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Life lessons for a prefect
Colonel Eric Simeon taught us that fair play is an inviolable principle. As we struggled with a wrenching school scandal we realised how right our favourite headmaster was.
Indian education is often criticised for making students focus almost entirely on memorising facts to score high on tests rather than how to analyse, judge, lead and make ethical decisions. In this sea of mindless education, Col Eric Simeon stood out because he was so starkly different.
He was the principal of Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai during the 1980s, when I was in high school. Before that, he had been headmaster of two other top Indian educational institutions - La Martinere School for Boys (1967-70 ) in Kolkata and Doon School (1970-79 ). At Cathedral, he taught one class, general knowledge, in which students spent most of the time debating current and historical issues - from the ethics of India amassing nuclear weapons to the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan in the World War II.
He also presided, as principal, over what was and remains effectively the most intensive leadership workshop for high school seniors that I have ever seen - the experience of being a prefect. Under this leadership system, Cathedral chooses about a dozen 12th standard students each year and puts them in charge of running the school, from deciding on policy and discipline for junior students to policing their own peer group - that is, themselves.
It was when I was a prefect at Cathedral - the head girl, who, along with the head boy, was the leader of the prefects - that Col Simeon taught me one of life's most important lessons in ethical leadership. In the current atmosphere of widespread corruption in India, this lesson could not be more resonant.
We had just run the annual cross country running race, one of a dozen activities in which all students were expected to participate. The event was fiercely competitive, to be sure, but the school also emphasised strongly the idea of playing the game, regardless of ability. The school infused students with the value of fair play, which meant following the rules and not cheating, even as you vied furiously for victory.
Soon after the race, I heard that two of my fellow prefects had pressured junior athletes to run slowly so that one of the prefects could win the cross country competition. Even though one of the accused prefects was a close friend, the school's emphasis on fair play - and the responsibility of prefects to enforce it - had sunk deep into my psyche and I felt compelled to report the complaint to Col Simeon.
Instead of investigating and dispensing punishment himself, Col Simeon told me it was the responsibility of the prefects to decide if one of us had indeed abused his/her power - and if so, the punishment this act merited.
I can't recall the details of how we investigated, but I can recall the agony. I remember it becoming very clear to me that my dear friend and his buddy had, in fact, pressured the junior runners to go slow so they could win.
But in the course of investigating, it also became clear to me that one or two of my fellow prefects were out for blood. They saw this transgression as an opportunity to take down the two prefects who were hugely popular. This vengefulness gave me pause, because this investigation was becoming a battle between the friends and "enemies" of the two prefects.
I remember Col Simeon calling us prefects into his office to ask about the results of our investigation. We were seated in a semi-circle in front of him. I was the first to his left. Perhaps for this reason, or because he thought I could handle it, he called upon me first to brief him.
Col Simeon emphasised the principle that ethics must supersede friendship. I stood up and said I thought they were guilty. One by one, my fellow prefects followed suit, the vast majority of them agreeing that two among us had broken the vital rule of fair play and abused our authority.
Col Simeon then decided on the punishment - and in that he exercised great restraint and compassion. I think he felt the embarrassment of being investigated by peers and found guilty was punishment enough The two remained prefects, and we all returned to our usual routine to take on many more leadership challenges - though none that cut to the core as much as this one.
That wrenching experience influences me to this day. It was my faith in fairness and justice created and strengthened by Col Simeon that enabled me to standup for what I believed was true. It is because of Col Simeon's idealism, and the life lessons he taught me, that I wrote him a letter each year after I graduated from high school - for the next 20 years until he passed away in 2007. It was because I remain forever grateful to him that I looked up his son and remain in close touch with him even today.
As India tries to fight corruption, it needs more teachers like Col Simeon who inspire young people to believe in justice and fairness - convincing them these principles can be a reality in their worlds and that they are worth fighting for - and that they are more important to stand up for than cronyism, or in its purer form, friendship.
When Col Simeon died, I was living abroad and couldn't be at his funeral. But I wrote a eulogy that my best friend read. The church was packed with his former students from Cathedral, La Martinere and Doon - as well as the Sainik Schools where he began his career as a headmaster in 1961. That year, as a Corps of Signals officer stationed in Delhi, he was summoned by the then defence minister V K Krishna Menon and told to start the first of the Sainik Schools in Kunjpura, Punjab.
For everyone, what stood out, beyond his passion for learning, was his teaching of leadership and ethics and how those lessons have stayed with his students for their entire lives.
The author is a senior writer with the WSJ in Mumbai.
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