Hard work and self-belief have led to Leela Smart’s success as a teacher and homemaker
“They used to call me Akka, then Aunty and now Paati,” chuckles Mrs. Leela Smart. “Most of the people in Tennur know me as Leela Teacher.” The 86-year-old former educator stays in a heritage cottage (one that she came to first as a tenant 56 years ago and her family went on to own eventually), but every line on her gentle face speaks of struggle and accomplishment.
Born in Musiri in 1928 as Irene Leelavathy James, Mrs. Leela was among the first batch of Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) students to train under the Emergency Course for Teachers at the All Saints Training School, Tiruchi, in 1946-47. “There was a severe shortage of teachers during the Second World War, so I decided to join the course after graduating from the C.S.I Girls High School in Thanjavur,” she says.
The trainees were put up in a hostel room at the old Bishop Heber College campus in Puthur. “We used always be a little hungry, because there were only eight ounces of food rations,” she recalls. “Once, I had come back from a match (the young Leela was a keen sportswoman), and had dozed off on my desk in class. Our principal Mrs. Ada Schubert woke me up with a gentle tap and said, ‘God will forgive you, but Time will not forgive you.’”
Those words have inspired her to stay alert all her life.
“Our marriage was one of the grandest in Thanjavur,” says Mrs. Leela, recalling the way she and her husband, Joseph Smart rode a decorated phaeton carriage after their wedding ceremony at St. Peter’s Church in 1952.
Mr. Smart (named by his father in tribute to the English organist Henry Thomas Smart) was working as a lower divisional clerk at the Railway Police office in Tiruchi. He was more famous as a virtuoso organist, having started playing at the age of 12 at St. Christopher’s Church in the Cantonment area.
“My husband was always involved in social work,” recalls Mrs. Leela. “He was on the board of directors of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Tiruchi and also an active secretary of Toc H (Talbot House, a Christian social service organisation founded in 1915 in Belgium).”
Managing on a modest salary (Mrs. Leela’s salary was Rs. 40 per month, while her husband earned Rs. 50) was not easy, but it had to be done. “Living in a joint family, we used to have a lot of guests, but I used to try and follow Mrs. Schubert’s advice of saving at least five rupees every month.”
Mrs. Leela’s third pregnancy in 1968, 12 years after marriage, was to prove to be a real test of her mettle. A tumour in her uterus was diagnosed at the same time, and treatment for it was not available even in Madras. But a greater setback was the stroke that left her husband paralysed on his right side. “We were both in the General Hospital (Puthur) at the same time,” recalls Mrs. Leela, “my husband was in the upstairs ward, being treated for his stroke, while I was admitted in the ground floor maternity ward.”
Fortunately a healthy baby was born by normal delivery to Mrs. Leela, who had to start taking care of her husband’s physiotherapy when her son was just 16 days’ old. “You didn’t have home nurses in those days,” she adds by way of explanation. “And anyway, I was determined to take care of my husband myself.”
The stroke only strengthened her husband’s resolve to rehabilitate himself, says Mrs. Leela. Taking a little over a year as medical leave, he rejoined the Railway Police as a file copy superintendent overseeing a pool of seven typists. “I’d help him to finish the correspondence after I returned from school,” recalls Mrs. Leela. Mr. Smart retired in 1975. He died in 1994.
Schooling past and present
After a short stint at teaching in Thanjavur, Mrs. Leela’s career post-marriage started off with her as an office clerk at the All Saints Middle School (now High School) in Puthur. “I used to help out Miss Mary Ruth Anstine with the office work, and then was shifted to teaching duty after one year.”
Mrs. Leela started off as ‘Tamil pundit’ for the girls-only Classes VI, VII and VII, but had to give it up in favour of a lighter workload of general subjects with the junior (co-educational) classes when she fell ill with pleurisy in 1956.
Teachers of her generation had to follow a strict dress code, says Mrs. Leela. “We’d always have to drape our saris modestly, and pin our pallu with a brooch. An umbrella and a wrist-watch were essential accessories, and we had to always wear our hair in a bun. Nowadays teachers dress more like their students,” she says.
Fees were in the range of one rupee to four rupees at All Saints, and to be paid by the 15th of every month. “There was a fine of one anna per rupee for defaulters. Once we spent two days figuring out why we had an extra anna in our account, and then realised that I had forgotten to underline a fine payment in the ledger with red ink,” laughs Mrs. Leela.
She doesn’t deny her sadness at the passage of time. “I turned down the opportunity to upgrade my degrees because of my husband’s illness, even though I did attend the re-training courses in the early 1960s. But I find students and teachers don’t really know subjects in depth these days even though they study a lot,” she says.
Quite a stickler for her principles (she took a vow to give up wearing jewellery since her husband fell ill in 1969), Mrs. Leela has been staying alone since 2005, next door to her elder son. “My father always used to say that we should never be a burden on our children in our old age, and should cultivate our own circle of friends. I am used to being by myself now, and though I don’t go out as much, there will always be someone looking out for me,” she says.
“Many generations of this area’s children have been taught by me,” says Mrs. Leela, who retired in May 1987. “Some them are senior doctors and government servants, and possibly a lot of them have become grandparents. I am so proud to have been a part of their life.”