“A teacher affects eternity; he/she can never tell where his/her influence stops.” — Henry Adams
Anyone who bears even the remotest acquaintance with Mrs Yolande Henderson can truly testify to how she is the personification of Henry Adam’s words quoted above. Born on Jan 14, 1934, she was destined to be the cornerstone for the change in many people’s lives.
The young Yolande finished her schooling in Mumbai before moving to Pakistan in 1950. She started teaching in 1954 after graduating from St Joseph’s College. The Dutch Bishop of the time gave her a scholarship to do her MA in Literature from Canada, which she completed in 1957.
Coming from a family well endowed with doctors, her parents had hoped she’d follow suit. But from very early on, she realised her calling as a teacher based on her love for interacting with children. Hence she joined St Patricks High School while Father Steven Raymond was principal there. And thereon began her teaching career with this school which lasted for 34 years until the day she retired.
Soon after she started teaching, she realised that without an affluent background for support, her sparse salary of Rs420 was making it difficult to make ends meet. So she did a course in shorthand typing and joined Agfa Films as a secretary. However, she was back in the school after a month as she says, “with my tail between my legs” because she found the new job extremely monotonous and missed the daily interaction with her pupils.
With guidance and encouragement from Father Raymond, whom Mrs Henderson holds in the greatest esteem, she learned the ropes and excelled in her career. She reminiscences about the time when her supervisor evaluated her English Literature class (the subject she had specialised in) and commented, “Are you teaching Astronomy, History, Geography or Literature?”
She was devastated but Father Raymond said to her, “Be grateful that he criticised. Now you know where you’re going wrong.” And this is exactly what happened.
Having taught the likes of Rashid Minhas and Dr Iftikhar Salahuddin, Mrs Henderson became headmistress of the St Patrick’s O’ Levels section in 1991. A young lady who had studied in an all-girls convent all her life had now grown up to be a woman with the calibre to not just teach a bunch of boys at their rowdiest age, but also head an entire section full of them.
As headmistress Mrs Henderson had the ability to exude an aura of command and control while being approachable by all who wished to consult her. Her students revered her but adored her. While she pushed them to maintain a strict code of discipline, she encouraged them to strive for better academic excellence. She inculcated human qualities in them and hoped that one day they would not just contribute to the material aspect of the world, but also the humanitarian.
She claims to be a “stickler for punctuality” and was always particular about regularity. When half a class decided to skip school to watch a much-awaited cricket match on television, she called up each student’s home and gave him a deadline to be in school by a stipulated time that very day. She never tolerated tardiness and untidiness in her students and pulled them up when she sensed that they were slacking. One of her star students, Salah a recent graduate from Yale says, “Mrs Henderson was obviously a very good teacher, but the reason so many of her students [and staff] admired her were her leadership skills. Under her, the St Patrick’s O’ Levels section was an exceptional institution with strict discipline, excellent academics, and great extracurricular activities.”
Mrs Henderson says that one of the biggest issues that she faced during her tenure as headmistress, and still sees around her is the general mindset that forces children to compete with others in all spheres of life, especially academics. However, she believed that one must compete with his/her own self instead of doing it with others. And this was the attitude that she tried to develop among the students as well.
Mrs Henderson took personal interest in not just the academic progress of each of her students, but also their personal lives. Students came to her and shared their problems and she ensured that those problems were resolved. Finding ways to fund the education of students with potential, to accepting students who had failed admission tests, because she had a gut feeling that they’d do well later in life, Mrs Henderson has touched, shaped and molded the lives of many.
Despite her strict demeanor, she appreciated honest criticism even from her students and was always ready to learn and improve. She tells about a time some years before her retirement when she noticed that her class 10 students never came to her to share their problems. Once she went to their class and asked how come they had no issues to discuss with her. And then she asked a question which she herself claims was the stupidest question to ask, “Am I a monster?” With pin drop silence in the class, a meek “Yes Miss” was proffered from the back row. Mrs Henderson looked at the student and asked him for a 500-word essay proving her to be a monster. The next morning, she found the essay waiting on her desk. And she found it to be the most hilarious piece of writing, allowing her to self reflect and improve. The letter ended with the words “… but you have a heart of gold!”
Mrs Henderson retired in 2006 because she felt that her failing health wasn’t allowing her to do justice to her position. It broke her heart to leave the school that had been part of her life for decades and whose nooks and crannies she knew like the back of her hand. Nevertheless, the time had come for her to part ways with St Patrick’s High School for what she felt was for the betterment of the institution and her students.
Mrs Henderson says, “A teacher doesn’t just teach his/her own subject. But brings out qualities in children such as compassion, responsibility and a sense of justice, to make them better human beings,” and she was the true epitome of these words. It is disappointing to see that despite all that she rendered in the way of education to generations of students, her efforts have not been highlighted as they should have been. However, in her own words, “the greatest reward for a a teacher is the love and respect that she gets from her students.” If so, then Mrs Yolande Henderson has indeed been well rewarded for her services to God and man.