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November 2007

Mehta: Never Forgo Humility

Vikram Mehta
Mayo College, Batch of 1968

Vikram_s_mehta_3 My first ‘encounter’, and it was an encounter, with Jack Gibson altered the course of my life.  He may or may not have realized the ramifications of that first meeting.  I have only just begun to understand it myself, especially now that I am a member of the Board of Governors of the Doon School and can better differentiate between these two fine schools.   

I was an 11 year old English school ‘preppie’ in Jan 1964. My father, a diplomat, had just been transferred from Germany to China, which in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet conflict was a non-family station. My parents had therefore decided to put my brother, Ajay, into Mayo and me into Doon. The reason for the split was because Ajay was too young to go to Doon – the minimum age for admission at Doon being 11. My parent’s intent was to move Ajay to Doon in a couple of years. (It is not clear to me why Doon was the preferred choice over Mayo, especially since my family is from Udaipur. But that was the case).

Anyway, as the Doon term started a couple of weeks after Mayo, I had come with my mother to drop Ajay. We went to call on Jack in his office. At some stage in the conversation Jack asked my mother: ‘Why are you separating the brothers, Rama?’ She gave the explanation. Jack was not persuaded. ‘Rubbish’, said he, ‘they should be together’. And then, refusing to accept any counter arguments, he asked the phone operator to put him through to John Martyn – the Headmaster of Doon. The connection come through in minutes – a miracle most times but, given it was Jack making the request, an expected outcome – and to my utter consternation, confusion, and alarm, I heard Jack inform Martyn that he was ‘kidnapping’ one of his students. My mother, who was seldom lost for words, remained speechless during this brief conversation.

My next few recollections are hazy but I know I was found a bunk in Jaipur house, provided with the School No. ‘X’, and left to fend for myself and my brother. The former was not easy, what with my poncy English accent, my casual attire - it took time for the school tailors to get me into uniform - and the joyless but attention grabbing number ‘X’.

I say this ‘encounter’ altered my life not because I ended up at Mayo rather than at Doon.  Today, I know more about Doon, its history, and its values, than I did then and I am confident that had the decision to put me into Doon remained, I would have received an equally excellent education. But it would not have been under Jack’s tutelage. And that was and remains the defining differentiator. 

Every student has recollections of particular events and of particular teachers. I do too but, frankly, through the haze of my aging brain my only memorable recollections are those related to Jack. All else blend into one comfortable whole. This is not to knock the contributions of my teachers or to suggest that I do not have memories of particular incidents or friends. It is simply to highlight the overwhelming and enduring influence of Jack. It is his words, his personality, his maroon coloured jeep, and his beady eyes peering over his spectacle, that are etched in my mind. 

Jack was an educationist – not in the narrow sense of wanting to provide his students with relevant information and knowledge to excel in the classroom or the skills to stand out on the sports field. He was an educationist who saw in every individual the potential for excellence.  He looked for those few qualities that distinguished one person from another and he nurtured those qualities through his special mix of paternalism, rigour, and discipline. I was not an exceptional student or sportsman. But that never came in the way of my developing a special rapport. Or so I felt.

And that was the point. I felt I had the rapport. The reality may have been different. But the fact that I felt that Jack appreciated or rather saw my particularities and was not always looking to judge me against the conventional metrics of performance gave me the inner confidence that I am sure has been the central plank in all that I have done since and, in particular, in the springboard of my peripatetic career in public service and business. 

Jack was not one to simply applaud the conventional. He did of course appreciate it hugely. In fact most of his school monitors and head boys were excellent students and sportsmen. But he did also push the creative, the innovative, the offbeat. My class had a number of students who were clearly brilliant but who had somehow opted out of the game. They never made it to school monitors; nor did they don the school colours. But they were amongst Jack’s favourites. Jack’s only condition was that whatever they did had to be done well and within a framework of integrity and ethics. And in communicating this message he led by example. 

I have a vivid recollection of an occasion when my roommate Rami Menon and I were punished wrongly; Jack realized he had made a mistake. He summoned us to his house, apologized and then handed me the cane to give him the ‘best of three’. I demurred. Rami insisted he be offered the cane. Jack gave it to him but even Rami could not bring himself to whack the proffered posterior. We eventually had a good laugh. Jack told us that we were his last batch and that therefore we had a special place in his heart. And that what he had done was not simply to apologize but to pass on to us two simple pieces of advice. ‘Never be hesitant to say sorry; never forego humility’.

Suri: Rigourous Man, Renaissance Man

Rajan Suri
Mayo College, Batch of 1968

Suricolor_2 As one whose academic career in engineering and applied mathematics has depended on rigour, there is no question in my mind that Mayo College provided me with the best possible foundation for this discipline of rigour. And no one at Mayo exemplified rigour more than Jack Gibson – rigour could have been another one of his many middle names! He drilled it into us from an early age; despite being very busy with all his duties as the principal, he insisted on teaching an introductory geometry class to some of the youngest kids. As a mere nine-year old I learned Euclidean geometry proofs – Gibby style. In Gibby’s eyes there was obviously only one item that could possibly be stated at each point in the proof. As the proof was developed, he would go around the class and each kid had to add the next word or phrase. We all trembled in our seats as our turn came up, hoping that our answer of “therefore”, “angle B”, or “is equal to” would be the right one! If not, then to the front of the classroom it was, where you bent over and took your punishment. But by the end of that year I had learned the importance of precision in mathematical reasoning, and it would serve me for the rest of my education and my career.

Gibby was also a man of principle and much of my administrative work later in life benefited from what I learned by observing how he dealt with many different situations involving disciplinary action.

Amazingly, Gibby complemented his love of rigour, precision, and principle, with an incredible knowledge and appreciation of just about everything – from mathematics to music, from schoolyard sports to mountain-climbing – exemplifying the true Renaissance man and setting an ideal for all the boys at Mayo. An unlikely place where he displayed his wide knowledge was when proud boys went to his office to show him their “Good Chits” (awarded by a teacher for any outstanding performance, such as in a test or an essay). Regardless of what subject you got your Good Chit in, he managed to ask a question that humbled you and showed that you had more to learn! I still remember the time when I got a Good Chit for Sanskrit. As I stood in line outside his office, my supposed prowess in the ancient language confirmed by the chit in my hand, I felt secure in the thought that Gibby couldn’t possibly know enough Sanskrit to baffle me. And then he looked at the subject “Sanskrit” on my chit and without missing a beat asked me to translate “Om Mani Padme Hum.” To this day I wonder if the glint in his eye was because he had stumped me, or because he really did know the multiple levels of Tantric meanings in the chant that said “The Jewel is in the Lotus”!