One of the great boons of medical practice is coming across people from all walks of life, and of all ages. The youngest would be a newborn, and depending on one’s luck one can have the privilege of treating centenarians. My oldest patient to date, a lady whom I operated upon for a fracture of the hip many years ago, was 103 years old.
A still greater privilege is that of going beyond the purely professional doctor-patient relationship and making durable acquaintances based on shared common interests, a situation which not infrequently leads to developing genuine friendships. A number of the latter type take shape early in one’s career, but later on, with more time on one’s hands as it were, at the tail end of the medical career, quite often we meet people of a certain age and standing in their chosen fields with whom a conversation is struck along ‘philosophical’ lines during the course of the person’s treatment.
Thus it was that I had the immense pleasure of having a good chat with a remarkable person who has had a very satisfying career as a primary school teacher. He has now been a head teacher for some time, but as we were talking it became very clear to me that at heart he was wedded to his primary vocation of teaching children and moulding their character, as well as to act as a moral guardian overseeing their proper development, complementing and supporting the role of the parents in this process. Yes he was a head teacher and performed his administrative duties as was required – but he almost dismissed these to a secondary place in his scheme of things, his teaching universe. Hence the title of this article – the bracketing of ‘head’ to indicate that the focus is on ‘teacher’ rather.
I myself have always liked to teach, and from the first stint at the profession before I went to study medicine to coaching girlfriends at medical college, lecturing at the University of Mauritius in the early 1990s, the Central School of Nursing and later at the local medical school at Belle Rive, besides participating in a number of induction courses for newly-recruited doctors and so on, I have thoroughly enjoyed imparting knowledge and guiding inquisitive minds in their journey towards professionalism. And on the way, as usually happens, formed some very strong bonds many of which provide much nostalgia and very pleasant souvenirs. Even better, several have become lifelong attachments. So whenever someone starts evoking the teaching experience, I am all eyes and ears as it were!
Here I was face to face with this man who was clearly in love – in love not only with teaching, but as much in love with his passion for teaching if I may put it this way. This was only too palpable in his conversation, in the modulations of his voice and its tone, and visible in his facial expressions as well as in the warm glow on his face and the shine in his eyes.
He was recovering from a severe episode of severe and acute pain in the low back, and I was giving him advice about do’s and don’ts. I prescribed rest amongst other things and would write out a sick leave certificate – no doctor, he pleaded, I have to start winding up before the Easter holidays, and the parents are coming midweek, it’s already arranged, I cannot be absent. We agreed that he would spend a couple of hours at work on each of the two days that he had to be present to fulfil his duty, and promptly go back and take his prescribed rest.
I have known others who would so gladly take the time off, especially if there was a very valid medical reason for it. But not this man. At fifty-seven years he had over three decades of career as a teacher, and I can imagine that he was not the kind to take leave just for the heck of it. His place was by the side of his pupils, and counselling the parents. He spoke with obvious understanding about a few of the difficult ones whom he felt personally responsible for, whose parents were struggling to handle them but whom he had managed to bring round and put on the right track – to the great relief of and with gratitude from the parents. There were problems of behaviour and of learning, and he was quite capable of dealing with them, sparing the parents much anguish.
As doctors most of the time we remember our interesting or difficult ‘cases’ – especially when we are discussing in an academic, neutral fashion with other colleagues – and we may incidentally ‘put a face’ to a case. But not so my interlocutor: his little protégés were not problem ‘cases’, nor were they little adults. They were bundles of joyful responsibility that befell him, each with a name and a personality, a whole little human who needed him in more ways than one, with him even playing out a parent role where this was required.
And he made sure that they did well, as best as they could, praising their efforts to better themselves, and adroitly pulling them back when they were going astray. For naturally that reflected on him as a teacher, and on the school too, and he was acutely aware of that.
He took me back to my own primary school days and the teachers I had known, many among them loved and respected, and I got a return in equal measure if not more. Just as in my days – and those of my generation would remember too – when the teacher represented moral authority, so was it with this exemplary teacher. If the teacher punished us then, it was a rare parent who would come and confront the teacher frontally and aggressively: parents were practically never on our side – we must have deserved the punishment they would opine, such was the respect for the teacher’s judgement.
But this went even further, for if we misbehaved at home, quite often our parents would threaten with reporting us to the teacher and head teacher for corrective actions – and this put the fear of God into us, with the result that we would think twice before doing anything that we knew might displease the parents. In this ‘soft’ way, through the moral connectivity that existed from school to home, discipline was made to prevail both at home and at school.
Of course there were the odd ones among the teachers, but the general trend and atmosphere of morality and discipline made sure that they were ‘contained’ and did no harm. Both my gentleman patient and I had to concede, however, that things were no longer the same, that there was sort of inexorable general decline among the professions, all professions, and that those who had passion and dedication for service were alas fewer nowadays. There were defaulting teachers, defaulting pupils, and defaulting parents too. We heaved a sigh as I bid him goodbye and wished him well. Was I glad indeed to have met such a thorough professional…
* Published in print edition on 3 April 2015