By Saya Des Rodgers
My introduction to teaching at RIT began as a team member of the English Department. Besides Daw Yin Yin Mya (Head of the English and known to us as Terry), and Daw Sheila Saing (Asst. Head), there were 10 tutors including myself.
In his own inimitable and affectionate way, Saya U Khin, also one of the new tutors, decided to spice up our group by giving us nicknames. I’m sure my former colleagues will forgive me for revealing these juicy tidbits as this generous gesture of U Khin’s served to bind and give our departmental community a semblance of togetherness. Daw Yin Yin Mya was complimented with the name Shwe Man Mé (in honor of her previous beauty pageant title of Miss Rangoon). I wouldn’t want to reveal Daw Sheila Saing’s. Despite its not being slanderous or derogatory, it was a typical humorous expression of what we Burmese immediately notice about anyone’s appearance. U Win Mra was known as Rakhine gyi, Saya Tony as Shan gyi (sadly gone, but he must be smiling down on us from his abode of eternal rest), Sayama Toni as Byaing ma gyi, Sayama Muriel – a name I don’t recall, but which I think reflected her sweet innocence and being the object of Saya U Khin’s “secret” admiration, Sayama Khin Saw Tint, ungallantly nicknamed Ahnaik té gyi, and Sayama Charity who was inexplicably called Shwe nga. For some strange reason, U Khin spared me, perhaps out of intimidation or deference for my scrabble prowess, as he often challenged but rarely ever beat me in games involving money bets. Both Saya Joe Ba Maung, and Saya Kyaw Lwin Hla, easy targets, were also excepted by U Khin, perhaps to portray a side of his that reminded him of having some good social graces. These intimate nicknames, characteristic of us Burmese helped with the bonding process more closely, and nobody took offence at their liberal use. It certainly seemed that despite our different ethnic backgrounds, we enjoyed a far greater measure of coexistence,cooperation, and friendship in our department than the Burmese government of the day did, in their efforts to co-opt and mould the various ethnic groups of the country into a unified whole.
Those were halcyon days for us at RIT, teaching classes of20 to 25 respectful and committed students, who basically went along with what we decided was appropriate to teach, and in the manner we decided was best for them to learn. Saya U Khin and I usually had Sayama Terry’s ear, so to speak, and we got to make considerable input into the curriculum and test instruments. At exam time, I was given the duty of conducting the Listening tests over a loudspeaker system across a few wooden framed classrooms (not unlike large zayats), likely due to my previous stint as a radio entertainer with the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS).
I got to love my work and I became very attached to the students. In particular, I remember one student. In my classes, he was almost habitually slouched over his desk in the last row of the class, seemingly half asleep on one bent elbow with glasses barely supported on his nose, and seldom looking up or towards the front of the classroom. His seeming indifference belied a very active, bright,and absorbing mind, one which on facing a problem or engaging in conversation requiring close concentration manifested its ability to ably comprehend sophisticated concepts or language use. Usually indulging in his pastime of doodling, I’m sure he was immersed in day dreams of one day becoming an editor of a successful newspaper or a widely popular and eagerly-read newsletter. Hmmm!
When I wasn’t teaching, I was either playing scrabble with Saya U Khin, Roland Thein, Sayama Anne, or Bobby MyoTun, now respectfully addressed as Bhikku Ashin Pannagavesaka, who undoubtedly must now be spending some time apart from his meditation in his monastery in Mawlamyine to reminisce on some of the earthly pleasures RIT once had to offer.
