Father McKenzie, Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near, Look at him working..
Music fans will recognize these lyrics from the threnody “Eleanor Rigby”, one of The Beatles’ most haunting tunes. An oblique elegy to the mysterious namesake, the song is a poignant paean to loneliness, anonymity and death. Is it then any wonder that in the age of Covid19 when we are afraid of even our shadow (unless it has washed its hand in soap and water for the prescribed two happy-birthdays rendition length) this song could be perceived as a grim reminder of the stoic motto: memento mori. Instead, Father McKenzie reminded me of another priest, this one very much real, and also selfless, devoted and caring, someone who influenced my life and those of my schoolmates chronicled in my inaugural blog: our elementary school principal: Fr Ignacio Zavala, S.J.
Fr. Zavala was our school principal. But even before that, he was a visionary educator and artist who along with renowned architect Hasmukh Patel designed the campus of St Xaviers’ Loyola Hall in Ahmedabad to challenge existing notions of school buildings and their role in pedagogy. With provocative yet mesmerizing aesthetic sensibilities, the school architecture still inspires awe and imitation more than half a century later – and this in a town that boasts edifices designed by world renowned architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.
Fr. Zavala was more than just our teacher numero uno and school principal. He was also our scoutmaster, our chief mischief-inspirer, our fun-marshall. Between classes and before school, he encouraged us to solve puzzles, create art, read comics, toss around volleyballs, improvise our own indoor games using the geometrically inlaid hallways, or simply run screaming through the corridors at top speed. His pet turtles roamed our classrooms and every Friday he introduced us to Clint Eastwood westerns and riotous Bugs Bunny cartoons. We were allowed to hijack the school PA system so the daily news could be read in our high pitched pre-pubescent voices, or to play our favorite tunes from the collection of LPs he kept in his office. Decades later, anytime I hear the Henry Mancini composition “Baby Elephant Walk” I don’t marvel at the blues progression or the high notes on the Piccolo because in an instant I am eleven years old taking an incredibly refreshing break on a hot summer day after a head full of somewhat boring 6th grade English Grammar lessons.
Not having any other benchmarks in our young life, we always thought of this as “normal”…it wasn’t until much later when confronted with the grim realities of high school and college that we came to appreciate the Panglossian experience of our younger days and realized that what Fr. Zavala had gifted us was special and unique. By that time, it was too late, for Fr. Zavala was on his way back to Spain, and we would never see him again. This wholly inadequate tribute is closest to the eulogy that I never got to give when he passed away more than a decade ago.
Eleanor Rigby is the first Beatles song where none of the Beatles played an instrument (yes I will wait while you verify my heretic claim), yet this classic composition may be the perfect foil to these strange times foisted upon us by the Covid19 pandemic. Our lives have been upended such that most of us are not doing things we normally would be doing. Perhaps, just like the Fab Four, we should embrace the chance to think and behave differently – and who knows, the outcome may turn out to be rather remarkable.
* Fr. Zavala was a smoker, and in his defense, during an era and in a milieu when smoking was not only accepted but considered normal. If we inhaled some secondhand smoke, well, I release Fr. Z of all liability because what we simultaneously imbibed us was a love of learning, joy and laughter every single day of our school life, and a lifelong lesson to be of service to our fellow human beings regardless of our differences.