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To Sir, with Love

To Sir, with Love

Logo of Teacher's Day Campaign; Pic: istockphoto

Loyola School teachers were generous. On a day when we students were supposed to make them feel special, they sportingly entertained us — by agreeing to a round of basketball, with the odds stacked against them. I now feel that the staff vs students match on Teacher’s Day was unjust as much as it was in jest. Let’s make amends.

Five years ago, when Vivek Krishnan (1997) and I led Loyola’s alumni association, we visited teachers to invite them for the ‘Back to School’ event. It was an eye-opener. One teacher refused to meet us, another entertained us politely, but the vast majority were simply thrilled to see us.

There’s always a joy when you meet somebody after several years. But the teachers were happy because we remembered them. They insisted that we had taken pains to visit them; our protests were brushed aside. For, in their experience, old boys rarely contact teachers, leave alone meet.

At times, an old boy invites teachers to his wedding. Among retired teachers, only a select few get such invites. And believe it or not, less than a handful of students in any batch invite teachers to weddings.

Old boys offer several explanations for this. “I was not close to all teachers. I invited the teacher I was close to,” a few tell me. Teachers, however, do not use measuring scales and differentiate students. In my experience, even those teachers who played favourites at school, consider every student “close”. In fact, the naughty boys who were shouted at the most, are the ones more fondly remembered by teachers.

Wedding invite is not the issue. If you don’t wish to invite somebody for your wedding, that’s your personal decision. In any case, all of us miss somebody or the other on such occasions.

The broader and real question is why we do not bother to write even one letter to any school teacher, after a few years of our leaving school. We often remember our teachers but we do not let them know that they are in our thoughts. It will take us less than an hour in a year, to light up the life of a teacher. If so, why not make the effort by posting a letter, sending an e-mail, calling up, or surprising a teacher with a visit?

A few old boys do contact oft-forgotten teachers, and not just the ‘star’ ones. These are exceptions, and exceptional. But why should they be exceptions? Why not make ‘keeping in touch with teachers’ the general rule, or as we often love to say, a Loyola tradition?

After that invite round of 2003, Vivek handed me the address list he had compiled from the school’s records, I keyed it in, and Abishek V (2001) uploaded it on the old boys’ association’s website. And something happened.

Mr V, one of my batchmates, used the address list to send wedding invites. He doubted whether teachers remembered him. So, along with the invite for the reception in Trivandrum, he sent a one-page letter explaining where he was, and how he was grateful to his Loyola teachers. On groom’s day, outside the reception hall, there was a battalion of teachers. As they strode into the hall and blessed him, it was difficult to say who was more happy¬† — the old boy, his parents, his teachers, or other invitees.

In the coming weeks, I’ll try to get Loyola teachers’ addresses again, and upload them here at (Update: Teacher addresses uploaded.) Please contact at least one teacher, preferably someone you haven’t seen or heard for years.

This September 5, let us play the game and watch the teachers win.

Why Lady Teachers are Best When Young

Our teachers taught us many things. In the process, they taught me something about school-teachers and school-teaching: lady teachers are best when they are young, gentlemen are best when they are old.

A few years ago, in the feedback forum of the Old Boys’ Association website, students from the 1970s and 1980s posted comments recalling their teachers, at times naming a few. What struck me was that some of the lady teachers who earned the praise, would have to beg for such expressions from later students. Simply put, they did not enjoy a healthy reputation by the 1990s.

Lady teachers who were good and popular when I was in junior school had turned bad and unpopular by the time I was in high school. Their counterparts in senior school too were good and popular, but invariably lost sheen by the time I left Loyola, or within a few years.

What do I mean by a “good” teacher? A good teacher is one who treats students like her own, tries to innovate in class, or encourages students to realise their potential in extra-curricular activities. A bad and unpopular teacher is conservative in the classroom, spends little time with students, hurts students through harsh methods of punishment, and appears to hate students than love them.

If we plot a teacher’s age on the x-axis and a teacher’s “good”ness on the y-axis, the career graph of a lady school-teacher would be a downward-sloping curve from left to right.

What could be the explanation for this? Is it that people grow tired over the years and prefer to go over the motions? Is it that the salary is not attractive for constant innovation?

My pet reason is as outlandish as the observation: the lady teacher’s son grew old.

