We called him ‘Nata’, ‘grandfather’ in our language, for he was quite friendly with our parents, having known them closely right from their early schooling days. In his younger days ‘Nata’ was a social worker and used to travel across our Himalayan state, visiting schools and spending days with teachers and students. Though we vaguely knew that he hailed from a distant place down south or west, all those who knew him treated him as a member of our community. He was always interested in our educational issues, though he hardly spoke about his own education. ‘Didn’t he study anything? What were his school days like?’, we used to wonder.
One day, as we were talking about great teachers and the childhood of great men, we suddenly asked him, “Nata, tell us about your school. Don’t you visit it sometimes?” “Yes, yes, please, tell us when you visited it last.” my friends repeated.
Nata was silent for a minute. We waited eagerly for him to begin.
“Oh, it was a long time ago”, he paused again.
“During our school days, I was just an ordinary student in the class. Not like you all, so good at singing, games, craft. Nothing special for teachers to observe: subdued in class, quite studious and nowhere in games and sports. Those were the days when students used to speak little to teachers, even when they were friendly. Meeting your headmaster meant you’re in serious trouble! But back home, it was lots of freedom, talking, arguing! And we eagerly waited for our evening run to the public library. The faster you reached there, the more time you could spend browsing through magazines and books! All our family members read a lot. Though my mother had never been to school, she too was an avid reader, both in English and in her mother tongue.”
“Didn’t your school have a library? Weren’t you allowed to use it?”, my brother asked.
“Yes, my high school had a fine library, with several excellent attractive volumes, but we hardly ever went there, except when a student did an extraordinary good class work. He (the student) was given the rare privilege of spending half an hour inside. But the school compensated it with little classroom libraries, mostly story books, wholly managed by student-volunteers. And I had the special privilege of being the in-charge, for all three years I was in high school.”
“Wow!”, we exclaimed. “So you could read all the books at your own pleasure!”
“Yes, while others could get just one or two books every week, I could read as many as I liked… and I enjoyed it every bit.”
“I’m ever grateful to my first teacher Sri Koshy Sir for recognizing my interest in library books and wholeheartedly encouraging it in school. While most students were afraid of his short temper and punishments, I always received Koshy Sir’s support and loving glance.
“How were your other teachers, Nata?”
“Being a reputed school, they were really committed, knowledgeable and willing to give their best, though most of us never got close to our teachers. As our school had come up as a community initiative, it received generous support from all sections of the society. Teachers of all religious backgrounds worked together. But now that you asked, let me mention about one of them.”
We looked at Nata attentively.
“Geeverghese Sir was our biology teacher for just one year. He was young, not imposing, but very alert in class. But in just a few weeks, I was greatly charmed by his ways of teaching. His class was unique. He always split each lesson into small units. He would begin with two to three minutes of questions recalling the previous day’s work. He would then teach for 10 minutes, followed by several questions on what he just taught. Then came the next unit and more questions. Towards the end, the last five minutes were again reserved to sum up the whole lesson; he would ask questions at random to make sure that any doubts of the timid ones are not left unattended. He had an uncanny way of locating who were not sure of the answers: his questions would land in any corner of the class! If someone felt diffident and wanted to escape from his questions, that very student would get the next!”
We giggled, imagining the class scene.
“It was much later when I grew up and heard about ‘microteaching skills’, that I realized that Geeverghese sir was beautifully demonstrating them class after class.”
“Very soon, I started enjoying his classes. And when he left at the end of that year, I was the one who felt very sad.”
“Where did he go? Is he alive?” we chorused.
“I don’t know…I never met him or heard of him after that.” Was there a trace of regret in Nata’s voice?
“Come on, tell us, when did you visit your school last?”
Nata paused again.
“After I left my school after class X, I moved to a metro to continue my education. Life then went on, in strange ways across strange places and I never got an occasion to go back to my alma mater. Nor did I meet or know anything more about any of my teachers or classmates.”
I gave a sharp glance at my sister indicating her to keep mum.
“One day, as I was crossing the vast Brahmaputra, I suddenly realized: ‘My, it’s 25 years since I left my school! Would any of my old teachers or classmates be around? Would any of the staff know me now, even if I went there? Would I recognize the school?’”
“Let me take a chance, I thought, as I took out a postcard to write a letter. A postcard is ideal when you’re a stranger to your addressee. Someone would surely read and get your message across! It was only March and I hoped to visit in June, just after the reopening. I briefly gave my reference and a proposed date of my visit and time. Since the postcard didn’t mention my address or phone number, I did not expect a reply.”
“Exactly at 11 am that day, I was at the school office and informed that I had come to meet the headmaster. The clerk asked me to sit and went to the chamber. Soon, I was asked to go to the headmaster’s room. As I entered, my gaze fell on a young headmaster and two others, who got up. Before I realized what was happening, two elderly gentlemen moved forward and gave me a warm hug! Imagine my surprise and joy, when I was told that one gentleman was my dear teacher, Koshy Sir and the other Mr Pillai, father of one of my close classmates, Sreekumar!”
“As we sat down, the headmaster explained that he consulted Koshy Sir, who lived nearby after retirement and Mr. Pillai, an active member of the Parent-Teachers’ and Alumni Association, both of whom immediately identified me and they had been waiting for my arrival!”
“After this brief interaction, the headmaster walked me around the school. I was instantly transported to a strange past: vague memories of classrooms, friends, teachers, playground and incidents – all inter-mingling, appearing and disappearing like misty clouds…”
“More was to follow.” We sat still, intently looking at Nata.
“I’d like you now to meet our teachers,” said the friendly soft-spoken headmaster, as he led me to the teachers’ room. I was in for a surprise again, as I saw all the teachers and PTA members rise to greet me! The HM then, after a brief introduction, requested me to address them…. It was a scene I’d never forget,” said Nata, pausing to recover his thoughts…
“You must now address our senior students too,” said the smiling headmaster. “I just could not refuse.”
“Let me tell them about life in North East India,” I offered.
“Oh, they must have enjoyed your stories,” we quipped.
“It would be one of the most remembered visits in my life,” said Nata slowly. “Just imagine, a school extending such a welcome to an old student, who was in no way extraordinary, and who had never even kept any contact with his alma-mater for 25 years!”
“Reading a mere postcard carrying little details and no address!” my brother remarked.
Nata was silent.
“You must have visited your school again?” My younger sister asked.
“It’s time for my evening walk now,” said Nata, as he got up to leave.
Based on a story from the Ashram English High School, Perumbavoor, Kerala.
The writer is an educational and library activist in Arunachal Pradesh. He can be reached at [email protected].