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A school for the poor that the rich may envy[continued]

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Starting the school was easier than running it: trained teachers were unwilling to teach Panchamas. It was a time before Gandhi coined the word Harijan and started the ongoing process of integrating them. So the early teachers were theosophists, who transcend doctrinaire religious sanctions.

Radha's father N Sri Ram was a theosophist who went on to become the President of TS in 1953. She was born in 1923 and grew up in the environs of TS. In her young days, the Panchama Free School had only teachers from abroad. She remembers Miss Sarah Palmer and Miss English and her brother. Olcott had died in 1907. By then the school was in steady-state and had produced an alumnus good enough to become a teacher. He was Ayya Kannu, who served the school for long.

Fast forward to now:

Annie Besant had taken over from Olcott as President. The five Panchama Free Schools in Chennai were consolidated into one at Adyar. Fittingly, it was renamed Olcott Memorial High School [OMHS]. The Olcott Education Society[OES] was formed to integrate many related activities.

A 19th century classic

Henry Steel Olcott was born in 1832 in New Jersey. After education at Columbia University, NY he was a share cropper in his uncles' farm in Ohio. There he discovered his interest in the occult that was to be his life-long driving force. He then studied agriculture formally and started a farm school and wrote extensively on the subject.

Olcott was a daring man as well. When Virginia banned any Northerner from witnessing the hanging of John Brown, he made it incognito and wrote an account of it in a New York paper. He then served in the Civil War and after the war ended studied law. His integrity led to his appointment as investigator of fraud in the US Navy. After Lincoln's assassination, Olcott was appointed to the three man investigating commission.

In 1894 he met Madame H P Blavatsky and it proved to be a seminal event. Mme Blavatsky had been a para normal since a child. She identified her master in a childhood dream, met him [-he was a Rajput.] in Hyde Park when she was 20 and went into Tibet in 1868 and trained for two years under her masters. She and Olcott were drawn to each other. They founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 in New York.

That was not the end of Olcott's talents. He turned out to be a popular healer, converted to Buddhism and established Theosophical Society branches throughout the world.

In such a large man's life, the founding of Panchama Free Schools is but a tiny achievement; but it nevereless underlines his search for fairness, and from there, perfection on earth.

He passed away in Adyar in 1907.

Based on a memoir by Sarah Dougherty

All the foregoing is by way of a foreword. If that were all there is to it, it would be mere history. Instead, OMHS is a living throbbing school. By 1972, the small parcel of land where OMHS had begun, was bursting at its seams. TS moved it to its present premises about a kilometer away, closer to the sea. That's how it has come to be the envy of even schools for the well-to-do.

OMHS sits on a 9 acre campus constantly aired by the sea. It has vast playgrounds, as Annie Besant strongly believed sports to be a great character builder. There are leafy lanes and class-rooms are abuzz with children. 750 in all, 35% of them girls. Teachers are mostly alumni. The medium of instruction is Tamil.

The charming, original school building and campus remain with OES. A Social Welfare Centre operates there under the OES umbrella. There is a training centre for women to earn home based incomes, like tailoring. More importantly, there's a bustling playschool with ample playgrounds, for nearly 200 children. They are between ages 2½ and 5. After that age, OMHS welcomes them and takes them all the way to Class-10.

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