Let me explain. A lady teacher enjoys solid reputation when she teaches students who are older than her own child. She is at her best when her students are roughly the same age as her child. As her child outgrows her students (remember, a teacher remains in Std IV while her son or daughter moves up), the teacher gradually turns indifferent, impatient, and generally less-liked. The lady teacher grows with her own child. So, typically a retiring lady teacher is likely to be less popular than in the past because her son or daughter would have entered college by then. That seems to have been the case of teacher X in senior school, who was popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, but less so by the 1990s. Teacher Y in junior school was popular when I was her student, but less so ten years later, because her child was by then studying in the senior school.

(The internet’s permanence endows it with an ability to be damaging and nasty. I also recognise that my article is based on anecdotal evidence, not a scientific survey. So, in all fairness, I desist from naming teachers.)

I do not see such an unhappy coincidence in the case of male teachers, though. Indeed, the opposite seems to hold true in their case. A male teacher is at his best when he approaches retirement (or teaches after retirement).

If we plot a teacher’s age on the x-axis and a teacher’s “good”ness on the y-axis, the career graph of a male school-teacher would be a wavy curve that initially rises, then falls, and finally rises.

Let me guess what’s happening. As a new broom, he is adventurous and popular. After a few years, as he is reined in by “realistic” colleagues and withdraws, his career curve starts falling. In this phase, he is a bad teacher: shunning innovation, strict, inward-looking, and apparently hurting students in words and deeds. Somewhere along the way (I haven’t found an inflection point like the lady teacher’s son’s age) the male teacher matures, turns accommodating, becomes open to students’ ideas, is less spiteful, and is most knowledgeable in the subject as well as pedagogy.

I repeat, I do not know why this happens. Probably, he has reflected on his career and is trying to avoid the mistakes of the past. Like the lady teachers, the male teacher’s children too may have grown older than his students, but that does not seem to have adversely affected the male teacher’s performance in school.

The male teacher seems to be career-driven while the female teacher is family-driven.

There are two reasons why I share my outlandish observation and theory publicly.

  1. If what I have sketched is true, then it has an implication for hiring teachers, and training them at appropriate stages in their careers. An “experienced” lady teacher, not the “pretty, young thing”, might be the one who badly requires a refresher course in education. Similarly, the middle-aged male teacher needs help and should be encouraged to reflect actively. A combined refresher session — male and female teachers of all ages sitting together — may not be the best course for Loyola to adopt.
  2. I seek validation or repudiation. Is my observation true? What has been your experience at Loyola or any other school? Is my explanation correct? What could be happening here? (Please do not identify teachers by names, especially if you are portraying them as “bad” teachers.)

Post your comments

Defining Father Pulickal

This article by G. Mahadevan (1987) was originally published in the NOBLES alumni e-newsletter of December 2002. It is republished here as part of the 9th anniversary series of posts on Fr Pulickal. – Ashok


A bearing that evoked respect, a beard that brooked no insolence, a laughter that was infectious and a twinkle in the eye that was unmatched. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known Father Mathew Pulickal can well be excused for talking about him in superlatives. After all he was one who taught us that life is as often about the superlative, as it is about the positive and the comparative.

It is difficult to define such a man: he was not just a priest, he was not just another of those jolly old men…do you get my drift? You can only go on saying he was not this, not that, and yet never lay your finger on what he was — in its entirety. Of one thing I am sure. Mathew Pulickal, the man, was never ashamed of his human frailties (Oh boy, was he fond of jalebis…and was he a diabetic!). He was also fond of a ‘good un’ as much as any of us imps around him. In short, he loved life as it is.

I can go on like this. But in one sense it is wrong to speak of Fr. Pulickal in the past tense. Yes, the man is gone. But, whatever he stood for, lives through all of us, doesn’t it? It must be fun having him up there.

G. Mahadevan (1987) is Principal Correspondent and Deputy City Editor of The Hindu newspaper in Trivandrum. At Loyola, he was Assistant School Leader.

(c) G. Mahadevan, 2002. Reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.

Fr Pulickal’s Four-letter Word

Fr Pulickal’s Four-letter Word

If you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you think of Fr Pulickal?”, various students will use different words to describe him. But if you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you hear ‘AMDG’?”, all students will tell you the same thing: Fr Pulickal.

Source: Pulickal taught me history in high school, and on every question paper he set for us, he inscribed “A.M.D.G.” in the end. There it was: centre-aligned, in Courier typeface, on the cyclostyled paper. (The typeface would vary on the odd occasion that Fr Pulickal keyed in the question paper on butter paper by using his own typewriter in the Residence.) I thought of celebrating his anniversary by doing what he might approve of — go beyond the question paper, explore the history of the abbreviation he introduced to us, and in the process combine the twin axes of this blog — history and Loyola.

