N.Subhadra has seen it all as a teacher in Coimbatore for 32 years — from runaway brides and school boy bridegrooms to a plague epidemic and a State award
I moved to Coimbatore from Ooty on January 7 1944, right when the town was affected by the plague. We took a house in Papanaickenpalayam for we believed we’d be safe there but the next morning, we found two dead rats in the kitchen and I knew our area was infected too. With a one-year-old child in tow, I relocated to Palakkad. It was an interesting journey back then because the bridge crossing the Noyal was dysfunctional. So, a bus would go down to the river’s bed, drive through patches of stagnant water and climb up on the other side.
After six months, we heard the plague was eradicated and hence returned to Coimbatore, to a new home in Gandhipuram where we stayed for 37 years. While it’s true that the Siruvani waters were pure those days, they weren’t frequent. At four every morning, the women in Gandhipuram would stand by the tap outside their homes to collect water in the one hour that it was supplied. That’s how I began my days, before going to teach in school.
In the 40s, there were elementary schools in almost every area because children were compulsorily taught upto Class V. High schools, however, were few and far between. In the English medium, there was Stanes High School and St Francis Anglo Indian School. In the Tamil medium, there was Presentation Convent, and Government Training School for Girls. For boys, there was the Sarvajana High School, St Michael's High School and City Municipal High School. In 1943, the Chairman of the Municipality, Ratna Sabapathy Mudaliar, after whom R.S. Puram is named, began a Municipal Boys High School there. That’s where my teaching career in Coimbatore began.
It wasn’t easy teaching a classroom full of big boys. The windows in my room extended from floor to ceiling and in the middle of class, some boys would jump out! As I was a class teacher, every day began with the roll call. There was once a boy named Bhimaiya who was absent for an entire week and every time I called out his name, the other boys would say he’d gone for a family wedding. Finally, when he came back, I asked him how the wedding went and whose it was. I’ll never forget my shock, and the class’ laughter, when Bhimaiya said it was his wedding!
Even though it was a boys’ school, the A division was always reserved for girls in the corporation schools. Within a few months, in 1945, the A divisions of all classes were transferred into a new school exclusively for girls - R.S. Puram Girls High School. I was transferred too, and I taught English there for fourth, fifth and sixth forms till 1962. English was a difficult subject for the children, mainly because they didn’t speak it. So we began Literary Associations and elocution competitions but more often than not, the children would by-heart a piece and recite it. That’s when we opened a reading table with the Illustrated Weekly and The Hindu, which the children had to read every day and talk about, even if it was just two ungrammatical sentences.
In 1962, a new Girls High School was opened at Ranganathapuram and I was transferred there as headmistress. Running a girls’ school brought with it a different set of challenges. Love letters would frequently arrive and once, a girl attended the morning session, bunked the afternoon classes and disappeared for days after that. Her father filed an FIR regarding this and I had to appear in court with the attendance records to prove her date of birth. Turns out she had run away with a boy. She later returned to school and went on to become a teacher herself. It was also in this school that we once had five girls from Palakkad who’d moved into Coimbatore and couldn’t find admission in any school because they didn’t know Tamil. We wrote to the Senior Inspectors for permission to admit these girls and for three months, our teachers taught them Tamil, until the permits finally arrived for them to officially join school.
Ranganathapuram Girls High School began with just one division in each class, but by my retirement in 1976, we had four divisions each. In my final year, we received orders to convert one division to English medium. Later, the numbers in that class would extend much beyond the ideal 45 students because that many parents wanted their children to study in English. It was that year too that the twelfth form was introduced and teachers had to become postgraduates in order to teach this class. It was for my service at Ranganathapuram that I received the State Award for Teachers from the Governor in 1972. After retirement I continued to teach economically backward students English grammar at my home and today, I teach my great-grand children.
At a railway station, I was once caught up in a large crowd waiting to welcome a senior government official with garlands and banners.
The man stepped out, looked at me and said, “Your ‘Daffodils’ are still ringing in my ears ma’am!”
N. Subhadra completed her degree from St Agnes College in Mangalore from 1933-37 and received her teacher’s training in Lady Willingdon College from 1938-39. From 1945 to 1962 she taught English at R.S. Puram Boys High School and R.S. Puram Girls High School. From 1962 to 1976, she served as Headmistress of Ranganathapuram Girls High School. In 1972 she was awarded the State award for teachers from the Governor for her service.