Four Decades Ago

Events around me are uncertain. This year GCSC, A Level (Matriculation, +12) exams been set aside, hours of planning & preparation with uncertainty around us. COVID-19 pandemic lockdown kicked in. My mind went back to 1980 Guwahati, Assam. Some parents and students must have felt the same uncertainty, that year in Assam in 1980? Events around that time in Assam was political, as students took matters to their hand, which subsequently forced the Indian Government to take a decision about illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh. This meant mass protest. Attending school, college or university had taken a back seat. I wonder how those kids must have felt in 1980, those who were preparing for their school passing out critical exams? What was their anxiety like? Their parents? Would the forthcoming years be better?

I was 9 years old in 1980. Growing up in Guwahati, having attended kindergarten in St Mary’s convent, I need to clear an entrance test to get my place at Don Bosco High School, (Panbazar) Guwahati. My life will be sorted if I find a place at Don Bosco! My cousins attend Don Bosco. Seniors in our neighbourhood go here and they have made a mark, so was my Ma telling me. Do the test well. I was in Class 3 and life’s anxiety is already beginning to slowly creep in. But that very year, that fateful year 1980, it was decided that Don Bosco would have an early start of the day by absorbing all the kids passing out from St Mary’s Convent. This meant for me and my Ma, no entrance test and my life is sorted! We also moved home, to our own house in Kahilipara Road that year. Having left my Zoo Road friends, I was initially depressed, but got super excited to meet Sanju, Tuku and Bubla [Sanjeev Jain, Pratas Baruah and Chiranjeeb Sharma], my newfound Kahilipara Road buddies and fellow Junior School Bosconians, who too did not have to take that entrance test either!

Two years ago, my older daughter must have felt similar anxiety. She had to take the 11+ exam for her to find a place in a decent school in our neighbourhood, here in Kent. In the UK, secondary school year would start at Class 7 when children would attain 11 years of age. Therefore, kids on their 10th birthday year take the nationwide 11+ exam. Building up to this “preparation” to pass the 11+ exam happens two years prior and interestingly parent’s anxiety levels are at its peak. I recall traffic jams, car park discussions, “weekend lockdowns for home study” for two years and finally praying. No such anxiety or trouble my Ma had to take in 1980, by the way. It’s the lack of good schools that create this pressure for everyone everywhere and in my case we had only two schools back then, its either Don Bosco or KV Khanapara. By now in Guwahati, choices for young people are much more than what we had 40 years ago. But then, that has been the case for mankind as we progressed through decades. Choices, I mean.

So, I started, seamlessly, in this esteemed school. Our headmaster must have been in his early 30s, dashing, outspoken and charismatic. Fr V M Thomas. Looking back, it seems to me now, a social education experiment was undertaken as the 1st batch of Don Bosco “Junior” School was welcomed to its hallowed grounds in that spring of 1980. Prevailing unrest and mass class boycotts would commence from 11am onwards, by which time we would have completed our 4th or 5th period and soon would be ready for home time at 12 noon. Although sheltered by the high walls of our school campus, I distinctly remember one incident, rather a broken-glass-shattered-noise, followed by commotion and chaos. Protesters and student agitators stormed into our headmasters’ office and broke the wall clock in his room! School authorities called the police, while we lot were escorted out of the campus by the side gate. I guess, news reached about a certain group of small children quietly attending school, in the early morning hours.

Interestingly I remember that incident even 40 years so far away. Reason being, if you decide to go against the prevailing forces you must also have strong damage control policies or drills in place, should the, “you-know” hit the fan. There were young school children inside their classrooms, reading about maps or correct punctuations, or was busy in mental maths. Suddenly this got disrupted. Like a drill, we all were escorted out of the class in straight lines, out of the campus via a side gate and safely handed over to our parents. Seems normal isn’t. Now a days in any school around the world, in cities we are familiar with, this drill could be standard procedure. But what about 1980? The world we live in today is better prepared I think in terms of managing crisis. Or are we? COVID-19 pandemic lockdown management? Contemporary lessons from sweeping events of global proportions like 9/11, 26/11, or gun crimes in US schools, have taught us to deal with crisis management. But what about 1980?
Learning is yet to happen in such matters, I thought.

We shall arrive at this little later, but for now let’s enjoy Don Bosco Junior School during 1980s. From Day 1 as we hardly met children from higher classes, we were the seniors and the only group in the campus. Now think about this for a moment and how lucky we were. We got the full attention of our teachers who challenged us, demanded from us excellence and under strict discipline we were raised to understand the value of time, follow routines, expand ourselves beyond the classroom. Oblivious to what was happening outside, I along with my friends continued this journey and we fully immersed in school life. And what a life it was!

Beyond academics we were called upon to participate in a range of activities like, Scouts & Camporees, science exhibitions, community work, Interact Club, dramatics society, debate and quiz clubs, picnic and the school fetes. To watch the 1982 Asian Games, a colour TV Screen was on display at our school veranda. Sports became an essential part of our routine. Cricket & table tennis players from our school went on to become regional & national level players. Rajib Rajbonshi from our batch, is a sought-after cricket coach today. From an early age, good handwriting practise was encouraged, and religious studies were packed in. I remember Burn’s Hall (named after Father Burns), a hall with staircases within. Our science labs used to take place here. Adjacent to it was the TT Hall. Many champions played table tennis here and, on few occasions, I was on stage, playing various characters, exploring drama and theatre. Substantial were my school years. Busy life, packed with activities and challenges, I felt free to make my mark during those formative teenage years.

