Remembering middle school days

Remembering middle school days

Submitted by Editor on Wed, 2017-01-11 10:36 It was a truly memorable moment last week when a bunch of us mates from my alma mater, National Middle School, met seven of our teachers after nearly forty years. All of them had retired many years ago, and a few of them were into their eighties as well. While more than 30 of us getting connected through a WhatsApp group might seem like a pleasant surprise, being able to get in touch with our elementary school teachers was nothing short of a miracle. While some amongst us had studied in that school for 7 years, a few of us did so for a shorter period. However, these were the teachers who taught us during our formative years. They were extremely proud to see us, their naughty little students, well established and in reasonably decent positions. Naturally, they cherished every moment of that day’s three-hour interaction with us. Ironically, they were touched by our group’s gesture in remembering them in the twilight of their lives, and declared that the felicitation they got that day was more meaningful than the ‘official’ one they received when they retired.  There was many a striking feature that I could gather from that morning, which reflected how our school experience was rich and rewarding for students and teachers alike.  The first aspect which made the school special was having Kannada as the medium of instruction at the primary level (this option was available in the subsequent secondary and higher secondary classes as well, even though many of us opted for the English medium at the high school level). This enabled students to express themselves freely and develop both scholastically and in terms of life skills, values and attitudes, allowing us to actively participate in co-curricular areas such as sports and games, music and dance as well. We were also exposed to a rich dose of Sanskrit through daily chanting, if not other languages (though the mother tongue of many a student was either Telugu, Tamil, Marathi or Urdu), and as such we grew in a multi-lingual environment, enabling us to pick up some basic level of understanding and communication ability in more than two or three languages. Establishing a symbiotic relationship with our surrounding environment and worldly experiences was quite natural in such a scenario. Needless to emphasise, most of my classmates are now working as engineers, doctors, technocrats, businessmen or homemakers. Some of them have excelled in other fields as artists, actors and sportsmen. Despite what and where we are in our lives, we have become independent minded, and are capable of making our choices and stand by it. This provides yet another emphatic counter to those who vehemently argue in favor of educating children only in the English medium even at the primary level.    The other striking aspect was the camaraderie that was evident among the teachers themselves. A few of them were keeping in touch with each other post their retirement, but they were mostly meeting after many years. The warmth and mutual regard they had for each other reflected their genuine bonding and gave an inkling of how their staff room relationship would have been during their teaching days. Obviously by virtue of their age and seniority, a few of them were looked upon for professional guidance and mentoring by those who joined subsequently. The seniors not only enculturated their junior colleagues informally but were largely available for consultation even on many other issues that affected their lives in general. They would help in finding their way and establishing their own identity gradually but steadily. A small piece of advice could be in terms of dealing with a difficult class or a student or dealing with an official matter with the government or management (it was a government aided school run by the famed Dr.H Narasimhaiah’s National Education Society, which runs 14 educational institutions in and around Bengaluru and other rural places), or simply arriving at a personal decision in their own lives. They knew each other’s families well and though not all of them were of the same mental frequency, they were respectful of each other’s strength and uniqueness. This enabled them to pull off together as a strong team, enabling them to overcome innumerable glitches. Since the institution had a certain eclectic character imbued with true nationalistic spirit, students from varied religious, linguistic and cultural backgrounds from across socio-economic strata were admitted into the school. This played a significant part in promoting diversity (much before the Right to Education Act made its appearance), while also consciously rooting the school practices in our cultural ethos. The national festivals were celebrated with as much gaiety as Krishna Janmashtami (which coincided with our school’s annual day and performed more as a cultural event), that subconsciously generated in us a certain nationalistic and secular feeling in a natural way as opposed to jingoism). An important factor that perhaps aided in this character building process was that many of the teachers followed the Gandhian way of simple living and high thinking, which externally manifested in many ways – remaining as bachelors for life, living independently in a small single room tenement including cooking and cleaning by themselves, steadfastly wearing only impeccable white Khadi dhoti, kurta along with topi (or white pant and shirt), being knowledgeable by continually updating themselves, developing a broader outlook towards life and maintaining objectivity and composure. Looking back, though most of the teachers came with modest backgrounds and only with basic qualifications, they more than made up for these disadvantages by applying themselves to their teaching role, working hard