AMDG is mentioned in dictionaries and encyclopaediae, but even in specialist works like encyclopaedia of Christianity, the explanation is almost always limited to “Abbreviation of ad maiorem dei gloriam, Latin phrase meaning ‘to the greater glory of God’. Motto of the Society of Jesus.”

Wikipedia has the longest explanation of AMDG I have come across. In contrast, Encyclopaedia Britannica does not even have an entry on AMDG. A blogger tells us that the phrase and the abbreviation were not created by Ignatius of Loyola. Another tells us that “for hundreds of years, this esoteric acronym [sic] has been used by many Catholics as either a prefix or suffix to practically any written work and, in it’s colloquialism, has stood for ‘All My Duties to God’ (AMDG).” Judging the state of AMDG today in popular and authoritative reference works, I would argue that the decision of St Ignatius to make it the motto of Jesuits explains AMDG’s survival into the 21st century.

The usage of AMDG has changed over time, noted Walter Ong S.J. in his 1952 article in the Catholic journal Review for Religious. A note on Ong’s article informs

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A.M.D.G. means the moment of decision after one has searched one’s soul trying to make a difficult choice. When faced with these difficult choices, St. Ignatius directs his readers, one should make one’s decision based on which option will be ‘for the greater glory of God’. To use this expression as a dedication in a book or on a building, Ong asserted, is inappropriate, for no particular decision has been made. It is sufficient to pronounce that the book or building exists simply ‘for the glory of God’, without the addition of the word ‘greater’.

Ong seems to have argued that the use of AMDG in dedicatory fashion was not wrong, but that the essence of AMDG was soul-searching.

In Loyola, if Fr Pulickal was the most celebrated user of AMDG, outside the school it was Pope John Paul II. When Time magazine awarded the Man of the Year title to the Pope in 1994, it reported,

Every morning, before his private and general audiences, John Paul devotes an hour or so to writing or – increasingly, as age and injuries have taken their toll – to dictation. When he can, he composes quickly, in Polish, with a neat, flowing hand, using a black felt-tipped pen. On the top left of every page he prints the letters AMDG.

Other well-known names associated with AMDG, the Wikipedia tells us, have been the music composer Bach, and the novelist James Joyce. From that tip-off, I set off on the trail of the latter.

James Joyce studied at a Jesuit school, which is the backdrop for much of his semi-autobigraphical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916.

In Chapter 2 of the novel, a para begins,

The next day he sat at his table in the bare upper room for many hours. Before him lay a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise. From force of habit he had written at the top of the first page the initial letters of the jesuit motto: A.M.D.G.

We know from an autographed manuscript at the Cornell University Library that Joyce himself wrote “AMDG” at the top of each page in one of the weekly compositions for his English class at Belvedere College in Dublin, the Jesuit school he attended.

Around the same time that Joyce wrote A Portrait…, another novel appeared, this time with the title AMDG. Published in 1910, and written by the Spanish novelist, poet and critic Ramon Perez de Ayala, AMDG is a “bitter satire about the author’s unhappy education at a Jesuit school”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here again, I am struck by the close association of AMDG with Jesuits, and the probable death of the phrase and its abbreviation, but for its use across centuries by Jesuits.

“Many Jesuit schools ask students to write the initialism at the top of their papers, to remind the students that their schoolwork is ‘For the Greater Glory of God’,” the Wikipedia tells us. This is consistent with Joyce writing AMDG in his English class, and later describing the act as a “force of habit” in one of his novels.

The Jesuits in our school did not follow this practice. Fr Pulickal was the only priest, in my years there, who wrote AMDG in public documents like question papers of exams. Nor did the priests advise or insist students to inscribe AMDG in notebooks or answer sheets. The priests probably felt it better to promote and project cosmopolitanism, rather than invite allegations of Christianisation. After all, in modern Kerala, despite the Malayala Manorama, and the extensive network of Christian educational institutions, any recommendation like inscribing AMDG on every page or notebook would have provoked the ever-suspicious Malayali and invited bad press.

It could also be that the use of AMDG is not the norm among Jesuits in Kerala. In the letters and e-mails I have received from Jesuits over the years, I have not seen AMDG in every correspondence, but only in a few.

There is some evidence, however, that a few smart Loyolites wrote AMDG at the end of answer papers, to score brownie points with Fr Pulickal for they were “hoping against hope that those 4 letters would compensate for an almost blank history answer paper coupled with the strictest valuation possible and save us from sure failure.” Jiby’s collection of Loyola anecdotes, where this is mentioned, fittingly ends in nostalgia with an AMDG inscription.

