Education and Careers

The teacher who wore a magician's hat

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My Teachers’ Day Tribute

People nowadays hardly believe when I tell them that I used to fail in my school, year after year. My classmates remember this, of course, but most of them are still confused how I made a complete turnaround in 1967. It was the last chance that St. Xaviers School, Calcutta, had given me and my father was really very worried. After all, I had stood somewhere near the last position in every class from 7 onwards and had to repeat class 8 as I had failed. I scraped through it with ‘back papers’ and even in class 9 Science, I did miserably bad — though I got a prize for science modelling. The headmaster then decided to change my stream to Humanities in class 10, as a last experiment. I was terrified as I had not studied these Arts subjects in class 9 in a 3-year integrated course.

But the school insisted. As I entered this new class-room in January 1967, many boys laughed at the ‘felu outsider’. They stared at my crushed shirt and torn pocket — that was thanks to a fight with a big bully just before class. Everything was strange in class 10, especially the subjects. No physics, chemistry or math — only vague subjects like history, geography and literature. But the strangest was the class teacher, Father P.Y. Gilson, a placid missionary, with such a peculiar French accent and with hardly any chin. I was sure he had been told that I was the quintessential problem child of the school, who just refused to study.

He asked me to move up to the first bench, which was outrageous, because only goody goody boys sat there. And then he proceeded straight into the lessons, little realising that I could hardly understand anything. Even so, I was unconsciously drawn into his fascinating narration. Which child can resist a good story? I listened spell-bound to Father Gilson‘s story-telling and expressions. Without realising it, I gently stepped on to a magic carpet which carried me over fantasy-lands. He had a subtle sense of humour and for the first time in my life, I was not bored in the class-room. Unbelievable!

More wonders were to follow, as a lot of wonderful tales came out of this magician's hat and very soon, I actually started looking forward to his classes. Perhaps the greatest transformation that Father Gilson induced in me was not only a friendly attitude to his subjects, but towards studies per se. Between classes and after classes, he would encourage me to meet him for extra lessons to make up for the whole year's study that I had missed in class 9. The special care that he seemed to heap upon me had a soothing influence not only upon my attitude to studies, but to the world at large.

But, my reverie was soon shattered by the reality of the first class test. The dread and horror with which I had viewed this approaching ‘Inquisition’ was reinforced by the feeling that I was condemned to stand last, in spite of my brief flirtation with studies. “English Essay” was the first test and I told Father with a choking voice that I had never scored well in such subjects as could never find the right words. His encouragement could hardly stop the streams of sweat that flowed endlessly during the exam.

When the results came out, you could really knock me down with a feather — I had stood fourth in class! My parents were overjoyed, my friends pinched me, but nobody realised what it did to my confidence. The next surprise was a ‘first’ in Arithmetic. Coming from the Science stream, this was not so difficult and I had learnt to dream. History, Geography and others followed, but there was no way I could stop this new-found excitement of ‘topping’ in class.

The rest was just crazy: one small success followed another, of course, with a lot of toil under the constant guidance of dear Father. A few months later, we were shocked to learn that Father Gilson was to leave for another school and then he just left! I wept openly. Nobody had ever treated me like this before. And it is all thanks to him, that I am where I am today: no doubt about that.

A decade later, I was in the IAS and posted as Additional District Magistrate of Asansol and Durgapur in the Burdwan district of West Bengal. I was overjoyed to hear that Father Gilson was the Headmaster of St. Xavier's, Durgapur. I was excited and sought for an immediate appointment. Would he recognise me? He was the man I had referred to in all my Teachers’ Day speeches but how could I thank him?

The day finally arrived and I felt quite nostalgic as the official red light car drove into the school with a police security, that was mandatory. I was ushered into Father's room which was empty — as he had to take a class suddenly, because some teacher was absent. But he came in soon and shook my hands warmly. "I am proud of you", he said. He was just the same, a trifle older. But, I was transformed, from a picture of confidence to a quivering, nervous ‘student’ groping for words.

Even before I could frame my gratitude into proper sentences, the bell rang and Father Gilson sprang up from his chair exclaiming: “Oh my God, there's another class to attend. And the little boys are waiting. Naughty, you know. Like you were. I must go. God bless you, my son. Do well. But I must leave.”

The good Jesuit teacher, who I would never see alive again, had no time for my praises and my ever-lasting gratitude. He had other problem children to tend to, to reform and improve.

Jawhar Sircar is a public intellectual and retired civil servant and lives in Kolkata and tweets at twitter.com/jawharsircar