Vile or Visionary?

Rev. Bro. GeorgeI was reading an article today about the recreational habits of Magnus Carlsen, when I stumbled upon this sentence: “…late afternoon, Carlsen headed for the Santhome School, which is near the Marina beach. He played football, and also basketball, for more than an hour”. I wondered how he would have played his football in Chennai’s afternoon heat. The answer immediately triggered a trip down the memory lane.

Santhome School is where I completed my schooling (11th and 12th). During the time I was there, our Headmaster was a Rev. Bro. George. Now, the universal consensus at that time was that Bro. George (referred to, rather unpleasantly as the Princi because of his insistence on using the title of ‘Principal’ instead of the usual ‘Headmaster’) was a horrible person. You could ask anyone in the neighborhood, even those who did not have much to do with Santhome School, and they will recollect some horror story about how he was downright mean, ruthless, insulting etc.

I myself started with some pretty bad memories. He asked an unreasonable amount as donation when I joined 11th standard. A few months later, he doled out an extraordinary punishment for our whole class for creating ruckus (what else are we going to do…study?). He asked the entire class to go sit in the grounds until we ‘felt sorry for our mistakes’. That end result wasn’t defined, which meant that our punishment would go on for an indeterminable period. The classes went on, with teachers coming out to the grounds to meet us. At last, a couple of us were selected to represent our case (I don’t exactly remember whether it was Sundar, Sanjeet or Arun Kumar who was with me). We went to the Princi’s office and were not given an audience. We waited outside during every break — before classes, during lunch — you get the idea. I don’t quite remember how long we had to wait, but finally he summoned us in.

The repentance was defined: we were supposed to write lines. Only that it wasn’t just lines — rather, the whole 11th class Physics textbook. And no, he wasn’t going to listen to any protests about how impractical something like that would be. We communicated the news to our classmates, and as you can imagine, we became the butt of a whole lot of unpleasant jokes. So, again we began another round of waiting around the Princi’s office until we melted his heart enough to concede an audience. After many desperate attempts, we managed to reduce the punishment to a more manageable one — copying out just a single chapter, instead of the whole book.

So, why am I remembering this person now? Because, behind all these unpleasantness, I like to think there was a visionary.

This was the late 90s. The schools in our city barely had enough infrastructure to get the classes running. Some schools boasted of a big cricket ground with a decent pitch, but that’s mostly just property with little maintenance. There were no ambitious projects to develop a world-class infrastructure or to involve the students in meaningful extra-curricular activities. This is where the Princi had a few different ideas.

Bro. George was instrumental in getting the whole school premises a facelift. Under his supervision, a great deal of landscaping happened around the campus, in a time where landscaping wasn’t even thought of as applicable to a school campus. He also conceived and effectively executed two state level science exhibitions, called Euresan. Of course, every school worth its salt conducts science exhibitions in some form. But, the scale at which the Princi wanted his exhibitions was very ambitious.

This was the time when I also got to interact more with him as a person. I even remember some days, where he would actually go so far as to share a laugh with some of us, which was a very rare sight. Soon, I, along with a select few classmates, got the reputation of ‘knowing how to get Princi to accept something’. I use the word reputation here, but I know it was more of a notoriety really. I know now that he became interested in listening to my thoughts probably because he felt I could relate to his thoughts. I guess he couldn’t care less about people who would give up at the first chance.

Perhaps his biggest achievement was the completion of the Montfort Indoor Stadium cum Auditorium. It is part of the neighborhood folklore that all the donation money he received from the students either went into his pocket or was dumped into this stadium. I would never know the truth, but the stadium itself was a revelation. Something of that scale and sophistication had never been attempted in the city by so small an organization as a private school. High-quality hardwood flooring suitable for all athletic activities, decent sound-proofing, nice lighting and comfortable seating — all put together, it was so well done, that it was picked as one of the venues for the 1995 SAF games conducted in Madras.

This stadium would be etched in the minds of all students who were studying in the school during that time, but for very wrong reasons. Every student, at some point in time, was asked to volunteer in the stadium construction. Students were made to lift scaffolding from one place to another so that they could complete ceiling work. The Princi always assured that everything was safe, and I think he was successful in keeping this away from public scrutiny, but he really did push the boundaries in making school children labor around during school and after-school hours.

I have lifted scaffolding, polished hardwood and even painted a whole flagstaff silver one late night (at that point, it was claimed to be the tallest flagstaff in any city school). It was completely wrong, and yet the students were receiving experiences that would never have been possible in any other school. I learnt so many things , black, white and grey— how to organize highly coordinated events, how to handle contingencies (and even cover up effectively when things go south) and, in general, how to deal with people to get things done. I was also so distracted that my academics took a solid beating.

I would probably want to forget the two years I spent in Santhome School from an academic point of view. That was probably the period I have screwed up the most in my life so far — something that effectively curbed a whole lot of possibilities and, in a twisted way, shaped my career to be what it is today. But, taking studies out, I would remember that period of time rather well, for so much was happening around me, and much of that was shaped by this one person, the Princi.

Do I like Bro. George? Do I think he was right in doing what he was doing. I don’t know, to be honest. But, he thought differently and made things happen. In that way, he made his impact. I think that’s all he would have asked for anyway.

A short note about Bro. George from the school website:

Rev. Bro.George.K.J
Principal & Correspondent (1991-97)

Rev. Bro. K.J. George took charge as the Headmaster and Correspondent in 1991. Santhome made giant strides to become one of the most prestigious institutions in the city. Structurally the entire campus received a facelift with the renovation of the two libraries, labs, staff rooms, garden and the monuments and landmarks here and there are worth talking about. The whole campus turned into a poetry in stone. The crowning glory of it all was the colossal Montfort Indoor Stadium. It was a matter of pride for Santhomians when Montfort Indoor Stadium, dedicated to the sportsmen of India was chosen as a venue for the VII SAF Games. Innovative methods to improve the standard of education were introduced. Euresan’93 and’96, two state level exhibtions covering all dimensions of education was very successfully organised. Computer aided education was introduced. The introduction of co-education in 1995 was one of the major changes brought about in the school during his venture. Bro. George carried Santhome to heights never reached before.

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