Dr Eyingbeni Hümtsoe-Nienu*
It’s Teachers’ Day again and memories of a school teacher inspire us to write this tribute. The teacher is our beloved Mr Robert Thapa. He worked as a teacher in Kohima English School (KES, now renamed Mezhür Higher Secondary School–MHSS) from June 1, 1978 till his sad demise on July 19, 1997. As is customary all over Nagaland, students of KES also called our teacher Sir Robert. He had a special charm about him that drew in students closely towards him.
Of the many things to remember him by, I fondly remember his vulnerability. He was neither afraid nor did he attempt to hide his inner self; not even to the students. He taught us English-I (possibly another name for English Literature) comprising of some classics. One of them was the famed Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. One of the characters therein was that of Amelia. His narration of the prose was obviously so honest that students attempted to find a connection. When a student, wanting to be innocently romantic, asked him, “Sir, where is your Amelia?” He nonchalantly replied, “My Amelia is six feet under the ground.”
Sir Robert’s wife, Madam Mary Savithri Thapa was my tuition teacher in my lower primary days. As a child, what you see is what you love! I used to admire her attractive make-up besides her elegant dress sense. Her pretty kajaled eyes, smooth skin, stylish hair styles and cheerful spirit made me her dedicated fan. She was also a gentle soul, just like her hubby Sir Robert. More than any of the lessons, I recall her patience in teaching me because I was not as smart a kid as a lot of my peers then. Her untimely death on Nov 17, 1985 came as an agonizing shocker to many of us but most of all, I believe, it left the biggest void in Sir Robert’s life. It was apparently not reclaimable by anyone since he remained unmarried till his passing.
Although Sir Robert was generally very mild, he, like any normal person, had his absolutely rare livid moments of wanting to slap a student (but which he never did). This was especially evident when his pupils underperformed in academics. One such incident is recalled by a fellow batch mate, Deepayan. In one of the term exams, Sir Robert’s paper had the question from Vanity Fair: “How did the Osborne household celebrate George’s return from India?” The answer, among other details, should have been, “They dressed themselves in fine clothes with the girls wearing expensive silk stocking.” But Samuel, our batch mate, instead wrote, “The girls wore transparent clothes!” Truly an answer to invite a teacher’s wrath!
His oft-repeated quote was, “A rose is a rose is a rose” (Gertrude Stein) and meant the same as Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet). He never explained the reason behind his using it often but we can only presume that he probably used this proverb to encourage students to be who they were or to take pride in who they were. The students gave our own interpretations to it (some didn’t make much of it) but commonly thought it was good and sweet of him to say it. Given his own genuineness the quote also seems to have encapsulated his life’s philosophy. He was always who he was; no pretense, no veil, no lies, and no wall.
At times, he was so open that he did not even withhold information concerning his health. He announced his condition of a runny rose and “loose bladder” (as he calls it) to the class. The students clearly didn’t mind the fact that he had to constantly blow his nose into his handkerchief (tissue papers were uncommon then) or use the bathroom during class hours – which was welcomed by us with much pleasure! As much as he looked at us as his own children, we too looked at him not only as a teacher but also as an honored fatherly figure. Hence, without the students making any intentional effort, the rapport between him and us was naturally established.
We can’t emphasize enough the fact that he was a good teacher and a great person. Like all teachers in KES, he was regular to class and dressed up smartly. His unaccented English made it easy for students to understand his teaching. Moreover, he explained the lessons with much clarity and passion, as though he himself was part of the story. His professional obligations were satisfactorily fulfilled to the extent that the whole batch has only praise for him. But beyond the academics, his life and his attitude towards the students were education that transcended the curriculum to touch the core of our beings. He showed us that teachers are individuals who play different roles to mold the characters and perspectives of young minds. And he played his parts so well we can only stay grateful for his life and vocation.
Due to his faithful years of service at KES/MHSS, he also merited the office of the Assistant Headmaster. Needless to say, his promotion to administrative level was a feather on his personal cap. But more importantly, it was a well-deserved recognition of a person who dedicated a good part of his life to bringing progress to the school and making life-transforming impact on students. If we are able to walk the path of dignity, sincerity, diligence and humility, that were laid down for us nearly three decades ago, we owe it in part to Sir Robert. We can only hope that his virtues live on through us and that more schools are blessed by such teachers.
*With Inputs from KES Class of ‘90