Conversations with a Teacher – Part 1
On account of Teacher’s Day, you see. I thought I might write something that threw the spotlight on teachers.
One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
~ Carl Jung
“I’ve been in the teaching field for 36 years,” she smiles. “And I don’t think I shall ever tire of it. It’s the noblest profession there is – because it’s not just about you. It’s about the next generation you help raise.”
A beatific expression graces the visage of Eugenie Pinto, Principal of the Queen Mary’s College, as we sit opposite each other in her spacious office, which projects a soothing aura of contrasting presences: today’s world, and an olde worlde charm that is quintessentially QMC. I have just wound my way through old and statuesque buildings still bearing remnants of the British Raj’s aura, around a bust of regal Queen Mary, and up corridors that positively reek of history, to meet Eugenie – and am aware, at once, that here sits a lady who has taken to the profession for all the right reasons: a sincere love for the vocation, a talent for foresight, and a genuine wish to assist those around her.
In this, the 37th – and the last – year of an illustrious career that began in 1971, she is as eager as ever to continue her good work. “I joined the IAS course, but my love for teaching superseded my ambitions to join the Administrative Service,” she reminisces. “You see, essentially, teaching is a way of serving people, and we, as public servants, are service-oriented. It’s something that’s enriched my life, and made it worthwhile.”
An alumni of the Stella Maris College, to which she came at the remarkably young age of 14½ – “Those were the days of Pre University Courses, so I jumped straight from school to College,” she smiles – and at 20, received an M.A., she remembers her years there with great fondness. “My love for literature kept me going – I’ve never regretted my decision to specialize in this field for a moment,” she says. As a child, her father’s career in the Southern Railways meant a great deal of traveling and shifting schools, homes and lifestyles. Instead of sparking an identity crisis, however, the changes produced a person of intriguingly different tastes and talents. “I never felt pulled up by the roots,” says Eugenie. “Far from it. I enjoyed every new experience, and made sure I absorbed something from everything.”
It may have played a great role in forming the person she eventually grew to be, as well. Working her way up from being a Professor at the Bharathi Women’s College and the QMC itself – “Did you know that one of my ancestors, Alice Pinto, did her undergraduate course in Geography here, in 1925?” – she steadily ascended the steps of the profession to being the Head of the Department of English at the Chennai Medical College and LN Government College, before taking the post of Principal in the Arignar Anna Government Arts College for Women, Walajapet. “Oh, that was a challenge,” she chuckles. “Earlier, I’d been the Head of the Department of English in the Quaid-E-Millat College, and when I received the offer for Walajapet, I wondered if I should take it. But the challenge appealed to me, so I did. And that worked enormously in my favour. One of the first huge tasks we had to undertake was getting the NAAC’s (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) Accreditation – we had to do it within 6 months. And we did! The whole college came together as a team, and we bagged a B++ from the NAAC,” she beams. “One has to project one’s merit. You get a good deal of credit for academic programmes. For me, it was an excellent learning experience.”
From there to the QMC was a huge step indeed, for her. “Walajapet was a sort of training ground – it was a Grade 2 college, with 9 UG and 2 PG courses,” she quotes accurately. “While the Queen Mary’s College is Grade 1 – with 24 UG courses, 16 PG courses, 11 in the M Phil and 4 Phd courses. We have 2 shifts as well, which brings the number to around 4500 students. And it’s truly wonderful that the government has sanctioned several new buildings for us – there’s so much one can do with the resources offered. It’s just a question of planning what one has to do, and executing them. There’s no limit to what can accomplish,” she says, clearly excited. “After all, the QMC offers a complete education at just Rs 600 a semester,” she reminds you. “That’s quality education for the economically disadvantaged – and we’re doing all we can to increase every opportunity that can be given to them.”
She credits the accolades the QMC has received to her extremely competent staff and talented students. “I wouldn’t trade my teachers and lecturers for anything in the world,” she declares. “And they do an excellent job of instilling self-confidence, finding ways of bringing out the talent that is already residing in our girls. We aim to make them self reliant; capable of facing the challenges the world throws at them once they leave the portals of the QMC,” she says seriously.
And a vastly talented, confident group they are, judging by the numerous awards and tributes they’ve won in theatre, literature, music and the arts as a whole. Eugenie brings up a slim paperbacked volume with obvious pride, which has inside it several autographs – and the reason for her delight is obvious. A result of the Creative Writing workshop conducted by well-known Australian writer Dr Inez Baranay from December 23 2005 to January 16, 2006, the students came up with their collection of contemporary short fiction, later published by the New Century Bookhouse under the title “Imagineering” – the first copy of which was received by Dr Beatrix D’souza, MP. “It’s a valuable little collection, and close to my heart,” she says, “Because every step of the students’ journey in writing can be traced in it.”
The Tamil Department, in turn, spurred on by the training given by the Theatre group “Nalam Dhaana” wrote, directed and performed their own play on drug abuse, which won more than its share of accolades. “Theatre gives you confidence,” asserts Eugenie. QMC, she says with pride, is also the first Government college in Tamil Nadu to introduce the Business English Certificate Course, now in its successful IIIrd year. Many QMC students are so well accomplished that they occupy prestigious positions in reputed organizations like Google, Cognizant Technology Solutions and Wipro – the visiting cards of whom occupy pride of place on her desk. “I’m thrilled with their performance. To see them do so well motivates me and my staff.” A good deal of credit, according to her, goes to the Alumni Association of QMC, a remarkably strong group that takes an active interest in the college.
“The QMC was reputed to be very elite once,” she muses. “But I’m rather glad that it isn’t so, any more. Now, it’s service-oriented. As it should be.”
The reason for their accomplishments, she says, lies in her and her teachers’ attitude towards the students. “Never force the girls – commanding a person accomplishes nothing. Instead, approach them with love, with compassion.” She pauses. “Women, as a rule, sometimes misunderstand their fellows. How can you ask men to respect them when women don’t do it themselves? Women should be the first to understand and appreciate what another woman goes through. I believe, quite firmly, in sisterhood. I’m not a feminist,” she stresses, “but I do want women to have all the opportunities there are.” There is a great deal of power and strength dormant in a woman, she says, waiting to be used for the betterment of society, as a whole. “Power can be used or abused,” she says. “I think I’ve used what power I had towards returning manifold, whatever goodwill I’ve received – and I’ve received a lot. Why not offer it to others?”
[Concluded in Part II]