Centenarian Panji Manickam on how teachers influenced life and encouraged students to learn more languages

When you are a 100 years old, your memories provide only a hazy view of the past. However, the brilliant qualities of great people shine through this haziness. I clearly remember Dorothy De La Hey, founder-principal of Queen Mary's College, requesting my engineer father, P.V. Manickam Naicker to send me to college. She had surmised that I would be stopped from going beyond school education. When my father said he considered women's education an indispensable ally in the fight against social ills, De La Hey was radiant with joy.

When I look at institutions — such as Queen Mary's — that have grown old with me, and try to figure out how they managed to withstand the assault of time, one fact comes to the fore. They were governed by people who acted out of their deepest convictions and not out of a slavish devotion to passing fads. For them, the most honourable goal of education was to make people to act with civility in any situation.

Mother Superior Teresita of Sacred Heart High School (Church Park) — where I worked as teacher for 35 years – embodied the spirit of civility. When a teacher committed an honest mistake, she would not react with a harsh word. She would remark, “It's human to err!” and do everything to make the remorseful teacher feel comfortable.

Sister Celine was an antithesis of the popular perception of nuns as staid. She would lead groups in singing and dancing with a gusto that would impress any choreographer of today. Given her predilection for the performing arts, she was entrusted with the task of screening films for students. On the second floor, the partitions — meant to demarcate classrooms — would be removed and the spacious hall, filled with students. Sister Celine would operate the projector and she acted as a strict censor: at the slightest hint of onscreen intimacy between the film's lead pair, she would cover the mouth of the projector with her palm.

Discrimination of any nature was anathema to the Irish nuns of Sacred Heart, but they had to kowtow to certain regulations in pre-Independence India. They had to run a European section that was off-limits for Indian children. A section for orphans was also in operation.

Division of society along racial lines was an undeniable fact. The intellectuals and social workers in the Indian and European camps, however, rose above such manmade divisions. After reading my father's work on the mystic aspect of the Tamil alphabet, Reverend W.H. Farrar of the Arcot Mission wrote a letter to him in 1919 and said that the Hertford School of Missions would benefit greatly, if he gave the students lessons in phonetics.

Study of European languages was greatly encouraged. Latin and French were part of my school education – which included Junior Cambridge at St. Raphael's and Senior Cambridge at St. Columba's. I thoroughly enjoyed studying Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain in Latin.

With a similar exposure to European languages, teachers at Sacred Heart were drawn to celluloid classics that reflected the realities in that continent. In their leisure, they went to watch these films at Safire, a cinema just across the road.

At Safire, I have watched ‘My Fair Lady', ‘The Sound Of Music' and ‘Quo Vadis', great films that can't slip anybody's memory, even that of a 100-year-old.

I remember Education Minister of the Madras Presidency from 1946 and 1949, T.S. Avinashilingam Chettiar introduced Tamil as the medium of instruction in secondary education. I remember teaching world history in Tamil.

BIO PANJI MANICKAM Born on September 11, 1911, she recently celebrated her 100th birthday. After acquiring a bachelor's degree in history from Queen Mary's College and an LT from the Lady Willingdon Teachers' Training College, she worked at a few institutions before settling down to serve Sacred Heart for 35 years. She follows cricket avidly — an autographed book by Harsha Bhogle is a sign of this — and is a big Sachin fan.

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012