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Forty hearty cheers to mama Birrel at 84

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An octogenarian, Mrs. Gladys Olabisi Kalejaiye, is the pioneer Principal of Birrel Avenue Secondary School, Yaba, Lagos, one of the schools founded during the time of Alhaji Lateef Jakande as governor of Lagos State. In this interview with ENIOLA DANIEL, at an event to mark the school’s 40th anniversary and her 84th birthday, Mama Birrel, as she is fondly called, relieves her memory in the teaching profession, her beginning, her love life and others.

Tell us your Birrel story
Birrel was one of the secondary schools established at the time of Lateef Jakande as governor of Lagos State. It was founded on September 7, 1981.
  
We didn’t have a location at that time, so we had to manage with Western College, Onitiri. They gave us four blocks of classrooms. The following year, 1982, our host said they needed the classrooms they gave us so, we had to move to Ebute-Metta end of Lagos Street, and there, there were some blocks of abandoned classrooms and a heap of dirt. Though the abandoned place was where people in the community dumped their rubbish, we had to manage it. But before I took my staff and children (students) there, I had to clear the place because no teacher would ever want to sit there. I went to the chairman of Mainland Local Government and asked for his help to clear the rubbish. He gave me a caterpillar and a tipper lorry, but when we arrived at the place, the villagers came out thinking we had come to demolish their houses, so, I came down from the vehicle to explain our mission to them.
 
We were able to clear the dirt and, the following day, I took my teachers there. They appeared not comfortable but I told them that if they saw what I saw, they wouldn’t want to come there at all, so, we started teaching in that condition. I told the students that that was the only place we had and we have to make the best use of it. We cleared the remaining rubbish every day over a period of time. The environment was not conducive but we managed to survive there.

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Did you choose to become a teacher or your parents forced you to?
Teaching has been my ambition since I was a little girl. In fact, my daddy had to show me the essay I wrote to the effect that when I grow up, I would be a teacher. When I finished secondary school and I was planning to do something else, my dad showed me the essay again. He told me that I had to go to the United Missionary College where teachers were being trained. After the missionary college, I taught at Anglican Girls Grammar School, Ijebu-Ode and later on, I got married and I did my Nigeria Certificate In Education (NCE) and my Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) degree in Education and Geology at the University of Lagos. Teaching is in my vein.
 
How lucrative was teaching during your time and did you get all the money you wanted from teaching?  
Teaching was not paying at that time, but we were comfortable because when you do something that you really love to do, you won’t care about money.
 
Let us into your journey to the teaching profession and as a principal
I started with Anglican Girls Grammar School, Ijebu-Ode, from there I came to Lagos, after marriage. I taught in New Era Girls Secondary School, Yaba. After that, I went for my NCE course in 1964 and when I finished, I taught at Corona School, Yaba for a few years and from there, I went back to do my degree. When I finished in 1975, I got employment in Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls Secondary School, Yaba. From there, I was posted to the ‘Inspectorate’ for a year, and from there, they gave me Birrel Avenue High School. Birrel was my baby I had to nurse in 1981. I was posted to Orishigun High School after I left Birrel.
 
The standard of education in Nigeria has dropped. Where do you think Nigeria missed it?
During our own time, we had good and conscientious teachers and we had a way of enforcing discipline for the teachers and the students. I don’t know what the teachers are doing after we left.

The children we taught then are in high positions now. One thing I gave them was another motto. We had a motto for Birrel but I changed it to ‘Only The Best Are Good For Birrel’ and they carried that in their heads. 
  In what year did you retire from service?
I retired in 1993. I left Birrel in March 1993.
 
What’s your fondest memory?
We had a guard in the school at Birrel and one day somebody came around and was trying to come into the compound and my guard was struggling to speak to the man in English language. And when the guard could not understand what the stranger was saying in English language, he called me and said Oga, I don’t know what they are saying oo. I then told him that it was the reason he should learn to understand English language and he should be humble enough to allow the students to teach him. From that time on, the guard started engaging the students and started learning. and, at the end of the day, he was able to cope with visitors coming into the school.  

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Your students in Birrel described you as a gentle and humble woman who never used cane to correct any student. What is your reaction to that?
That’s my nature. I owe everything to God. I am fully guided in our actions. For instance, at Birrel, I never gave any teacher query. The Holy Spirit thought me something; when any erring teacher came to me, I would record our conversation and give her or him a copy while I filed another copy. The reason is that such a teacher would not be able to deny what we discussed. That action helped in checking their excesses and it worked better than issuing query.
Another thing I remember is a teacher who used to come to school late and each time she greeted me, saying ‘Good morning ma’, I would respond by saying ‘Good afternoon’. That thing worked because she told somebody one day that there was a principal who was always shouting at her, but each time she greeted me ‘Good morning’, I would simply respond with ‘Good afternoon.’ She said if carrying her food to school would make her come early to get a ‘Good morning’ response from me, she was going to do so, and that solved the problem. It’s better to let them see where they are wrong and correct them in love.
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How was your love life?
Love life? Well. I had a very understanding husband. He was the one that advised me not to take my teachers to Ebute Meta. He was always interested in my work. He knew how much I cared about Birrel Avenue. He would always call me Mama Birrel.

What were those things you looked out for and saw before saying yes to your husband?
When I met him, he told me everything about himself. He told me how his father died when he was just 13, how his mother was the only one and that he was the breadwinner of his family, taking care of his siblings. After telling me everything, he then asked: With all these loads on my head, will you marry me? I told him I would marry him. I said I would not mind all those things and I promised to help him and I helped him when we got married. I would hand over my small pay package to him and we would sit and discuss. I appreciate him. His memory lingers on, he was a family man and he was always interested in whatever I was doing. He would help me with everything.
 
What will you like to be remembered for?
People should remember me for love, making sure that people around me are okay.

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