regular-article-logo Thursday, 01 June 2023

Different lessons

The enduring legacy of a remarkable teacher

Arghya Sengupta Published 22.03.23, 03:55 AM
Memory lane

Memory lane

Elphage Pradip Rozario died on March 20, 1995. He was only 40 and succumbed to his injuries in a tragic motorcycle accident. He was a much-loved teacher at St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta, and the Akela of our cubs’ pack.

I was a little over 10 years old and this was my first brush with death. ‘Sir’ had always been special. He didn’t use blue or black ink but a wonderfully unique turquoise. His hair was neither long nor short, but somewhat like a mullet. He was neither strict nor lenient — he was gentle when he needed to be, and firm when circumstances demanded it.


That morning, it had not sunk in that I would not have another Thursday morning cubs’ meeting with him. But reality has a way of making its point unequivocally. After the school assembly, the entire fraternity of St Xavier’s — staff, students, alumni — walked down an emptied out Park Street with Sir’s family and friends to the A.J.C. Bose Road cemetery. As I walked with my father amongst countless others, it appeared that the city of Calcutta had come to a standstill. This was extraordinary — buses waited for over half an hour at the Mullick Bazar crossing. The traffic on A.J.C. Bose Road had fallen eerily silent. Some shops on Park Street had downed their shutters in respect as the cortége passed by.

As his body was lowered into the ground, I craned my neck but couldn’t see much amongst the sea of infinitely taller people. Instead, I looked up and felt an overpowering presence watching over all of us. “Jaani bondhu jaani, tomar achhe toh haathkhani, aaji bijono ghore (I know my friend, you are always present, even if the house is empty today),” my father would sing at a prayer service for Sir a few days later. Even though the turquoise ink had dried and the mullet wouldn’t grow, Sir would continue to guide my thoughts subtly, in death as in life.

Sir taught in a generation when teaching was an act of service. He ran X-Quizite, the school quiz club, not for credit or remuneration but because he loved quizzing and training students to become better quizzers. He was the Akela of our cubs’ pack only because he felt that team-building and working together were critical elements of education, and the Boy Scouts’ movement was a way of providing it.

He would have undoubtedly been bemused by what counts as excellence in education today. The truly wonderful school my son attends currently has its term break. During this time, it offers an activity-filled spring camp. It seemed like a wonderful idea to keep the kids occupied with stories, open-ended play, and, above all, spending time together and learning from each other. However, I was shocked to learn that since this was off-term, in addition to the fairly substantial fees the school charges, an additional one-time fee would have to be paid to participate in these sessions. Sir might have chuckled silently if he were around.

He might have been more vociferous in his principled denunciation of the commodification of education. As perhaps the most loved maths teacher in the history of the school, Sir knew how to explain concepts. His teaching was always interactive, personalised, even if a class had forty students, and brought out the best in them. Education was not about getting the job done, let alone a method of earning. Unfortunately, the trajectory of educational developments in India today has meant that earning dominates learning. It needn’t have developed this way. There is nothing intrinsic to digital forms of learning that make them inimical to deep engagement. But the prioritisation of entrance test ranks over acquisition of knowledge, marks over grasping concepts, and the impatience to provide what every school-going child needs — a little bit of love and care — have meant that the best case for Indian schools is to become factories churning out an assembly line of bookishly bright minds.

One might have imagined a better lot for teachers during such a time of churn in education. Although streams of revenue and respect have proliferated, this has happened outside the school system, not within it. The ed-tech industry in India alone was valued at $3.42 billion in 2021. It is expected to grow at approximately 30% every year till 2026. This stupendous growth is on the backs of countless teachers devising curricula, recording lessons, and providing customised teaching solutions delivered seamlessly to the students’ home. But in the midst of this, teacher salaries in schools still languish. Despite improvements, school teachers epitomise the paradox of being one of the most valued and least paid professions in India.

Without doubt, Sir would still have excelled in such an environment. After all, he was too good a teacher to remain on the sidelines. He would have tried to negotiate better deals for teachers and guided ed-tech in a sensible direction wherever he could. His denunciation of commodification would never have automatically translated into shunning digital education, its poster child. True to his character, he would have gently but firmly tried to guide it, as much as a teacher can in the corporate world of private education today. He may not have been wholly successful, but he would have tried.

But the platform in class would always have remained his natural stage. Writing on the board in his beautiful handwriting that passed the test of the most powdery chalk sticks, answering volleys of questions thrown at him, remaining calm despite mischievous teenage provocations, a screen would not have been capacious enough for his multiple talents. Maybe that’s why he left in such an untimely manner, just before the advent of the digital age.

But do teachers like Sir ever leave? We have all had childhood teachers who continue to remain a part of our lives long after we have left school. They inspire, chide, guide and walk alongside, even though we don’t meet them very often. Sir has walked alongside me and countless other Xaverians of my generation. His death reaffirmed something I had felt all along — Sir was truly larger than life and he would forever remain this way.

Arghya Sengupta is a former student of St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta

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