Cop and carpe diem

“And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew

That one small head could carry all he knew…”

Oliver Goldsmith’s lines about The Village Schoolmaster seemed to have been written for our principal — the one man whom many generations of Josephites called “Cop”. Cop wandered around the school corridors on his beat, striking fear and inspiring discipline in many batches of mischievous schoolboys in the seventies.

Way back in the era when corporal punishment was not frowned upon, many of us have experienced the gentle ominous swish that preceded the sting of his cane. Some clever repeat offenders had learnt to stuff a long book into the seat of their trousers , or move just an inch forward to soften the impact of the cane. But the naïve ones winced with a shocked gasp, when the cane descended unflinchingly on adolescent adipose, and promised themselves never to repeat this trip to his office.

His stern exterior however effectively hid a kind and caring mentor. He would observe the boys carefully and pick out the mavericks for leadership roles. Whenever a group of classmates has a re-union nowadays, a grey haired wiser middle-aged man will volunteer a story from his school days about how Cop changed his life.

“Do you know, he picked me out from nowhere and moulded me to be a house captain!” said one classmate .“And he organised for my school fees to be reduced when our family was going through a crisis!” Stories come tumbling out, and these anecdotes present a totally different perspective to the stereotype of our fierce disciplinarian Cop.

I had a story too — one I hadn’t told too often. I was a nondescript mediocre, sniffling schoolboy with no skills in sports. With a thick nerdy pair of glasses and no trace of facial hair, I was that gawky teenager you would never cast in Student of the Year. I looked forward to English and Literature classes and Cop had a lot to do with that.

The sheer lyrical beauty of Keats and the genius of Shakespeare resounded in his deep voice and Cassius and Brutus came alive for us within the imposing stone walls of those classrooms. Whenever I was called to read, I would try to emulate him and found myself enjoying the process. 

One balmy afternoon, the peon came in to the Biology class to announce that I was wanted in the principal’s office. Every pair of eyes in the room followed me as I exited. I had no idea what my transgression was, but I had no doubt that Cop had called me in for a caning. “Come in,” boomed the famous baritone. He went on to tell me to take part in the school debate and in the play competition that was coming up. 

That one conversation made a huge difference to my life. The fact that Cop had found me worth singling out and pushing forward to perform, gave me my carpe diem epiphany. In many ways, Cop helped us to make our lives extraordinary.

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