Our teaching staff was a friendly bunch. We had a regular stream of students, and some members of other departments visiting with us either to exchange pleasantries or to “check out the scenery” from our vantage point on the 3rd floor. Regulars such as Roland Thein and the Rev. Bobby Myo Tun (no disrespect intended), were often joined by Johnny Hla Min, Kenny Wong, Robert Win Boh, La La, George Tun Pe, D.S.Saluja, Toby Kittim Ku, Zaw Min Nawaday, Walter Tan, Gregory Win Htut, Reggie Kyaw Nyunt, etc., and their delightful female counterparts viz., Christine Phyu Phyu Latt, Emma Myint (later an RIT sayama), and Pamela Myo Min (now Head of Architecture) etc.,. Others, one year junior were Merrylin Smith (now Mrs. Zaw Mon with a very successful career in the US government’s EPA), Than Than Yi (at whose house I played tennis a few doors from Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s residence on University Avenue), Amy Lei Lei Myaing (Tex), Rosie Gyi, Annie (?),and Merlin Vaz, etc.,
Many of these students not only strolled into our “English Corner”, but unstintingly gave of their time to help me set up the RIT scrabble group, which later even involved the participation of Sayagyis Dr. Aung Gyi, U Min Wun, and perhaps Saya Bilal Raschid in competition games in the institute. The students’ help also extended to organizing the department’s debates and carol singing at Christmas time – an interesting seasonal Christian celebratory event, where racism and religious discrimination played no part in the thinking of our community. We were just happy to be one,and to do things and enjoy each other’s company in whatever manner we could, all in true Burmese fashion.
On other fronts, I thoroughly enjoyed socializing and cultivating friendships with faculty members from other departments.Saya U Sein Shan (Math) was a consistently friendly and jovial presence, as were Saya U Maung Maung Win (Mech) with his flashing smile worthy of any CNN news anchor, Saya Maurice Kyaw Zaw, and Saya USoe Paing, whom I called “the involver and the motivator”. I had frequent stimulating conversations with Sayas Christopher, U Thein Dan, and U Allen Htay of the Civil department. And of course, I was not only very friendly with Saya Bilal Rachid of the Architecture Dept., but was, and will always continue to be deeply grateful to him for helping me get my Canadian visa. He did much to introduce me to the international diplomatic circuit where the foreign ambassadors often engaged in discussing topical issues, a pastime close to my heart. We now keep in close contact by email, and I plan to visit him and others in the Washington [D.C.] area in the near future.
In the same way that I had learned to smoke from some RIT seniors in 1959, I also learned to drink from socializing and playing tennis with the Russian Architectural and Mining lecturers. Interestingly, Viktor, the head of the Russian group took me aside when I went on my rounds to wish my various colleagues “Good-bye”, and asked if I would mind keeping in touch with him as he wanted to immigrate to Canada. When asked, “Why Canada?” his answer was a simple, “They have excellent fishing there!” Despite my very cordial relations with Sayagyi U Yone Moe through my occasional visits to his office, there was one person in the administration who seemed to consider me anathema to the institution, with no apparent justifiable reason. Whenever I happened to see U Soe Thein the Registrar, which was practically everyday, he would always stare or glare at me with thinly disguised feelings of dislike.
I know I’m fast forwarding a bit here, but I’d like to narrate an interesting and illuminating anecdote that happened towards the end of my teaching career at RIT. One day, a brilliant student of mine – who shall remain anonymous,returned from the government’s annual Lu Ye Chun summer camp for outstanding achievers. At the usual meeting of students, faculty and administration in the RIT Assembly Hall, instead of going along meekly with the official policy line of praising the programme to the skies, and using the occasion to encourage other students to strive for higher ideals within the government’s philosophical purview, he delivered a critical unflattering message labelling the programme as nothing less than an attempt to indoctrinate the students with questionable socialist ideals! We sat in stunned silence, not for one moment expecting such a tirade. I never quite got around to asking him what chastisement was meted out to him, but within an hour of his outburst, I was “requested” to see U Soe Thein in his office. There, I was pointedly accused of imbuing this student of mine with harmful western liberal thinking that was detrimental to the Burmese Way to Socialism. Despite my protests to the contrary, I was roundly castigated on the grounds that I was a natural suspect due to my westernized manner of dressing, my behaviour, and outlook. Well, so much for U Soe Thein – himself a suspected front man for the party, and his heavy-handed attitude. There was no love lost between us, but I very sadly had to conclude that after this, my first experience of discrimination in my life, and a few other misgivings about the systemic failure I was witnessing,including the plight of the working class people at large, I would sooner or later have to leave the land of my birth, as it was becoming extremely constricting and taxing for me to exist in such a stifling political system. I have since moved on, preferring to relegate the“U Soe Thein fiasco” to a footnote in my teaching career at RIT. And as for my student? I was left with an absolute sense of admiration for this young, conscientious, and courageous person who had had enough gumption to speak truth to power!