Mariamma Varkey in January 1989, when she was the principal of Our Own English High School, Dubai. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: It was in 1983 when I first met Mariamma Varkey, or “Mrs Varkey” as she was known to the tiny humans who were part of the GEMS family of students. That was long before the group became the formidable juggernaut it is today.

Peeking from behind my mother, an alien in a new school that Mrs Varkey had proudly established, my first impression was that of a towering presence, dressed in a crisp Kanchipuram silk sari and welcoming students at the gate with a warm smile and a firm ‘Good morning’ on her lips.

But to a student who was all of four years at the time, what immediately caught my attention was her stick — a well-worn, caramel-hued rod that she had firmly clasped in one hand. Today, I won’t be able to say who first started the rumour; was it a tattletale kid in my class, whispers along the morning assembly or a mother who was attempting to discipline an unruly child by striking fear in her heart. Yet, there I was, shivering as my mother struck up a conversation with Mrs Varkey, while I was convinced by a wayward imagination that only a child can possess that I was in trouble.

A beaming smile

Yet, stealing a glance while still clutching my mother’s hand, it was a kind, weathered face that looked back at me with a beaming smile. If the urge to give her a hug was strong it was largely because of who Mrs Varkey really was — a force of nature who commanded attention and exuded warmth with equal ease.

It was at her insistence that I had enrolled in Cambridge High School back in 1983, an ambitious undertaking by the group that was to be one of the first under their umbrella to offer a British curriculum. Mrs Varkey and my father, who knew each other for reasons that a four-year-old could never understand, had hatched the plan and there I was, in a small set-up of porta cabins that served as makeshift classrooms before we would eventually move to the sprawling complex that exists in Rashidiya today.

Read more

Making you feel important

Over the years, Mrs Varkey’s appearances at school became lesser and lesser. Yet, whenever we crossed paths, she would make it a point to remember names and make you feel like the most important student in her school. Today, the GEMS group has moved from strength to strength, but it’s biggest asset has always been Mariamma Varkey and her dream for the UAE and its future generations.