Hats off to a strict father

The writer pays tribute to the man whose strict code of rules and ethics have guided her over the years and attributed to her personal and professional goals.

I CAME across the following quote by illustrator Victor Devlin recently. It goes: Listen, there is no way any true man is going to let children live around him in his home and not discipline and teach, fight and mould them until they know all he knows. His goal is to make them better than he is. Being their friend is a distant second to this.

When I read his words, I thought to myself: “That sounds exactly like my father!”

Seriously, aren’t we who we are because of the way we were brought up? In my case, I must say it was that my father who shaped my character and my will. He was the most dominant force in my childhood years.

As a teacher, I’ve had students complain to me that their fathers were tough on them. I’d say to them in consolation, “You may not appreciate it now but the discipline will help you in the future”.

Children of strict fathers – yes, we exist.

When I was growing up, I have to admit though that I felt stifled by my father’s autocratic ways. Often, I bristled with inner rebellion when he was demanding and harsh.

But, it was his relentless pursuit for my learning and development that laid the core of steel I now have within me. Even my passion for realising both personal and professional goals springs from the firm resolve that he girded in me.

Values (and the right ones at that) were what he embedded in me. Integrity, determination, perseverance, diligence, responsibility and accountability: my father marched for years in a policeman’s boots that bore these very studs!

When I became a teacher, I found myself following my father’s example. I chose to be a strong, capable and respected individual.

But, I had no desire to be as hard as him. Therefore, the one important concession I made to myself was to temper my strict ways with traits of love, understanding, compassion and kindness.

For me, the “yin” and the “yang” of this combination are what made the crucial difference in my success as a teacher.

Nonetheless, the hardy principles taught by my father served me time and time again as I faced one challenge after another in the 26 years I trudged through the blackboard jungle.

When I was teaching in a large urban school once, a man came to see me to find out whether his son’s performance was good enough to apply for a premier college overseas.

Handing me his business card, he told me was that he was the head of a finance company. Assessing me rapidly with his eyes, he said, “My job takes me away from home a lot. But I want only the best for my son.”

Talking brusquely, he made no bones about the fact that he had both the means and the desire to send his son overseas to study. “It will make him independent,” he explained. When I spoke about his son’s potential and ability to succeed, the man listened quietly.

Cracking the whip

After I was done talking, he gave me another appraising look and then admitted, “I don’t get along very well with my son. He thinks I’m too strict. But, I know it’s important that I crack the whip now. If not, we will both regret it later.”

And then he shook my hand and left. No smile. No pleasantries.

Watching him leave, not only did I understand him, I understood him perfectly.

My student would inquire later how the meeting went. I assured him that it went well.

But in thinking about his father, I knew I hadn’t told the inscrutable man that his son was, in fact, a difficult student to deal with.

At times, in handling this boy, even I was filled with despair. What was to become of him? What could I do to help him? And, could I even really be of any help?

But, I neither lowered my standards for the boy nor gave up on him. As far as I was concerned, he had both the intelligence and ability to go far in life. He just wasn’t trying hard enough.

After meeting his father, I began to suspect that this boy’s reluctance to shape up was probably an act of retaliation against his father’s coldness.

In requiring good work of him, this student would often say churlishly to me, “Why are you so hard on me?”

And I would reply sincerely, “Because I really believe that you have it in you to do better work.”

But unlike his father, I showed this boy my “softer” side as often as I could. I would say pleasantly, “You know, I do care a lot about you. And, you perform surprisingly well when you take the trouble to do so.”

Once, I even told him: “Listen, I had a difficult time with my father too but he made me a successful person. Give your old man a break and put in some effort.”

Although he avoided me often, I pursued my goals relentlessly. I was after all, my father’s daughter, and if there is one imprint he left on me — to be persistent.

Finally, persuaded and encouraged to believe in himself, the boy began to turn the corner. After that, it was a joy to teach him - really it was!

He came to see me often and we talked about all sorts of topics – girls, music, books, politics and even photography.

I praised his good attributes and his honest attempts to improve, not once, but many times, because I knew his father could not and would not.

As a teacher, it was my responsibility and duty to do so, therefore I did it.

Reform and learning

My father believed in the power of reform through education. As a teacher, I too believe that all students are capable of learning. Therefore, a teacher’s push really matters.

By the way, I am not alone in thinking along these lines. Have you by any chance read Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography Open? Well, this former Wimbledon tennis world champion has faith in the same maxim.

After he retired from playing professionally, he launched the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation. In 2001, the Foundation opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a K-12 public charter school for at-risk children. The 26,000-square-foot education complex that carries Agassi’s name places a huge emphasis on excellence. Agassi’s goal in hiring teachers is to procure men and women who are “sharp, passionate and inspired” and “willing to lay it on the line” and “get personally involved”.

He asks one thing and one thing only of his teachers: That they believe fervently that every student can be a learner.

Agassi hit a resounding shot when he said: “It sounds like a painfully obvious concept, self-evident, but nowadays it’s not.”

See what I mean? I’d add another adage: Do your best and God will do the rest. As teachers, we are bound by convention and limits but we still have to set, pursue and then reach the right goals. The minute teachers give up, the kids start falling like bowling pins. My father hammered this home because he could not and would not tolerate it when I said: “It can’t be done!”

Upon hearing this explanation, his answer was always the same: “Stop making excuses! Just admit that you didn’t work hard enough!”

Ah, what a great man he was because I do know now that his strict vigil did work wonders. Happy Fathers Day!

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