I was a student of Government Secondary School (GSS), Minna, in Niger State, a public school with origins in missionary education formerly called Fatima Secondary School. The Niger State Government took over and renamed all missionary schools in 1976. Father O’Connell, an Irish priest and principal of the school remained as principal of the new GSS Minna, a role he kept for over 50 years.
For over five decades, he was actively involved in the management and operation of the school. He was so keen on creating a positive learning environment and promoting the academic success and general discipline of students that he taught and supervised classes himself until his legs could not carry him anymore.
Compared to students who went to GSS in the 80s and early 90s, one could say I went there perhaps after the heyday of the school. But even in my days, despite being a public school, which always meant overpopulation, negligence and underperformance, GSS Minna was exceptional. We excelled in academics as well as any extracurricular activity. In spite of the dysfunctions of Nigeria’s educational systems, many students in GSS Minna had an impeccable foundation that prepared us for the fast-changing world.
When I was there, GSS Minna revolved around a kind of group feeling that was hard to explain. In Minna, you’d hardly wear the white shirt and grey trousers of GSS and not feel that great sense of purpose and integrity that was associated with the school. There was an unsaid, unwritten rule to be excellent in academic subjects as well as in athletic activities. For most, there was almost an obsessive quest for perfection in and outside the school in a quite imperfect, often broken world. In GSS, my love for books intensified, the appetite for success fermented and my sense of responsibility was firmly anchored. Most importantly, the qualities of respect, tolerance and kindness were sown.
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My first and perhaps most profound encounter with the human experience was in GSS Minna, when I moved from my relatively smaller, less diverse world to attend GSS Minna aged 10 years. I immediately made friends among students in different classes, teachers and even non-academic staff. There were students from various ethnicities and backgrounds. The camaraderie between us was unbelievable across board. The sheer number of students meant that there was a high chance that the person sitting next to you would be so different from you and you somehow not only got along but were kind and prospered, together.
From my second year until graduation, I was close to Bello, a blind student who was always around with his braille typewriter, often in class with us and learning in as conducive an atmosphere as possible because everyone ensured this. It was an unwritten rule that you carried with you even after leaving the school to be helpful in a dignifying way. So as a student, you sat next to someone from a different faith, tribe, age or background and you learned to be kind, tolerant and accommodating without even knowing it. I wish my child could get this kind of experience.
As a Muslim and the leader of the Muslim Students Society when I was in GSS, I learned and indeed taught that Jesus was a man of love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these values are at the heart of both Islam and Christianity. This is also where I first learned that in a world that is often divided by religion, ethnicity, and culture, it is more important than ever that we come together and recognise that we may have different beliefs and traditions, but at our core, we are all human beings with the same hopes, dreams and desires.
Our experience in GSS Minna would certainly have been different if it weren’t for the vision, leadership and presence of the late Father J. D. O’Connell who passed away on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at the age of 85 in an Irish home. Before he passed away, I was fortunate to bid him farewell. It was said that despite his old age, Father would remember every student by name. My heart raced as I walked into his office; trophies by the dozens sitting on the cabinets. A computer whizzed, half buried by files on his desk and he was there slumped into his chair, evidently fatigued with old age. He said something upon seeing me. He was now barely audible. His assistant leans towards him to tell him an old student was here to see him. Father mumbles again. It turned out he was remarking that I was no longer a skinny student. It was heart-warming that Father had not only recognised me but had recalled his constant admonition for me to eat more, 17 years later.
I hope you experience happiness, peace, and joy this Christmas, and may the coming year be filled with blessings and prosperity for us all.