An era of excellence in 100 years of Matlab High School
Headmaster kept his silent promise to my father of looking after me. I was finishing class seven then. I was playing football in the playground, when a friend came over to alert me about what was brewing in the veranda, involving me in my absence. I wasted no time in adding my presence, hiding behind the north-west pillar, out of the sight of the three key players. I could feel the gravity in the air and see the tension in their faces. IAM and his hostel superintendent were standing by an easy chair, on which headmaster was lying. The veranda and its easy chair were enablers for Matlab School's success in that era. Lying there, Headmaster came up with his creative ideas to achieve his goal for the school. Standing there, he delivered his morning assembly words of wisdom to us to help him achieve his goal.
Lying there in that evening, he was addressing a complaint involving two of his students from the same class. One was his recruit, IAM, a Muslim boy from another school brought in with offer of free food and lodging and promises of a Matlab education and high placement in SSC. The other was I, IAM's class competitor and the child of Headmaster's deceased Hindu pundit. The complaint was about IAM's getting lower marks than me in Bengali first paper, which was marked by my father's replacement, the new Hindu Sanskrit teacher. It was a complex case, with an undertone of unfairness based on religion.
I could see Headmaster comparing my paper with that of IAM, one question at a time. He was also peering at the question paper from time to time. At one point, he paused and then flipped a few pages forward and then a few pages backward of my paper. He then raised his body from the easy chair looking uneasy and threw the papers in the direction of the hostel super and said: 'Next time, before you complain, check the facts. This question is worth 10 marks. Tapan wrote five pages and Idris wrote only one paragraph.'
That evening, I went home happy sanguine about my top position in the class. I also felt good about my habit of writing more than was necessary. I was happy that Headmaster had looked at my exam paper on my strongest subject. I also was pleased with headmaster's decision, but did not quite comprehend the significance of his ruling. I thought all headmasters and teachers would reach the same decision. But I was only 12 then. Now at 66, after seeing and living in the world and being a victim of unfair practices by people in positions of power, I ask myself multiple times how could he, a rural high school headmaster, make such a fair call in a very delicate and complex situation. The answer I get every time is that he was focussed on the board results. He knew he could not intervene in the board exam. Had he ruled in favour of my competitor wrongly, it would have the effect of a double whammy of demotivating the deserving candidate (l) and sending the wrong message to the other (IAM). The message he sent in the veranda that evening to my competitor and his hostel super and to me, without knowing I was there, was clear: In his school, class position had to be earned. Our positions in 1965 SSC proved Headmaster was right. In fact, another recruit, Humayun from Homna village, became my main competitor in class IX and class X.
That was my best memory of MJBHS, one I have recalled innumerable times and written about. It is a great example of practicing one of the nine pillars of Matlab Model of Success: Goal-driven fairness to all.
Headmaster's goal-driven fairness was not limited to me, his pundit's youngest son. He hired disproportionately more Hindu teachers, based on their qualification and ability to teach. None of his Hindu students, to my knowledge, had anything unflattering to say about him. He came to their side in times of need. Were it not for the timely intervention by Headmaster, Jagabandhu Kundu (JK), a bright Hindu student, would not have even finished high school. The top student in his class, JK was a no-show in classes for several days in a row. When Headmaster came to know about it, he walked to his father's store at Matlab Bazaar. The father told him that JK won't go to school anymore. 'Why? Is he sick?' Headmaster pursued. 'No. Not sick. What's the point?' The father went on to say that JK was going to attend the store, selling sugar-cane and date-palm molasses, even after finishing school. He might as well start sooner than later. Headmaster found it pointless arguing any further. He found JK a place with a Ghosh family, close to our house, with free room and meals in exchange for tutoring their kids: Santosh (my classmate), Madan, and Putul. That turned out to be good for me as well. JK became my role model and taught me the value of being disciplined and organized, two areas where I was weak. He also gave me his neatly-written notebooks on each subject, after finishing school and placing second in SSC in 1963 from Comilla Board. Headmaster must have been jumping in joy after being apprised of his result.
Headmaster's strong desire to achieve his set goal for the school overwhelmed his personal political position and religious belief. It would be decades later that goal-driven fairness of staff would be the modus operandi of the Western world, at least on paper.
Headmaster's Lone English Lesson
At school, I learnt more from Headmaster's assembly lectures than from a classroom. When I entered MJBHS, he had already stopped taking regular classes. He was occupied with management activities: raise money for the school, recruit students and teachers; give rounds to make sure teachers were teaching in classes; plan expansion; and think about the grand plan of founding the first college at Matlab. One day he came to substitute for the English teacher in class X in the lecture theatre, only one of its kinds in the school, in the new building on the south-west corner.
Rather than teaching syllabus materials, he shared his wisdom on how to do better in English by: practicing writing precis; reading Young Observer; reading English books by good writers; avoiding common grammatical errors; and writing differently from what is in the textbook, using our own words and thoughts and feelings. Needless to say, I wished the class bell did not ring and he taught us regularly. Headmaster himself was a four-letter student, getting more than 80 per cent marks in each of four subjects in matriculation exam. And it showed in his sharing.
Black Clouds over Mother and Me
Mother's extravagancy and father's not leaving enough cash were having an effect on the family's financial coffer. It was almost empty. The stress of doing well at school was also getting worse. I developed psychosomatic illnesses, feeling discomforts in many body parts, including brain, groin, abdomen, spine, and throat. Looking back, malnutrition and stress were the main contributing factors.
Mother thought I had been jinxed by all the praises and prolonged staring. Helpless, she took me to a Muslim Pir. He gave me a talisman. She then took me to a priest of Meher (Shahrastri) Kali Bari, who gave me another talisman. She took me to Paniala (Noakhali) to my maternal aunt's home. Her father-in-law gave me yet another talisman. It seemed like everybody had some kind of talisman for me. My both upper arms were burdened with two bunches of talismans, dangling from two thick black cotton cords. The talismans might have a 'placebo effect', although that phrase or the science why it may work was not known then. One of my classmates saw them one day, when I was taking a bath in the school pond. Then the whole class knew about it; a few started fondling them. Some teased me saying that talismans were the reason for my class standing, not my studying and talent. It was as though I was taking performance-enhancing talismans. A tragicomedy was playing out in our class.
Headmaster gave me water blessed with an Arabic prayer to drink, in the school veranda. Through these all, with a brain working at 70 per cent capacity and a body experiencing all kinds of spasms and strange feelings, I persevered, played sports, and continued to do well in school, maintaining my top position in class IX final and class X school test, before SSC.
To be continued...
Tapan Chakrabarty --- a 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