Georges Espitalier-Noel: Teacher Extraordinary
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
I was saddened to learn about the passing away of Georges Espitalier-Noel recently. More popularly known as Georgy, he was nick-named ‘paratonnerre’ at the Royal College, Curepipe where he taught, probably because of his booming voice. I had the fortune of having him as my teacher in Form IV, when he had just returned from the UK after serving, so we learnt, as Welfare Officer for Mauritian students at the High Commission of Mauritius in London.
As in those days we were still a British colony and in the bastion of Britishness, so to speak, that RCC was, anybody coming from the blond Albion was perceived with great respect, awe even, because they were thought to possess special qualities and excel in learning and teaching. Georgy did not disappoint us, as indeed many of the others too. But he went far beyond our expectations: to say that he was outstanding would be an understatement. For, besides excelling as a teacher, he was a bubbly, friendly, warm, extroverted and at times even flamboyant human being, to our great delight. It seemed to us that he was a natural-born actor and storyteller, which explains that he ran the Drama Club so successfully.
Dramatic indeed he could be, as when one cold wintry morning, he entered our classroom situated on the first floor on the side overlooking the playground. He pushed the door closed, leant against it with his back, and sinking a little with his hands clutching at his chest, started to recite:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk..
And then, calling him by his name (he knew all our names) and pointing to a student at the same time as he straightened up, he thundered, ‘now you continue!’ We had been given as homework to learn the poem – Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats – and would be called to recite it in class. I do not remember what happened next, most likely taken aback the fellow student must have fumbled somewhat before picking up the thread and then went on to do the recitation.
On another occasion, taking us through Shakespeare’s King Lear, he designated two students as King Lear and some other character respectively, and requested them to stand up and read the parts, addressing each other in their respective roles. The first one’s voice was hardly audible and after straining to listen to him for a while, Georgy let out to him, ‘Karl, YOU are KING Lear, a KING my friend, speak up like one!’
It is no wonder, therefore, that those of us who had the privilege of being groomed by such teachers, took to liking the subject they taught. I owe a lot of my love of English poetry to Georgy, but I also recall Regis Fanchette, who was my teacher in Form I. In those days, courtesy the Book Loan Scheme, we all had Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as our textbook of English poetry, starting from the very first Form. One day Regis Fanchette was doing The Daffodils by William Wordsworth, and I was asked to read:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
— when Mr Fanchette interrupted me with the remark, ‘not “TEN thousand” Gopee, you must say “ten THOUSAND saw I at a glance…”! It is THOUSANDS of daffodils that he saw, so the emphasis must be on the THOUSAND, not on ten, do you understand?’
Put this way, and so forcefully, how could anyone not understand! Thus I learnt about how to lay emphasis on words and separate syllables, and this has served me in good stead throughout my life and career, allowing a more refined appreciation of the nuances of language and literature, opening ever fresh and new mental worlds to explore.
Did one dare speak other than English to Georgy in his English class? Those who did were put in their place as it were. I used to sit in the last row, and my co-student (desks were arranged in pairs) was Denis de…, a Franco-Mauritian like Georgy. He wanted a clarification about a text that we were being taught, and addressed his question to Georgy in French. That’s the only time I saw Georgy almost fume: ‘Excuse me,’ he retorted in all seriousness, ‘I have not understood what you said, could you please repeat that in English?’
Denis was naturally not amused, and felt humiliated, for after the period was over he let out his anger to me: ‘ki li coir li ete couyon-la! To conne, c’est acoze mo papa ki mo pe continuer college pou passé ca couyonade senior la, sans quoi depi longtemps mo tonton pe dire moi vine travaille are li dans tablissement, li pou donne moi tout!’
I was stunned, since as far as I and most of the students were concerned, passing the SC and then HSC was the absolute, unique passport to further studies, employment and one’s future. And here was this guy who was saying he could get on without it! Was it because he was repeating Form IV?
But I am sure that later on he must have come to better sentiments about Georgy as a teacher. We went on to complete SC, and he came out with a Grade 3. After that he disappeared from RCC. When we were in Upper VI, to our great surprise one day he turned up to meet us. He had close-cropped hair, American GI style, and spoke American English with a quasi-native accent. What a transformation, we told ourselves. He then explained how his parents had decided to send him to America, that he was in a college in Philadelphia, and was doing good for himself. We never met afterwards – but I am sure he must have gone on to be a successful person, for he too was a good-natured, open-minded, friendly person.
For that matter, life being what it is, once I left school and went my separate way, I never had the opportunity to meet Georgy again. But through the grapevine (late Yves Espitalier-Noel, befriended through Krish Gajadharsingh and with whom we walked for several years in the woods every Sunday, and late Fernand, colleague and friend) I learnt that he had shifted to St Joseph’s College. I crossed him a couple of times riding a mobylette in Chasteauneuf street, Curepipe. Age had wrought upon his face, as was to be expected, and I preferred to remember him as he was in my schooldays. Once he called me up, addressing me as ‘Doctor,’ and I felt a bit odd! It was about a minor health problem he was having, but as it did not fall within my speciality I referred him to another colleague and wished him well.
These are but few of the several memories I have of that fantastic persona who marked my formative years so indelibly, along with others of his calibre in various subjects who were equally impressive. They were what I call true teachers: they fired your imagination, and ignited you with an infectious enthusiasm for their respective subjects. Instead of talking down to you, they came down to your level – literally sometimes, as when mathematician Robert d’Unienville would squat beside a pupil’s desk – and went through any query you would have raised, until both pupil and teacher were satisfied that understanding had been achieved of the particular point at issue. They were mentors and preceptors, role models to emulate, dedicated professionals concerned with only one thing: that their pupils should rise and shine, surpassing them if need be – as long as they advanced the cause of knowledge. They prepared us to be all-rounders, and hence their proximity to us, which allowed them to transmit not only knowledge but also the values involved in so doing.
Nowadays when I hear some people who call themselves ‘pedagogues’ debate endlessly such lofty matters as whether marking the class attendance is or is not part of their scheme of duties, and are even prepared to engage in duels at national level to further complicate the issue, I consider myself and my generation lucky to have belonged to an earlier era where the adage that teaching is a noble profession had real meaning in fact.
Fare thee well, dear Georgy, forever a Revered Teacher.