings with him and he generously shared the wealth of his blessings. His blessings were far greater compared to the ‘tithe’ doled out to him.

When I Learnt How to Stand Up to Injustice

Another teacher who deeply touched me in school was Miss Concannon, my sixth-grade teacher. She usually adorned a stern demeanour and the only time we experienced any relaxation on her face was when she spoke of London and The Queen. Most of her family had already left for Britain. They would send her the visual and cultural delights they were experiencing there and she would passionately relay them to us. Thanks to the glow on her face when she spoke about these sights and experiences, a love for the history of that country was born in me as well.

Miss Concannon would often choose long passages from Shakespeare and ask us to memorise them, word for word. She wouldn’t give us too much time to learn them up. I remember my first test in this capacity was from Henry V, a historic play by Shakespeare. We were assigned the passage from Act III, Scene I – Once more unto the breach, dear friends. This literally means, let us try again. Here King Henry was addressing his soldiers and encouraging them as they prepared to launch an attack through a breach in the walls of Herfleur. This passage that I memorised for Miss Concannon’s class is still fresh in my memory. In fact, it is one of my favourite passages to date.

Of course, Miss Concannon’s literary display impressed me and helped me develop an interest in literature but it was a particular incident that involved her that stands out for me the most. It was in fact one of the best lessons I learned at school. During her sick leave, our class was punished for being unruly. We were made to raise our arms and walk in a circle in the playground, and that too in full view of some classrooms. On learning about this incident, Miss Concannon took up the matter with the principal and unequivocally told her that her students could not have indulged in such behaviour. Her unflinching faith in us brought on an enquiry and the section responsible for all this was taken to task. Demeanours can be misleading, this was the lesson I learned from this incident. I also learn that it takes a lot of courage to stand up against injustice but that is the right way to go about matters eventually. I will forever be grateful to Miss Concannon for standing up for us and for teaching me to stand up to injustice.

When I Learn How Shortcuts Don’t Amount to Much

Mrs Dennis, my first-grade teacher, introduced the class to the world of writing letters of the English alphabet and numbers. I found it difficult to form the number eight, as we were to form it with one sweep of the hand. I thought the easiest way to do it was to take two zeroes and join them in the middle. We were also forbidden from using erasers, so it was not possible to rectify an error. I tried taking a shortcut, one that involved two zeros and was punished by Mrs Dennis who used my pencil to rap me on the palm of my hand. After that, surprisingly I managed to make perfect eights with one sweep of the hand. Many years later when I think about it, I sometimes feel a little rap is important to jolt one from taking convenient shortcuts. Not sure if parents and educators of today would agree with this, but then, it is all about striking the right balance.

When I moved on to senior grades, Mrs Dennis retired and this knowledge brought on a pang of pain. The same I experienced when my first principal, Mrs Payne left for London.

At the tender age of six, I had to give a Kathak performance for parent’s day. Somehow I managed to perform but at the tail end, I became aware of the audience and came to a halt. Mrs Payne, seeing me standing like a petrified cat, walked over to the stage, picked me up, and gave me a reassuring kiss. That little act of hers made her my saviour and her absence left a hole in my heart. As children we live in a world where things are supposed to remain familiar, at least that was to be the case for me.

The Makings of Perfect Ladies and Gentlemen

Mr Mannering was the sports coach with the bearing of a jovial Santa. We had a patch of green where we were encouraged to play all kinds of sports. Bat and ball were my favourites. I was very agile in the fielding aspect of it. However, on one occasion while trying to catch a distant ball I fell down flat on my face while the culprit ball remained in my hand. This led to the exposure of my bloomers. Mr Mannering helped me get up, and sensing my embarrassment, patted me on the head and proclaimed to the rest of the team that I had the making of a great sportsperson. His gentle words calmed me at once and took care of my embarrassment. I couldn’t pursue sports because the other two schools out of Doon did not have the facility of a larger playground. Sometimes I would feel that I had let down Mr Mannering. I am, however, ever so grateful to him for the kindness he showed me that day on the playground.

I was absolutely dejected when I learnt that he too was moving on to join another school that had come up in Doon. His replacement, Mr Butlerwhite joined the school, much to everyone’s dismay. He wasn’t half as soft and jovial as his predecessor. He was tall and erect and had the bearing of a slave driver with the omnipresent ‘baton’ in his hand. A very strict regime in our dress code was maintained. The white uniform for our sports period had to match the sparkling whiteness of our PT shoes. On one occasion, one of my classmates, having forgotten to polish his shoes at home, decided to take a chalk stick and clean up his footwear. Mr Butlerwhite passed his finger on it and the telltale powder was exposed. This resulted in the baton coming into action.

Corporal punishment was outdated in private schools, so a light rap on the knuckles sufficed. The most memorable of Mr Butlerwhites’s code of conduct was the code of a gentleman’s behaviour. Two boys were spotted fighting in an unruly manner so they were given boxing gloves to continue the fight while Mr Butlerwhite was the presiding referee. As time went by, we got used to Mr Butlerwhite and began to appreciate his strict ways.

Once a month we were shown classic movies in the assembly hall. A gentleman would come in with his projector and screen and with great enthusiasm, we would file into the hall where the chairs awaited us. But on one occasion we were told to carry our own chairs into the auditorium and so we complied. The boys from our class were reprimanded for not helping the ‘lady classmates’ with that activity. Education in St. Thomas was not only limited to academics but also in the raising of gentlemen and ladies of the future.

Discipline Then and Now

Years later, I found myself discussing discipline with an educator. She was teaching at a prestigious Delhi school and was quite concerned about the declining behaviour of some of her students. She mentioned how students don’t really care about fixing their body language when they are in the company of a teacher or they don’t bother wishing their teachers. Suffice it to say, the student-teacher relationship is far from what it was earlier. She blamed it on the high interference from the parents. This really got me thinking about how the education system of the fifties and sixties completely relied on the faith the parents had in the teachers. They knew that their children were in safe hands once they were within the confines of the school and how it was not just the child but also the entire family that literally revered the teacher. Over the years I have met many younger ex-students of St Thomas and been reassured that discipline is still on a high agenda. It appears that the emotional umbilical cord with the school (now college) has never been severed for me and them.

My salutations to the Captain at the Helm!



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