By Sam Akpe
Tears rolled down his age-polished cheeks. It was like an ice cube melting slowly on a tiled floor. He couldn’t control it. It was an involuntary action. They simply came because they had to come at that point. Tears of joy know no protocol. They pour as occasion demands. When an old principal cries because his students have positively embarrassed him, you are bound to see a generation of emotions unleashed.
At 80 years, Edet George Utuk, who retired as a school principal decades ago, couldn’t believe what he heard and what he saw. Seated next to him was his beloved wife who is probably in her 70s. Both were dumb-struck as the old students of Government Secondary School Afaha-Eket, dressed in immaculate white attire with specially designed mufflers, spoke of their academic tutelage under him.
Events mentally recorded over time were recaptured in some details and beamed in full colour; as though they happened just yesterday. Memories resurfaced in kaleidoscope of colours. The past became today. Suddenly, we were young again. We could see ourselves in white upon white uniforms; looking serious in front of our principal; pretending to be impeccably nice kids. We could hear the old man’s voice re-echoing: “children, when the devil entices you, consent thou not!” We joined him to cry; because we loved him.
The saying by Frank Trujillo is true; that whoever coined the phrase ‘you’re the wind beneath my wings’ most assuredly was reflecting on the sublime influence of a very special teacher such as Pa Utuk. That teacher is Pa. Utuk. He was not a mediocre teacher who told stories; he was not even a good teacher who only explained; he remains a superior teacher who demonstrated; and a great teacher who inspired; according to William Ward.
For those who believe that teachers’ rewards are in heaven, something to the contrary happened on September 20 in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. Although Pa Utuk’s birthday was on September 9, eleven days after, his children and grand-children decided to assemble friends and relations to celebrate the life of a man who has made achievers out of raw minds. When the old students of Government Secondary School, Afaha Eket heard of the event, they decided to honour the man who made them what they are today.
It was Nikos Kazantzakis who said years ago that ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse the bridges, thus encouraging them to create bridges of their own. Pa Utuk was such a teacher. He trained us to stand on our own. He trained us to be professionals. He was nice when he had to be nice; but when there was need to be stern, he would not wait for a soothsayer to tell him. He fulfilled the lasting words of Ann Lieberman that great teachers empathise with kids, respect them, and believe that each has something special that can be built upon.
Surrounding him that day were doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists, businessmen, senior military officers, nurses and other professionals who have made marks in their chosen career. They went to honour the man who, in his days as principal, was a terror to some of them. Led by the chairman, David Lawrence, the old students presented their old principal with a brand new Hyundai Accent. It was a simple way of saying: thank you for shaping us into what we are today. As someone once said, to the world, Pa Utuk may be just a teacher, but to his students, he is a hero.
That was where the atmosphere changed. As Lawrence started talking about the old days and Pa. Utuk’s love for driving, the old man shook his head whimsically; at the same time, a smile played around the corners of his mouth. A reporter, Usoro Usoro captured the atmosphere this way: when our chairman said, ‘we decided to buy him a brand new Hyundai Accent car, time stopped. For a moment, it was as if Pa Utuk didn’t hear well. Then you could see the recognition of the words slowly sinking into him. Suddenly, he sat bold upright, dazed. As if tuned by a remote control button, he and the wife turned like robots to face each other. For some minutes they maintained a steady gaze at each other. The look in their eyes was enough. It said more than a thousand words.
Trained in the United Kingdom, Pa Utuk was a teacher’s teacher. He falls within the class of teachers described by the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, that: “the great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.” Utuk was not just a teacher who arrived the classroom each day with a chalk to teach a subject, his duty was to mould characters. He built bridges that have transported children of yesterday to the adult world of today.
I recall my first encounter with Utuk as a student many years ago. I was already in class two when he took over as principal of the school. From the way he walked about noiselessly, to the manner his lips curled in smiles, it was clear to us that here was a man with little or no patience with foolishness. He looked confident; but harmlessly tough. When he looked in your direction, his eyes seemed to be examining both your exterior and interior being. You feared that he could read your thoughts. Certainly, at many instances, he seemed capable of doing just that.
Even at your first meeting with him or merely walking past him, he needed no introduction. You did not need to be told who was in charge although he carried no air of self-importance. Utuk, in the words of Robert Caro, had the face and a noiseless carriage of a man in the full flush of power. When you talked with him, particularly when he was not happy with your conduct, you either get prepared for a hot, violent massage on your jaw, or stand many feet away from him.
One of the old students, Idongesit (Ibanga) Umana aptly captured her experience with Utuk thus: “Here was a man who, when he slapped you in those days, not only will you see stars as big as several crowns melted into one, your head will have to re-boot before you can remember your name.” Yet, through such hard, uncompromising discipline, Idongesit left the school in 1983 as the best graduating student in the female category.
However, looking back, no one could argue that without such slaps from many teachers of old, we would not be where we are today. Pa Utuk did not just go around slapping people. In fact he hardly did. But when it happened, you would know that you have just been in the presence of a great man who loved you as a father even when he caused tears of pain to roll down your cheeks. When it came to discipline in those days, Pa Utuk left nothing to chance.
Who wants to be a teacher? Given a choice, very a few would love to spend their lives in the classroom. Someone once said that there are several categories of teachers: those born into the profession; those forced into it by circumstances; those passionate about teaching but not trained to; and those who see it as the only avenue open to make a living. Whatever category one falls into, what matters most is the fact that teaching as a profession teaches all the other professions. It is a calling.
Teaching, according to one writer, is not just a job, it is a human service, and it must be thought of as a mission. That means a teacher is a man on a mission: a mission to change tomorrow; a mission to sculpt rough-edge humans into smooth leaders; a mission to open a door for another mission. A teacher is a man on a noble mission; because in the words of the great Marcus Cicero: what nobility can you give any other man than the man who instructs the rising generation.
Teachers should be respected. Teachers should be rewarded. Teachers should be honoured. You would never be a president or a journalist if you had no teacher. No teacher should be allowed to suffer; especially a good teacher; like Pa Utuk. This is because a good teacher, as observed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a Turkish, is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others.
A good teacher fulfils the old saying that “what a teacher writes on the blackboard of life can never be erased. I recall what Pa. Utuk used to tell us in those days. One day, he caught me with a cane pursuing junior students all over the place. Then I heard his voice; and I froze. Then I approached him confidently. I had no reason to be afraid because he was on the other side of the fence. After verbally scolding me, he said: all I want from you are five credits that will enable you gain admission to the university. My son, don’t follow the multitude to do the wrong! Go and study and drop that cane!
Henry Brooks Adams once said that a teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops. Pa Utuk is a good example of that. He was inspirational in leadership. You couldn’t pass through his tutelage and not make a mark in life at whatever level of endeavour you find yourself. He taught us from his heart; not just from books. That is the mark of a good teacher. We must rise and appreciate good teachers. They deserve it.
*Akpe, a journalists, is resident in Abuja.