“Sir, None of Us Likes Science”: How I Came to RV

Memoirs of Rishi Valley is a series of posts written by Sri S. V. Venkatachalam, known fondly to his students as Venks Sir. In his 20 years as a teacher at RV, he left an indelible mark on the valley, and he has a fond place in the collective memory of many students. As he turns 82 this year, it is his desire and our privilege to share with students old and new an RV that is long gone and yet lives on.

The application

It was early May, 1954, and I was searching for a suitable teaching job after receiving my B. Ed. I had an aversion for seeking a teacher’s post in schools run by the Government, having heard a great deal of criticism about the way they functioned. I was directed by a friend to an advertisement in The Hindu about a post at Rishi Valley School, Chittoor, AP.  The name Rishi Valley somehow struck a chord in my heart, perhaps because of the great respect I have for our Indian cultural heritage and my having deeply studied Sanskrit literature. I lost no time in mailing an application to the school for the post of a teacher of general science along with my curriculum vitae.

I received a letter on 14th May acknowledging the receipt of my application. The signatory’s name was F. G. Pearce. He had stated that he was away in North India on a holiday and that my application was received after all the advertised posts had already been filled. It is obvious that I was thoroughly disappointed.

It is obvious that I was thoroughly disappointed.

However, in the letter there was something which was consoling. It mentioned that my qualifications, both academic and extra-curricular were good and fitted the requirements of the school almost exactly and the school management wished to make further acquaintance with a view to consider the possibility of offering a post if a vacancy happened to occur. Mr. Pearce suggested that if I wished to visit the school, I could do so at my own expense after the reopening of the school on 16th June.

Two points mentioned in the letter drew my attention. One was the name ‘F. G. Pearce’. It struck me that this person must be the same as the author of two excellent text-books in History that we had for the high school classes in Bangalore: ‘Footprints on The Sands of Time’ and ‘The Struggle of Modern Man’.  I felt delighted and wished to meet him at the earliest. The other information in the letter was: Mr. Pearce appreciated my experience in scouting and also was a ‘Wood Badge’ holder. He mentioned that he himself was the Chief Scout Commissioner in Gwalior and Ceylon. Now I eagerly wanted to meet this person!

I soon received another letter from Rishi Valley, calling me to appear for an interview on 17th June, with directions for reaching the school. The letter had more happy news for me: the post of a teacher for General Science was still vacant, since the person from Delhi who had been offered the post earlier was unable to report for work due to health problems! On that day, after a long and eventful travel by bus, I finally reached the campus — late. Driving along the rugged road I was taken to the main school building where some documentary films were being screened for the students, through the muffled light I could see a person walking briskly along the corridor. He approached me very cordially and asked me if I were Venkatachalam. I was simply bowled over by his friendliness and approachability. He was none other than the ‘CHIEF SCOUT COMMISSIONER’ – Mr. F. G. PEARCE!

The interview

Next morning, I was asked to meet the Head Master, Sri. B. Rajagopalan (BR). Sri BR wanted to know my academic background and wanted to have a look at my certificates. Though he appeared to be tough, he was really a kind person. Through his questioning, he was soon able to conclude that I had a passion to be a teacher and wished me well.

Later, I was asked to meet Mr. Pearce in his office (a room next to the Principal’s quarters). I told him all about my experience at the Teachers’ Training College and the training I had in the Scout Movement. He especially appreciated my securing the “Wood Badge” and the “Medal of Merit” that I had received for my services to the cause of Scouting in Bangalore.

Later in the day Mr. Pearce asked me to meet him. He offered me the post of a teacher in the school and asked me to get back to Bangalore, discuss the proposal with my parents and then write to the school accepting the offer. Mr. Pearce was keen on my helping him to start a scout unit in Rishi Valley. I assured him that I would be delighted to do so. I returned to Bangalore and on 22nd June I received the letter of appointment as an assistant master in RVS on probation for the academic year June 1954 to March 1955!

