Teachers and students

Many of the expatriate teachers who came to Mombasa to teach became members of Mombasa Sports Club. It offered them the chance to socialise and build a network of contacts in a city and country that was completely foreign to them. Many of them knew Pappa who at the time was Captain of the Mombasa Sports Club cricket team, and a regular at the sports bar after the game had ended. Most of them had even visited our home.

Many a weekend, I would wake up for a drink of water in the middle of the night and as I walked down the stairs to the kitchen, would find the lights on downstairs. The glass sliding doors would be wide open letting in the cool sea breeze. Outside on the patio, the table would be filled with brown bottles of beer, glasses with a golden liquid, one or two ice buckets and overflowing ash trays.

Pappa would be sitting with a group of people, and seeing me come down the stairs with my sleep filled eyes, squinting at the light, he would stand up and say, ” Beta?” and then in Gujrati ask if I was okay. That is when his guests would glance around and I would realise that I was standing on the stairs in my pajamas with mussed up sleep hair, looking at a room filled with my teachers including Ross Gillett, Simon Scott, Mike McKeown and Rob Subbiani.

But I was only 11 and didn’t dwell on it much, and to their credit they never alluded to it when I saw them in class. And having been in our home and interacted with our family, they were more indulgent towards us. For my sister and I it created a level of familiarity, and forever dissolved any fear we might feel for a teacher.

And so when Dr W****** poached some of the expatriate teachers from Mombasa Academy, and brought them to Peponi, we were happy to see some familiar faces: Ross GiIlett as our Chemistry teacher and Tim Baldwin as our Art teacher .

We hadn’t interacted much with Mr Baldwin in Mombasa but Mr Gillett had always been a favourite. Apart from spending many an evening at our home, he had also met my mother. Many of the teachers knew her of course from their visits to our home, but Mr Gillett had stood out. I suppose she had confided in him, and spoken to him of her fears that she would shortly be forced to return to India again and leave us behind.

Just months before we transferred to Peponi, she was and my sister and I were torn up over it. The repeated pattern had not numbed the pain; if anything, it was an old wound that kept reopening and going deeper. And so along with adjusting to a new school, we had to adjust to life without her.

My father was convinced that any communication with her would detrimentally affect our education, and he had asked Dr Wilding to withhold any letters that came for us from India. And as headmaster of a boarding school where all letters arrived through a single post box, this was easy for him to do.

Mum probably had an inkling that something like this would happen – after all, it wasn’t the first time – and I suppose she must have written to Mr Gillett to ask how we were doing. Eventually, she began writing to us on his personal PO Box. And so every couple of weeks, he would pull me or my sister out of our evening prep session, and hand us a blue airmail letter with Mum’s curly handwriting on the cover. The first time it happened we started crying in front of him, seeing her handwriting on a faded blue airmail sheet. And he awkwardly stood there on the lawn trying not to look at us as we wept over her letter.

It was painful and emotional every time it happened, and I still weep for the 12 and 15 year old girls who were my sister and myself and who craved to be with a mother who was far away and suffering so much.

And Mr Gillett became deeply embroiled in all that. We were so grateful to him, and we felt so betrayed by Dr Wilding for having agreed to my father’s request that his acquiescence meant a lot more.

At one point, my sister and I confronted the Deputy headmistress Mrs Emma Taylor, and asked her what right she or the school administration had to withhold letters from a parent to their children. I remember her saying we would have to take it up with Dr Wilding because the instructions had come from him. But we were terrified of speaking to him – not because he was a frightening man; if anything his informal temperament could put any young student at ease but because under that smile, we were sure there was a steely interior. We did eventually gather up the courage and ask him, and he explained that he couldn’t go against Pappa’s instructions and that we would have to discuss it with Pappa directly. We never did.

Mr Gillett’s compassion blurred things for both my sister and myself and he became an adult who we could trust when others had let us down. A person who had a link to our mother however intangible, and most importantly one who had shown kindness in the one thing that mattered most at the time. I suppose it was no surprise then that he became more than a teacher, and that we both idolised him.

I developed an incredibly strong crush on him – I still cringe at some of the very forward things I said to him – and the mossy colour of his eyes, a mixture of blue and green, had my 13 year old senses swooning.

I took the liberty of speaking to him as more than an teacher outside the classroom. Undoubtedly, he was an incredible Chemistry teacher, and knew how to engage and retain the interest of all his students – and so I threw myself into the subject and performed well at it. He loved to play soccer, and so I joined the soccer team and tried my best at it.

It lasted three years until he resigned from Peponi, but in those years I behaved in the most unconventional manner, doing and saying things that I would baulk at today: a single red rose on Valentine’s day placed on his desk with a hand written message; outbidding every other student at the annual auctions we had when teachers were auctioned to students to raise money for charity; any number of the flirtatious comments I made in close hearing range of my friends … and those are just the ones I will admit to.

One evening during prep in what was then a newly built block of four classrooms, he called me out and asked how I was doing. With childish naivete, I spoke brashly about how when I grew up I would take on my father’s family and make them pay for what they had done to my mother, my sister and I. I was angry and impassioned, and believed nothing could stand in my way. Even then, I was plotting the revenge and downfall of my father’s family.

But most importantly, he listened and, through all my misdemeanours, he never batted an eyelid. Just crinkled his eyes and gave a crooked smile.

I was devastated when Mr Gillett left Peponi at the end of Form 4, and bawled at the school assembly when it was formally announced. But his quiet influence and guidance in those years left their mark, and I have never forgotten him or stopped being grateful.

January 2 2013

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