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The Financial Express

Book REVIEW

Life and time of a great headmaster


Life and time of a great headmaster

This extraordinary memoir on the life and times of one of the greatest high-school headmasters of this country late Jalal-ud-Din Ahmad has come out in print 28 years after the demise of the legendary headmaster. The conversations for the memoir were taped way back in 1987 by his second son - Rhodes Scholar, renowned columnist and champion middle-distance runner of yester-years Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, who now lives in Princeton, USA. Dr Ahmed had earlier lost interest in carrying forward the autobiography project following the late headmaster's death in December 1992. But he subsequently became re-energised and re-enthused to bring out the memoir for the sake of the country's posterity through seven years of intermittent hard work. Consequently, the book's production has been a Herculean effort as well as a fitting tribute to the man who topped the list among the inaugural Presidential Awardees as the 'Best Headmaster' of the then Pakistan back in 1967.

Born in a remote hamlet called Jagatpur in Dagonbhuiyan thana of Feni district under East Bengal and Assam province of colonial India back in 1908, Jalal-ud-Din Ahmed lost his mother early when he was only four. But despite facing innumerable obstacles and adversities as an orphaned child, he went on to become the first graduate of his village. He passed the Matriculation and Intermediate examinations in first division from rural schools, a rare feat during that era, by getting scholarships, seeking loans and taking up jaigirs (food cum accommodation in another household in exchange for teaching children) starting from class seven. He then obtained the Bachelor of Arts degree from the Dhaka University in 1931, and later the Bachelor of Teaching degree with distinction from Dhaka Teachers' Training College. Then following brief stints as a mathematics teacher at Parsipara High Madrasah of Dinajpur, Basurhat High School and Sonaimuri High School of Noakhali, he was appointed the founding Headmaster of Kemal Ataturk High School at Dagonbhuiyan in January 1939, where he served up to 1951.

In course of time, he established this school, named after the founder of modern Turkey, on a robust and solid footing through his professional acumen and relentless efforts, thereby grooming students who achieved fame in the academic and sporting arena even at the national level. Two of his outstanding students here were Kazi Fazlur Rahman - a CSP who topped the list in the Central Superior Service (CSS) examination of Pakistan in 1954, and Nabi Chowdhury - a football legend who had captained the Pakistan National Football team during the 1950s. 

During the second half of his extraordinary professional journey, Headmaster Jalal-ud-Din Ahmad worked tirelessly at Feni Hgh School for 17 years (1951-68) and was able to transform an institution ravaged by the twin impacts of Japanese air-raids during the Second World War and mass exodus of skilled Hindu teachers following partition of the subcontinent in 1947, into a successful Model High School by winning official patronage. The institution was then turned into a top-performer Pilot High School through obtaining US grants via Ford Foundation; and it finally got endorsement as the Feni Government Pilot High School in 1967 due to outstanding performances in both academic and extra-curricular pursuits.

During this exceptional journey crowned with innumerable successes, Ahmad won national acclaim for himself, his students, as well as his school, all the way up to his retirement in 1968. His outstanding students from the Feni High School days included as many as five Vice-Chancellors (AMM Safiullah of BUET, Kazi Saleh Ahmed of Jahangirnagar University, and AK Azad Chowdhury, Anwarullah Chowdhury and Shahiduddin Ahmed of Dhaka University); former PSP cum Secretary Kazi Golam Rahman, and former PFS cum Ambassadors Kazi Afzaulr Rahman and Shafiullah; successful businessmen Abdul Awal Mintoo and Mahbubur Rahman; distinguished physicians -  the Chicago-based neurosurgeon Dr Nurur Rahman (Sadan) and ex-Director General of Health in Bangladesh Dr Mashiur Rahman; the renowned journalists Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, late Gias Kamal Chowdhury, and the late editor of The Financial Express Moazzem Hossain.   

