I heard a rumour that my old school is soon to be shut down. That’s my only school – I entered it for kindergarten at two and a half and left it with high honours at 15, class monitor, house captain, school prefect, prizewinner, teachers’ pet but nevertheless a very popular know-it-all, who did not yet know that that would be the last time she would enjoy certainty of victory.
It was a rural school, many students were the first ones in their families to be literate. There was a strong teaching ethic that had nothing to do with the syllabus, and a deep influence on the small community that Whitefield was at the time.
Around the time I entered high-school, the small private concern had entered a disproportionate stretch of glory. We became a centre where other schools came to write their school-leaving exams. We shone in state-level sports and cultural meets. Our name was heard in high places and our school band went to greet visiting government luminaries. Our chief guests grew more distinguished every year. Our teachers were volunteered as polling officers and advisors on textbook committees. We were the preferred guinea pigs for Education Board types, so new perspectives entered our classrooms now and then, usually in the English classes (or these are the only ones I remember). In later years, I studied with some formidable teachers of English literature but it was those visiting academics who really shaped the way I read and write, opening windows where none had existed.
Other shutters were removed too, quietly and forever. There was (still is) a school for the blind across the road and some students from there were sent to study in ours, a lesson in self-sufficiency long before it was fashionable to think of the disabled as differently abled. My mother was one of the group of teachers in my school that crossed the road and learnt Braille to make this happen. Most alumni my age will remember at least one blind child in class. One of these children is now a very senior official in a bank, another is a translator in the UN. It still bothers me when someone hurries to assist a blind person with what they believe is compassion but is really presumption, and am gleeful when the helper is shaken off impatiently. Then there was “moral science”, which was a secular teaching of principles of the “honesty is the best policy” variety. Religion only entered intellectually in the language text books through poems or stories from the major religious groups.
But I went to last year’s School Day celebration and found a mere facsimile of the place I remember. “Moral” overwhelmingly means Hindu now. Eid is a day off. Christmas is a foreigner. The Guru Granth Sahib is a mystery. Even the Buddha gets no air time. The strange parochialism that is being celebrated across the country has permeated into the staff room where teachers have long been required to wear saris, leaving no room for diversity in the form of a skirt-wearing kindergarten teacher named Lillian or a music mistress called Miss Dunn swathed in awe-inspiring frocks. No blind children play football with the sighted ones. Professors do not take poetry classes for 14-year-olds on teach-the-teacher visits.
It seems the school I knew is long gone anyway, I’m just glad it existed for a while. I have to admit though that the tartan band uniforms are much better than ours used to be, as is the band itself.
The rumour turned out to have got it wrong - it wasn't the school that was ending but the tenure of the head mistress. She used to be my maths teacher, one of the strong influences of my school days, and with her goes the last of the old guard. I guess I have no more reason to visit the school, for school days or anything else.
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