Tailpiece: At times, Fr Pulickal used to have quizzes in his classes. He would come with his pink or yellow scroll of notes, and shoot one question after the other. Here’s a question he never fired at us. Who is the patron saint of Jesuit students?

Father Pulickal – 9th Anniversary

Rev Fr Mathew Pulickal S.J. was one of the most admired, respected and loved priests of Loyola. Even though he never headed the school as Principal, he was the star of the 1980s and early 1990s, a period which any Loyola historian is likely to call the Age of Fr Pulickal.

Fr Pulickal passed away in his sleep on 2 November 1998, at Calicut.

In the past, Loyolites have discussed him on the Web, in their blogs as well as on Orkut. To complement such efforts, here is a double-post tribute to him, in the week of his anniversary.

  1. Fr Pulickal’s Four-letter Word by me
  2. Defining Father Pulickal by G. Mahadevan (1987)

Loyola’s Nigerian Connection

At school, whenever we mentioned Nigeria it would have been in the context of a “new teacher from Nigeria.” And it would be a male, Christian teacher who dazzled us with his knowledge, passion for teaching, and affection for students.

K.T. John joined Loyola in 1986 to teach maths in high school. Within two years, by the time he became my class teacher, he had earned a reputation on two counts—the first as a brilliant teacher, the second as an efficient organiser of events.

In 1989, P.A. Mathews passed Fr Pulickal’s tests to become a teacher at Loyola. I have heard that Fr Pulickal asked him to spot three mistakes in an English passage, and he identified four. “PAMs” was a teacher whose diction and gait conveyed that English was as much to be learnt as to be lived.

“PAMs” was followed by “JAMs” (Jacob Mathew) who taught at Loyola from 1991 to 2001. Jacob Mathew, with his charming smile and inventive ability to teach chemistry, was a popular teacher in not just Loyola, but in the whole city. Students thronged to his private tuition classes but his integrity was such that we never heard charges of favouritism levelled against him.

Back in the late 1970s, B.O. Sebastian too came from, I think, Nigeria. As his students would attest, “BOS” (pronounced “boss”) was a very friendly and popular teacher. Unlike K.T. John, PAMs and JAMs, he was young when he joined Loyola. With his cloud-burst smile, he spread cheer and was always among the students—whether playing in the basketball court, directing a play on the youth festival stage, coaching us in mass PT for Sports Day, or strengthening alumni relations at an old boys’ meet. He too was a good organiser of student and staff activities.

Each generation of Loyolites, thus, would have their favourite “teacher from Nigeria”. It prompted me to find out more about this African country 8,150 km from Loyola.

In 1960, thirteen years after India gained freedom, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. Till then, most schools in Nigeria were run by missionaries, with grants-in-aid from the colonial government. After independence, the Nigerian government set up several schools. This is strikingly similar to the history of school education in Kerala: during British rule, there were numerous schools run by missionaries in Kerala, the grants-in-aid system was popular, and it was only after Independence that the large-scale expansion of government-run schools happened, especially in Malabar.

In the 1970s, Nigeria experienced an oil boom thanks to discovery of oil in the Niger delta, and the government set up several schools and colleges. Several people from Kerala and Tamil Nadu migrated to Nigeria and a few other African countries to take up teaching positions.

Britannica tells us

Nigeria’s educational system declined significantly in the 1980s and ’90s. There was a shortage of qualified teachers, and the government was sometimes unable to pay them in a timely manner. Moreover, the number of schools did not increase proportionally with the population, and existing schools were not always properly maintained.

The collapse of the system probably prompted (and was fuelled by) Keralite teachers returning home. An article in The Week magazine mentioned that “a change in governmental policies and xenophobic outbreaks forced them to leave” African countries. Such scattered bits of evidence fit well into what we experienced—it was in the 1980s and 1990s that teachers from Nigeria took up positions in Loyola.

While this potted history of education in Nigeria sheds light on why we had teachers from there in the 1980s, there are other questions which remain to be answered.

What lies behind the success of B.O. Sebastian, K.T. John, P.A. Mathews and Jacob Mathew? (How) did Nigeria prepare them to be stars at Loyola? And also, why Christian teachers?

Nigeria is four-and-a-half hours behind Indian time. But it appears that it was years ahead of Kerala in school education. Or perhaps these teachers were moulded in Cambridge’s IGCSE system in Nigeria, and it helped them fit well and shine in the ICSE system later at Loyola. One day, when I meet these teachers again, these are stories that I would like to hear in detail.