Br. Kelly

In an April email to a Yahoo group Amitava Sengupta, a fellow alumnus of St. Patrick’s, let us know that Br. Kelly “the legendary ambidextrous science master, quick and practical thinker – died at about 5.30 pm on January 16, 2007, in Ireland.” I was surprised.


The surprise was not to learn that he has passed away. It was to note the sadness that suddenly crept in. For some time I could not figure out why. I was not “close” to him as a favorite student would. I was not related to him. What had he done to touch my heart? Was it because Br. Kelly had taught me how to think scientifically?


It must have been a difficult task for him. Not because we were dense, but because his approach was so alien to us. I remember the first encounter.


We were seated in the class beside the lab. Br. Kelly entered wearing the battered habit and carrying a blue kit bag with “BOAC” fading on its sides. He solemnly went to the board, wrote out the English alphabet in lower case, turned around and calmly looked at us with a quizzical trace of a smile.


In a while we realized we were expected to also do the same in our exercise books. As we completed our task he murmured “pass” to some and “fail” to the others. When he was done with the class he said “Those who passed do it again, those who failed try it again”.


Later on we realized that he was getting us to practice lettering. It was a skill that would be handy while labeling the diagrams that we would need to draw in the exams. But why did he suddenly ask us one day that how come the tear was more or less a straight line if you creased the paper first? And it is an uneven line otherwise?


He never answered that question. His favorite response to a lot of questions went like this – Stand. Tear out a piece of paper one centimeter by one centimeter. Write “T” on it. Put it in your shirt pocket. Sit. “Sir?” we would ask. “T is for think” he would say.


On an annual sports day he suddenly appeared wearing a new crisp habit without holes in it. This one hadn’t been to the chemistry lab with him yet. Also gone was his BOAC bag. He had a cloth side bag instead. “Sir what’s that?” we asked. “This is an object, occupies space, is made of matter and has some mass.”


So what does one do with this strange attitude of scientific thinking? That is, besides deciding that one would not draw conclusions on an issue or a problem with out rationally thinking it through. And I am not referring to issues like global warming, world hunger or the meaning of life. I have in mind more simple and immediate problems like managing expectations of this client project manager in an ERP implementation that I am responsible for.


Scientific thinking as an attitude is not enough though. One might need tools like six thinking hats. Or more simply, one may choose to mix together several facts, ideas and concepts to develop a technique that produces quick results.


I remember about the same time I was tearing out one centimeter square pieces of paper and writing T on it, I was reading this book on animal camouflaging techniques. Having coloration to blend in was good. But another trick used by animals is to assume a posture that hides their shadows.


Then there was another article that I read in a magazine that carried photos of microscopic object taken with the aid of a shadow casting electron microscope. This was another usage of shadow to reveal existence of shapes that may not be visible otherwise.


One day when I had accidentally dropped a broken piece of a needle on to this grey concrete floor. Illumination in the room was adequate. But the piece was too small. I did not know whether it was in the open space in the room or under the bed. Somehow in the back of my mind I had a solution. I brought out the flashlight, switched it on and placed in on the floor so the light hit it at a glancing angle. The needle piece cast a long shadow and there was no problem in spotting it any more.


I thought it was a neat piece of thinking. I was rather pleased at myself that I was actually learning to think. I hadn’t heard of Simon Batchelor then but Edward de Bono has recorded an interesting experience of this gentleman.


Batchelor was in Cambodia to help villagers drill for water. He was finding it difficult to get them involved so he taught them the six thinking hats method. It seems that the villagers soon became so enthusiastic that they decided learning to think was more important than learning how to drill.


I would say there is one more thing that is more important than to learning how to think. It is having teachers like Br. Kelly around you to show you the way. We need more teachers like him in our schools. I am sad that he is not around challenging students to think for themselves.