Lately I am reflecting upon this value, this well-rounded Don Bosco School
education that I got. Maybe now I have children of mine in similar age as I was, 40 years ago. Current ongoing “home school” over Microsoft Teams, under lockdown conditions, have taught me many aspects about a teacher’s life. Or atleast I thought so. Then I had to spend many weary tiring hours with my two wonderful kids on their “online submissions”. Tactics I had to use included bribing and at times threats. There were times I walked out, screamed and lost the plot completely. There were times we submitted jointly and times we marvelled at the joy of learning together. Bottom line, being a schoolteacher is a bloody-hard-job!

My mind takes me back in time. Back to where we began. The school assembly at the start of each day. As our years progressed, lines of grey trousers, white shirts, polished black shoes, stood in rapt attention, fresh first thing, every morning, in pin drop silence. Stood on a podium in front of us, addressing the assembly was Fr V M Thomas. Teenagers, boys, mostly naughty, were closely monitored by towering personalities – these giants of teachers whom we feared and loved at the same time. My batch mate Partha Pratim Goswami played the school drums, welcoming the day. Readers will know Partha as he accompanies Zubeen Garg in their shows now. Just bragging. We have a celebrity amongst us. Partha remains a dear friend to me to date.

Fr Thomas’s assembly address is something I recall even today. He talked about leadership, community work, good values and used quotes from prominent texts. My 7-year-old describes her school assembly to me every day. For her Mr Abbott, is the central figure in her school. The school’s principal is the pivot, a role model. Later, during my teenage years, I may not have paid any attention to what Fr Thomas might have said. But now with kids on their way to developing values, surprisingly Fr Thomas and his assembly memories surfaces. Circle of life.

Last week I was invited by the school alumni to join in a global zoom call to remember two of our teachers passing away. Sombre occasion, I dialled in and visibly taken aback to see the large-scale participation across a wide time stamp. Past pupils from 1960 to 2000 paying tribute to Hari Bora and Ganesh Kalita Sir. Fr Thomas kicked off the online meet with a brilliant tribute to both the teachers. He spoke of them as pillars of giants who stood by him during those years of challenging times. He used Todd Henry’s “Die Empty” to describe the team behind Don Bosco Junior School. Each of our great teachers delivered their best before dying, thus “emptying themselves fully in raising us”. Powerful, I thought and now looking back indeed it makes so much sense.

Universally teachers everywhere have the same effect. Or you would think so. The other day me and my daughter were having a “day out with Daddy”. As we sat down to catch a breath and a coffee, she spotted her teacher from school and before long I was left alone as they chatted on. For me my schoolteachers were a different kind. Living giants. Phukan Sir’s height didn’t matter, but what a giant he was! Stellar striking memory. Knew everyone by name, habits, our strengths and weaknesses. They gave us the space to grow, pushed us and showed us how simplicity wins everything. It is this simplicity that Amitabh Phookan was talking about the other day during our Zoom meet. An unassuming person who knew precisely everything about you and the subject they taught.

On that broken-glass-shattered-noisy day should our teachers were to look at the crisis management manual, to tick boxes and measure outcomes, we would have had a mob in our classroom. And a real mob did turn up that day. A masked gang, rampaging everything on their way, smashing crucifixes, breaking windowpanes, two floors above us ripped apart. School remained closed for months to restore. Eventually, “new normal” also happened for us. Our batch and batches to join Don Bosco in the subsequent years, received a sheltered education, oblivious to big events taking place outside its walls. The social education experiment that I talked about, touched us all and we were the first lot of Version 2.0s to benefit from it.

As the lockdown in the UK eases its way, with schools returning, my kids attend theirs’s in bubbles. For them a new normal has been restored. Protected grouping, to save them from infection and infecting others. During breaks they don’t meet people from other classes. Different circumstances, but similar experiences.

The valuable education that I got, which enhanced my life, is no less than one would get in any elite boarding school. But at the fraction of its cost! I mean come on, what must have been our school fees back in the days? I remember reading about Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing from the LIFE magazine in our school’s reference library. I remember looking up Britannia Encyclopaedia Series and I remember waiting under the balcony during lunch breaks, fighting, screaming and jumping to catch those rare stamps thrown at us from above. I remember detention outside the Headmaster’s office. I remember the Walkathon from Shillong to Lake Barapani and our Madam Dipti Miss offering kindness of encouragement, urging those tired happy little feet, to plod on.

I will quickly jump up to meet my past teachers from school and greet them with same reverence as I did 30 years ago. So did many alumni who attended the Zoom call, going back to years even before I was born. Listening to them describing their nostalgia and offering their respect, I realised how fascinating my school must be. That pastoral care and rich learning meant knowing about the Ural Mountain Range and trigonometry. I learned about the Stupa of Sanchi. I travelled through Rudyard Kipling’s Ricki-Tikki-Tavi. I learned to draw maps, empathise on her pathos in Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s Bhodori, found out about the outside world, played at lot, took initiatives in projects and made everybody, my close friends.

Then the year 1987 came. We left school that year. The first lot of Version 2.0s stepped into the outside world. I feel we made a mark. I feel we raised the bar across a wide spectrum. I feel like that mouse in that song “How lucky I am, Living in a windmill in old Amsterdam!”

Subhash Goswami (Class of 1987)
Don Bosco School, Guwahati, Assam, India