His children were no less successful. The eldest son Engineer Gias Uddin Ahmad had joined the Pakistan Navy in 1958, but left it while on training in the UK in 1961, and went on to earn a master's degree in engineering. He subsequently worked in the clinical design and construction branch of the US National Institutes of Health while residing in Virginia, USA. The second son Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed was the first Bangali Rhodes Scholar (1970) from the then East Pakistan, who did his PhD at Oxford and now resides in New Jersey, USA. The third son Dr M A Ahad is an eminent surgeon (FRCS) residing in Melbourne, Australia. And the fourth son Advocate Raisuddin Ahmad is working as a senior lawyer of Bangladesh Supreme Court after obtaining LLM degree from Dhaka University and a master's degree in comparative law from Belgium. All the five surviving daughters have also excelled in their respective professions as educationists, physicians and engineer - the younger three living in New York, USA, while the older two are stationed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In his memoir, Headmaster Jalal-ud-Din Ahmad has also delved into the modus-operandi of how he applied his teaching philosophy that brought him so many laurels and recognition. His pursuit of excellence involved full-time commitment to the school with over 12-hour-long work-days starting from 8 am in the morning till beyond 8 pm at night. In practice, he maintained perfect regularity by remaining in the service of the school 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. He always finished the day's work on that very day, and the week's work within that particular week. Even when he had hundreds of things to attend to, he would never ever do anything at the expense of the school. As for his pupils, he used to put extra emphasis on the following fundamentals: absolute necessity of food, sleep and books, as these were vital for the students' growth; emphasis on pupil's school attendance, as exchange of knowledge primarily took place in school classrooms; assignment of regular homework, as it was essential for gauging a student's progress; completing the syllabus early, as that gave students a fighting chance in the examinations; and inculcating a sense of discipline among pupils by generating enough apprehension among them about corporal punishment, so that they would conform to the school's rules and regulations.

As recalled by the compiler cum editor of the memoir Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed: He instilled in his students the importance of truthfulness, hard work, sportsmanship, and a drive towards excellence. He did not expect his students to loiter on the streets of Feni at any time, especially after dark, unless they had a good reason, because that would imply a lack of discipline. The overpowering moral force of his personality could stop even erring students right in their tracks.

The most innovative of the education techniques that Ahmad implemented was the night-time inspection of the students' residences. In his own words, "I considered my job as the headmaster to be a 24-hour job. I wanted the students to feel like theirs was also a full-time job, 24 hours a day, and that they were not exempt from the school's rules, regulations, jurisdictions and expectations even when they were in the comfort of their homes. With this in mind, I devised a plan to inspect the residences of my students at night. I divided the various localities where the students lived and assigned teachers to each area. To make the task easier for them, teachers looked after only the area in which they themselves resided."  

"As soon as word got around that I was in a particular neighbourhood for night inspections, students in the neighbourhood would hit the books immediately, and the guardians would gather around me and appreciate my visit. They would take the opportunity to discuss various academic issues confronting their wards. I, in turn, would inquire about the study habits of my students at their homes in that locality. Because of these visits, I became very friendly with the guardians of many students. It took only one or two visits. The students would get the message, remain alert, and never let their academic guard down".

Headmaster Jalal-ud-Din Ahmad confronted and overcame many daunting challenges posed by the vested and powerful quarters including top brasses of school management committees during his eventful life, many of whom wanted him to break rules in their favour. Although he did suffer temporary setbacks due to these harassments and persecution, his incorruptible moral outlook, single-minded devotion to work as well as rock-solid support at home from his illustrious wife Mosammat Hurennesa Begum ultimately saw him through all these trials and tribulations.

He had dedicated his whole life for educating the mostly poor and needy pupils of Bangladesh. The interests of his students were paramount throughout his professional career, and they were always his top priority. This lucid memoir - full of intricate details about the life and time of a great headmaster is undoubtedly a treasure-trove for inquisitive readers, which has been given final shape by a devoted son through years of toils. It certainly appears to be quite unique in the literary genre of autobiographies published from Bangladesh, and is bound to prove both valuable and enjoyable among academics, educationists and literary buffs alike.  

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

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