An era of excellence in 100 years of Matlab High School
Headmaster was taking notes. He had seen many disadvantaged students. He might not have seen anything like me: disadvantaged and sick. He one day told me, 'You have tenacity of purpose.' I learnt a phrase, a variation of which would open up a whole new field in developmental psychology, many years later in the Western world.
SSC Misfortunes and a Teacher Becoming a Father
Headmaster behaved like a father, being more nervous than the candidate, during my SSC exam. Matlab School students had to travel to Chandpur town and stay there for many days to write their exams. That put its students at a significant disadvantage in finding accommodations and paying for their meals. I was fortunate to have a friendly face in Chandpur in the late Haradhan Chakraborty, who saw in me what Headmaster was seeing: a fatherless Hindu boy in a Muslim country fighting to keep afloat. He himself, an advocate in Chandpur court, was a victim of political harassment through imprisonment, whenever there was a tension between Pakistan and India. He was very proud of me as the son of his priest, my father, who performed yearly Durga Puja in his Bishnupur ancestral house, not far from our house.
During theSSC exam, Headmaster came to Chandpur to check how I and his students were doing. In his mind, board exam time was the most critical period for the school. After I was 15 minutes late for my Bengali first paper exam, he broke down into tears in the MJBHS daily assembly, while sharing that the hope of his school for1965 had been dashed. During exams, I was also being constantly watched and harassed by an invigilator from Hasan Ali High School, Chandpur, a competitor of MJBHS. He knew who I was, the top student from MJBHS. He denied me additional writing papers. He once charged to my desk and asked me to show him my left hand. When I opened my fist, he saw ginger roots and looked disappointed. He was expecting a piece of paper with answer to a question written on it. I felt obliged to disclose the purpose of the roots --- to clear my constricting throat that made me hard to swallow, one of the symptoms of psychosomatic illness I was suffering from.
The day my SSC result was published, Headmaster came to our house to take me back to school. That was his way of sharing good news. From his demeanour, I knew something was wrong. At the back of the school, he gave me the good news first. I came in third. Then he whispered the bad news, although there was nobody around. I was second but made third by the board officials. My being fatherless and being a Hindu minority, having no power to protest, were cited by Headmaster as being the reasons for the injustice. (My position was switched with Comilla Board's controller's son, who was not among the top students in his own Comilla Zilla School, underscoring the severity of the corruption.)
Headmaster then gave me a hug and said he could protest on my behalf, but then his school would be black-listed. He then said: 'You will be fine. You have tenacity of purpose.' He became a psychologist and a father at the same time, trying to console me and lift my morale up. He knew how much I had suffered since father's death. I also felt his disappointment. One position higher would have meant a lot to him and for the school. The success of the school was his life.
Happy to be third, in view of my poor health before and during the exam, I walked to Bishnupur, five miles away, to give mother the good news. She was in a shed with two other ladies, who were husking paddy using a dheki (a wooden structure). She immediately started crying, saying: 'Your father would have been so proud, if he were alive.' I walked away nodding. He would have been proud both as a father and a teacher. On way to our house in the same plot, I overheard another lady telling her husband: 'Tapan's mother is crying. He has failed in SSC.' She then walked to the dheki shed, where mother was being consoled by two ladies for crying for my good result, to console her for my presumed poor showing. A tragicomedy was in play in Bishnupur.
Headmaster as a Psychologist and a Practitioner of Placebo Effect
Besides being an innovative educator, Headmaster was a pioneering psychologist, in my opinion. He saw in me and other Matlab disadvantaged students a trait which he called 'tenacity'. That trait would be termed 'resiliency' --- many years later --- by a world-renowned developmental psychologist, Professor Garmezy from University of Minnesota, USA, after seeing a disadvantaged student doing well in school. His observation and research led to the foundation of the fertile field of resiliency in psychology.
By offering me blessed water in the school veranda to make me feel better, Headmaster was practicing 'placebo effect', long before the phrase was coined and became known to the Western world. And long before scientists could explain why placebo pills (or blessed water), with no known medicinal value, may work by raising expectation, which in turn releases some chemicals with therapeutic merit.
NinePillars of Matlab Model of Success
Nine pillars of the Matlab Model of Success, in my view, are: 1. Hiring a goal-driven headmaster; 2. Setting an academic goal for the school; 3. Recruiting and retaining great teachers; 4.Respecting and being fair to all teachers and students; 5. Raising money; 6. Promoting extra-curricular; 7.Making the class competitive by bringing in new talents; 8. Inspiring students by examples from the school; 9. Providing high-level guidance through daily school assemblies.
Setting a Goal
Headmaster proved that when one sets an achievable goal, there is a way. The goal he set for the school was to make it a centre of educational excellence. The main metrics he used for excellence were: number of students placing among the top 20; number of students placing in first divisions; and percentage of students passing, all in class X board exams.
Goal vs. Want of Money
Headmaster had an Everest-high goal for a non-govt. rural school, but a Wycheproof-low source of funding to pay for the expenses. The financial situation of the school was so dire that he was always surrounded by a group of people, including students receiving govt. scholarships, to all of whom he owed money. There were times when he did not have money to buy rice and lentil for his own family. But a kind and considerate person, he always paid my class-VIII scholarship money regularly. I was then fatherless, and my mother did not work. And father had also pleaded with him to look after me and brother before breathing his last. Other students would get money, if they could convince him that they could not study at night for want of money to buy kerosene oil for their lanterns. To a results-focussed educator like him, studying by students was of paramount importance. Some students were successful using that clever ploy, but others coming from solvent families had no such luck. He was aware of each student's financial situation.
Creative Fund Raising
Lacking financial wherewithal, he became creative in finding ways to support his ambitious goal. He went to cities like Comilla, Chittagong, Dhaka, and Narayanganj, and approached wealthy businessmen there for donations, in exchange for providing a better education for their unruly children in a rural setting, devoid of urban distractions. In a way, he started the concept of fund raising in the nineteen-fifties and the sixties, that is so common these days in private, public, and political sectors.
In addition to raising money from businessmen, he became creative in securing funding from govt. officials, like SDO or DC, through holding annual prize-giving ceremony, as mentioned earlier. In each of those ceremonies, he started his speech with an 'accomplishment segment', delivered with enthusiasm and pride in his face and voice, followed by a 'difficulty segment', delivered with a broken voice and tears in his eyes, and ending with a 'pleading segment' for funds with a sincere voice. The 'difficulty segment' included: students studying under a leaky roof in the monsoon rain; the hostels lacking money to prepare three meals a day; poor students not being able to study for lack of money to buy kerosene for their lanterns; teachers and staff not getting paid regularly, etc. The SDO or the DC had to be cement-hearted not to be moved. In doing that, headmaster practiced in the nineteen-fifties and the sixties what charities like United Way and Red Cross do these days in USA and Canadafor fund raising.
Lacking a large talent pool in Matlab, then populated mostly by people running small businesses, catching and selling fish, and farming, he went recruiting good students from other schools. Dr Matin Patwari (DMP), mentioned earlier, was one such recruit from a village near Laksam. Dr Hasan Imam was another talented recruit from the city of Comilla. He placed third in Comilla Board in1964. After recruiting students, he then had to provide for them free lodging, meals, and tuitions. He started doing in the nineteen-fifties and the sixties what the top schools in the US do these days to attract academically- or athletically-gifted students, by offering lucrative scholarships. The difference is that the US schools are blessed with huge endowment funds. Matlab School was cursed with 'red ink'.
To be continued...
Tapan Chakrabarty --- an MJBHS alumnus (1965), a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an
inventor and an innovator, and a columnist --- writes from Calgary, Canada