Teacher at Rishi Valley

I never imagined that I would land up in a residential school. I had only ever imagined being a teacher in a Bangalore City school, having to teach in classrooms bursting with students, without proper facilities or encouragement for arts and crafts and also games and sports. Working as a member of staff in Rishi Valley School was a great opportunity that came my way and to have a chance to be able to be involved in what I had always considered meaningful education.

I joined the teaching staff of Rishi Valley at the age of 23, and I was perhaps the youngest member. On the Sunday morning of 28th June, I was taking a stroll in the garden. Mr. Pearce , who was on his usual rounds, walked towards me and offered to take round the school and hostels. He asked me if I would mind his addressing me as Venks instead of as Venkatachalam, since he found the latter rather a mouthful. I replied that it would be perfectly all right. To this day all my students refer to me as Venks.

To this day all my students refer to me as Venks.

The Senior Cambridge class I was asked to handle was the very first batch of students to take the final examination in December 1954 in Bangalore and the Matriculation class was the first batch to take the school final examination in March 1955 in Tirupati.  I was just beginning my teaching career and was expected to prepare them for this major event with no experience of handling subjects like Physics and Chemistry at that level. For the other subjects there were teachers who had sufficient teaching experience. But for me it was a challenging assignment. I could not afford to do a shoddy job, I had to work hard and deliver.

I had a shock in my very first teaching class. I was to teach General Science to the IX grade.  When I was about to begin, one of the students got up and said, ‘Sir, none of us likes science.’

‘Sir, none of us likes science.’

This was an unexpected welcome! Though I admit that I was surprised, I was not one to be brow-beaten. I picked up courage and said, ‘For your information, I don’t like science myself. Don’t you think that instead of a lesson in General Science, we should all go out to the school estate, pluck some sour limes, prepare lime juice and have a party?’

‘Don’t you think that instead of a lesson in General Science, we should all go out to the school estate, pluck some sour limes, prepare lime juice and have a party?’

They were jubilant at my response and happily followed me to the school estate. After collecting a good number of limes, we moved to the science laboratory. Before leaving for the estate I had spoken to my lab assistant and told him to keep enough bottles washed and ready. We got the limes squeezed and filled the bottles. The lab assistant dropped a pinch of Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate) into each bottle and closed them with corks. When the assistant shook the bottles, the students could see the fizz in them. All of them enjoyed drinking lime juice. We got back to the classroom. I told them that this would be what I consider a lesson in science. They were surprised and asked, ‘How come?’ I explained to them the chemical reaction involved in the preparation of fizzy drinks. The class chorused that if this was science, they would like to learn it this way. I had passed my first test and set a firm foot into my teaching career!

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Signals from Signal Rock and Getting Lost in the Jungle

The RV Hiking Club

The RV Hiking Club, with Venks Sir in the centre.

Memoirs of Rishi Valley is a series of posts written by Sri S. V. Venkatachalam, known fondly to his students as Venks Sir. In his 20 years as a teacher at RV, he left an indelible mark on the valley, and he has a fond place in the collective memory of many students. As he turns 82 this year, it is his desire and our privilege to share with students old and new an RV that is long gone and yet lives on.

PART 1: Signals From The Signal Rock to Rishi Valley at Night

The Horsley Hills are full of dense jungles. At the highest point, 4020 ft (1265 mt) above sea level, lie the ‘Signal Rocks’, which can be spotted during the day time from the play grounds of the school. According to local folk-lore, there used to be a little girl, Mallamma by name, who had lived there and was taken care of by a few elephants. It is said that she had miraculous powers of curing the health problems of the local tribals who used to visit these jungles. She disappeared one day and the local people built a little temple in memory of Mallamma’s divine powers. The hill came to be remembered as Yenugu Mallamma Konda. Yenugu in Telugu means an elephant.

I heard from the hikers of the erstwhile school, ‘The School Rishi Valley’, that they used to have an interesting activity when they trekked. The trekkers used to send light signals to the valley at night in response to switching on and off the street lights by the switch operators of Rishi Valley. We wanted to try out this exciting ‘operation’ ourselves. In this outing, several students, boys and girls, took part. In December 1956, on a weekend, the party set out after breakfast. One batch of the members of the hiking club, led by me, took the short cut trek to the hilltop via the Three Sisters’ Rocks. The other group led by Sri G. Narayan went by bus to the foot of the hills on the Anantapur Road and walked up the ghat road. Arrangements were made to have two cooks and two helpers to accompany us and carry packed lunch and tea and also prepare dinner and breakfast for the morning. After the parties reached the Forest Bungalow, the students went to look around the place. After lunch and rest children were busy running around and playing.