with commitment and a sense of dedication. They obviously did not work only for the salary. We could see them giving out their best, both while teaching in the classroom (though some of them possessed degrees in a particular subject area, they taught many subjects and learned their ropes on the way), and in facilitating other school processes – morning assembly, cultural events, indoor and outdoor games, NCC, Scouts and Guides, etc. The school was endowed with a big play ground surrounded by a park, and a huge auditorium with a stage that promoted co-curricular activities. (My initiation into cricket happened in this school and I fondly remember the times I spent on the cricket ground!). Most importantly, teachers loved being with children and had an affinity towards the school. One could see in them a sense of pride, irrespective of which subject they taught. Even the arts and crafts or the physical education master was respected!      The institution also had a great sense of purpose and a clear vision of contributing to the overall societal goals through education. In the process, it had the interest of teachers upper most in its mind, appreciated their efforts by providing them a supportive and encouraging atmosphere to work in. The management and HN (acronym for H Narasimhaiah who was the President of the National Education Society for a long time) in particular would look at their commitment and learnability rather than their scholastic ability while hiring them. He would mingle and interact with them often, informally in games and cultural events meant for children, and partaking also in the local musical concerts. The teachers’ task those days was not easy at all – the school had more than 1500 children – and even with multiple sections, each class had 80-90 students. Catering to a diverse set of students in a large class must have been very daunting! Particularly, all students were not ‘gems’ and there were a few rowdy elements in that school too. As our social science teacher shared in our last week’s get-together, in one instance, she found a hardened boy coming to the class wearing a muddy uniform shirt, hiding some kind of long rod near the back of his collar. He would not communicate much with his other classmates. She tried to find out some details from few of his classmates and one of them advised her even to leave him alone! Getting curious, she decided to persist with him after the school hours and without giving any notice, went to a street corner adda, where he would normally collect with few of his associates, and found to her chagrin that what he was wielding was a long sharp knife! Collecting herself, she engaged with that boy and his friends in a deft manner and in the end succeeded in weaning him away from that practice forever! Remembering that chilling incident recently, she confessed last week that she was terrified but somehow had the sensitivity to appreciate where that boy was coming from, what influences had a bearing on him and dared to reform him in a manner she felt appropriate.                                                     I am reminded of an article by Andre Beteille, entitled “The School as an Institution” (Kumar Rajni, et al., (Ed.) (2005) in 'School, Society, Nation'. A few extracts from that article are very apt to be quoted here. “Even in Societies with well-developed systems of education, the school alone does not contribute to the education of the child. But it makes a distinctive contribution and it must be understood”. “The school has not only a pedagogic aspect but also a social one. The part played by the school in the wider process of socialization tends to be overlooked by ambitious and competitive parents whose overwhelming concern is with the test scores of their children. Sometimes a school maintains a very successful record of academic performance but performs its social function poorly.  Of course, a school in which teaching and learning are neglected or lightly treated can hardly be regarded as successful in any sense. Unfortunately there are many such schools in India and they make a mockery of the enthusiasm to make education a right for all”.  Continuing, Andre Beteille remarks, “... the school as an institution has a distinct identity that endures over time. The institution must be distinguished from its individual members who play their various parts and then leave, making room for new members to come in. The displacement of old members by new ones is seen most clearly in the case of students, but it applies to teachers, principals and school managers as well.” “In the course of the last fifty years, many individuals have passed through it, but the school still remains. The school from which I matriculated is now celebrating its centenary. When I went back to it recently, I realized that I did not know a single one of its present members. Yet, in some odd way it was the same school. When a school celebrates its centenary, one is made aware of the transience of individual life as compared to the life of an institution.”   Further, Beteille says, “… It was not a great school or even a leading school, but one in which I was happy and this is not a small thing.” Finally, “The school as a social institution can play an important part in connecting individuals with each other and with the wider society. But it is not enough only to connect. We cannot assume that every school will play its part as an open and secular institution. But the school that does so will have played an important part in the life of a nation, not just pedagogically but also socially.” I am truly grateful that I was part of such a great institution.  Author: S V Manjunath is currently heading Azim Premji Foundation - Karnataka as its State head. He made a mid – career shift more than six and half years back, when he joined Azim Premji Foundation