A barbarian’s tribute to a civilizing influence

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Amid my increasingly infrequent interactions with the mundane world, I read an email last week from the Don Bosco School Past Pupils Association: an invitation to a July 29 “celebration service in honor of our beloved teacher and respected former Assistant Headmaster Late Mr A Selvadoray.” The Singapore-born Aloysius Selvadoray died on July 16,  and with him passed away another rare link bridging the pre-internet and internet eras.

Mr Selvadoray was one of the teachers who guided the generation that experienced the birth of computerization and the online developments and electronic gadgetry that have taken over life in the 21st century.

Those unhurried school days of chalk and blackboards and typewriters seem a world away from the experience of today’s children, who now have the option of educating themselves while sitting at home using cell phones and internet search engines.

Thank you, sir, for civilizing us “barbarians” in those unforgotten years of sunshine and happy laughter, when we made friends for life and schoolboys became young men

The first computer tutorials entered school life circa 1985, when Mr Selvadoray was assistant headmaster in my final year at Don Bosco, Egmore, in Chennai (then called Madras). The grand climax of our first two-month computer (Cobol) course was being taken to a neighborhood office to see what a computer looked like. For a few minutes, we got to gawk at a “Dos” desktop PC in a musty office in the Saffire Theater building on Mount Road. Our school did not have a single computer on the premises.

In 2017, the same school has a state-of-the-art science center (in collaboration with Canada’s Ontario Science Center), an advanced robotics lab, a new interactive mathematics lab, and a generation of school kids that perhaps cannot imagine life without smartphones and WiFi.

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Iconic school Eton in England is one of the world’s oldest educational institutions. Founded in 1440, it has educated 18 British prime ministers, as well as prominent authors, artists and leaders worldwide.

Revisiting my school days reminds me of how much things can change in a lifetime. More so for the generation bridging the era without emails, when Aloysius Marie Antoine Selvadoray (1928-2017) served in one of the good schools in the country. The 58-year-old Don Bosco, Egmore – part of the global educational community of Salesians that the 19th-century Italian Saint Giovanni John Bosco founded – produced brilliant scholars and sportsmen, such as former world chess champion Viswanathan Anand.

Selvadoray taught us English grammar and proper behavior, delivering his trademark “You barbarian” when we forgot our manners, emphasizing the importance of saying “Please” and “Thank You,” and other social niceties.

Those special years I studied at Don Bosco, Egmore – 1974 to 1985 – straddled an important timeline in modern Indian history, a phase that included the democracy-murdering Emergency; the cowardly assassination of its architect, Indira Gandhi; and her son Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) being sworn in as India’s youngest ever prime minister, and, defying mocking skeptics, ensuring that India entered the computer age. That was a world in which we heard music from something called “audio cassettes,” had just one TV channel, and used phones that could not be carried around.

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Telephones of a bygone era. Bill Huggins, editor of the Keystone press agency, during a busy day at work in 1978.

In those times, when we school kids made a phone call maybe once a day, Mr Selvadoray gave us a different perspective on life and history. I remember an afternoon class over 30 years ago when he explained the absurdity of the label “Alexander the Great.” To him, conquerors like Alexander and Napoleon were merely bloodthirsty villains wasting the lives of millions in their lust for power and someone else’s land. They cannot be called “Great,” he said. They were the real barbarians.

We knew him as “Selva,” one of those rare educators who earns the full respect of both students and fellow teachers. He wore simple long-sleeved cotton shirts, and, more uniquely, wore that pervading air of quiet dignity. He never had to raise his impressively cultured voice or abuse pupils, or use the stick to maintain discipline. His intonations of “You barbarians” carried no irritation or malice, and the lessons he taught stuck for life.  Don’t ask “Can I come in, sir?” he admonished boys standing at the doorway of his class or office. It is not impossible to come in, and you know you can. Ask “May I come in?”

Teaching us the difference between “Can I?” and “May I?” or between ironic and sarcastic is not as important to me as the memory of Selvadoray’s reputation for honesty. The enduring legacy of great teachers is not so much quality lessons in language or history, but, by being a personal example, inculcating young minds with a sense that honor and integrity are the most valuable assets in life.

Whether texting in 2017 or communicating telepathically in the year 5017, timeless realities will always remain unchanged: like how truth is one’s best friend, in this ups-and-downs journey with “Virtus in Arduis” – the Don Bosco school motto, which means “strength through hardships.” Thank you, sir, for civilizing us “barbarians” in those unforgotten years of sunshine and happy laughter, when we made friends for life and schoolboys became young men.

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