Late in the evening all the younger ones were given early dinner and asked to sleep. The hikers, after making sure that they were comfortable, secured the main door of the forest bungalow set out for the signal rock adventure. We had with us a ‘petromax’ lamp operated using kerosene for this purpose. Two boys carried a huge blanket to serve as a switch for covering and uncovering the light. At about 8:30 p.m. ten of us made a bee line to the Signal Rock while taking care to spot bears! We chose a flat surface and settled down quietly. Sharp at 9 p.m. we started the signaling operation in the direction of the school campus. Lo! There we could see the switching on and off of the street lights of the school campus by Mr. John who used be in charge of the power house. I am sure they could see our signals. We learnt later that there was a great jubilation among the people in the valley who had gathered there. We were also equally jubilant at the success of the operation. The next morning we got back to Rishi Valley after breakfast. The students were happy at the success of the trek.

PART 2: How We Got Lost in a Jungle at Night

Having been impressed with the success of the trek to the Horsley Hills, many others wanted to trek with us. After much planning, we got one group, led by Gundu Rao Sir, to go by bus to the foot of the hills on the Madanapalle-Kadiri Road and walk up the ghat road. The other group led by me and Sri. Bharathan (who used to take good care of the school dairy farm) decided to give the group a tougher climb. We were to climb the Rishi Konda first, climb down the northern slope, then climb down the southern slopes of the Horsley Hills from the base and then cut across to the Forest Bungalow. We had taken care to study the Survey of India map (1 inch to a mile), particularly the hill paths.

The new comers in our batch were so awfully slow in the first part of the climb that by the time we got down to the base, it was very late in the afternoon. We hurried the group and by the time we had climbed the connecting hill top , it was already getting dark. We could spot the Horsley hill top which was about a kilometer away. While the survey map showed a clear area, in reality it was now covered with thick lantana bushes ( the map was cartographed in the year 1925). Though we tried our best to cut across the bushes using our staves, we found there was no chance of such a possibility. It became quite dark. We gave up hope of further efforts and decided to settle down on a clear area and waited for the dawn.

Most of the people in the group started feeling jittery. We had finished eating the food we carried. There was no water left. Oranges had been eaten and only the orange peels were left with us for ‘dinner’. We were compelled to eat them. All around it was a thick jungle. It was said to be infested with bears. Remaining there throughout the night was the ‘Hobson’s choice’ we had! Bharathan and I had to discover ways of keeping the group in a good mood. We were able to light a bush fire and got a few boys to keep feeding the fire. We assured the children that there was no need to panic. The other party had reached the hill top by midday as planned and had been waiting for us with lunch and tea.

Luckily for us, it was a full moon night so we could at least enjoy seeing the jungle at night. We had to be content with lying down and keep watching the bright full moon sail across the sky. One by one, everyone went to sleep while Bharathan and I kept a close watch on the group. The next morning, just after dawn, we tried our best to cut through the bushes but in vain. We decided to retreat and walked down the slope we had climbed and then walked along the path towards Rishi Valley via the Thettu village. By the time we got near the outskirts of the village, we noticed a batch of search party students led by Gundu Rao Sir advancing towards us, with worry writ on their faces. They had made a frantic phone call to Mr. Pearce from Horsley Hills and they had been instructed to go early in the morning to look for the ‘LOST TREKKERS’. Their joy knew no bounds on seeing us. Our group was thirsty to the bones. We drank the water from the stream to our heart’s content and reached the school safely. All those who were waiting anxiously, were now relieved and listened to our story in amazement!

We’re indebted to both Vaani Akka (Venks Sir’s daughter) and T. K. Ramkumar sir for all their support in putting this post together. Thank you so much Akka and Sir! 🙂