Pa James Akanbi Popoola is a 91-year-old modest Nigerian who made a mark in the teaching profession. Popoola, who started his career at the age of 16, taught some prominent Nigerians, such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo; the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election, the late Basorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola; the Olubara of Ibara, Oba Jacob Omolade and many others, at Baptist Boys’ High School, Abeokuta, Ogun State. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Special Honours) degree in Botany from the then University College, Ibadan, now University of Ibadan. He graduated in 1958, with subsidiary subjects in Chemistry and Pure Mathematics, yet, he was an English Language teacher. The nonagenarian also taught in various schools in Ibadan. He served as the principal of Baptist Grammar School, Idi-Isin, Ibadan, between 1966 and 1975, and later Local Teachers Training College (LTTC), Ibadan. He retired in 1984.
You were a teacher for many years. And some prominent Nigerians were your students; how did it start?
According to my parents, I was born at Ilaro in Yewa South Local Government Area of Ogun State on May 25, 1927. I attended Christ Church Primary School, Ilaro, from 1935 to 1942; that’s Standard Six. In 1943, I got admission into Baptist Boys’ High School, but my parents couldn’t afford it, so I had to teach in Jehovah Jireh African Church Primary School, Ilaro in 1943. That year again, I retook the entrance examination to Baptist Boys’ High School, but this time, to Class Two. I was lucky I gained admission into Class Two.
I finished up in 1948 with the Cambridge School Certificate. I went to Ibadan to train as a forest assistant for six months. At the end of six months, I resigned to return to my former school to teach, in 1949.
In 1950, I went to Baptist Teachers’ Training College, Iwo, for training as a teacher. That took me up to 1951. In 1952, I was back at my former school, Baptist Boys’ High School, Abeokuta. It was at that time I was the class and subject teacher of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and some other students. I was teaching them English, Mathematics and General Science.
Somehow, I was interested in that job and the students were so much interested in me. I was really advised by my principal to stick to teaching because the interest and commitment was there and the students so much liked me and the subjects I was teaching. But in 1953, I got admission into the University College, Ibadan, to read Botany. I studied Geography, Chemistry and Mathematics, but I specialised in Botany. I finished up in 1958 with a Bachelor of Science (Second Class Honours) in Botany. This time, I was posted to Iwo Baptist Boys’ High School as a senior science teacher. I was later promoted to become vice principal. In that school, I was teaching Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, And students were much interested in my subjects.
In 1966, I was invited to Ibadan by the Baptist Community to head a new school they intended to establish – Baptist Grammar School. On March 1 of the year, the school opened a temporary site on Liberty Stadium road, Ibadan, with me as principal, my wife as the second teacher and one Mr Samuel as the third teacher. We were in that school for two years. In 1968, we moved to the permanent site.
The school was more or less a family institution, so I committed myself to the job, to the extent that people sometimes thought I was the founder of the school because it took my time and energy. Apart from being the principal, I was into full-time teaching. One day, an inspector asked the founder to look for more teachers, having observed the load of work on me. Many of them felt I was overworking myself, but I was really enjoying what I was doing.
In 1975, I was promoted by the Western Government to head the Local Teachers’ Training College (LTTC), Ibadan. So I had to leave Baptist Grammar School after nine years. I was at the LTTC up to 1980. In fact, I was the one who moved the school to the new site on Iwo Road.
Did you retire at the LTTC in 1980?
No. In 1980, there was trouble in my school. One Mr Adelakun, who was a commissioner at that time, started the crisis. He wanted to invite female students of my college to a burial ceremony without my knowledge and permission and I refused to allow them to attend. As a result, he threatened my life. To save me, I was quickly removed from that school and moved to Muslim Grammar School, Ibadan. I was in Muslim Grammar School up till June, 1984 when I retired.
After my retirement, I served as a member of the Board of Directors, Niger Biscuit Company Limited, Apapa, Lagos, from July 1, 1986 to August 30, 1988.
At what age did you become a teacher?
My first teaching appointment was at the age of 16. In fact, I was popularly known as ‘Teacher.’ It appeared I lost my real name to the profession. Teaching appeared to be a God-appointed job for me. I really enjoyed it.
How would you describe your childhood?
It was a hard life. My father was a master of many menial jobs. He was a builder, carpenter (using bamboos to make chairs), and farmer. I was involved in all these menial jobs. After primary school, many people had to come to my aide to finish secondary education because my parents could not afford everything.
My father died early in 1946 when I was in Class Four. But fortunately, I was doing fine in the college and when I decided to leave, my principal told me, ‘We cannot afford to lose you because you are leading your class and you are very hardworking.’ It was a special day in my life when Reverend Greven decided to retain me in the school. He asked whether I could help the school with menial jobs so that I could work for my school fees. I said yes. I continued my education by scholarship. In the university too, I was awarded Baptist Mission and Western Region scholarships, but I took the latter. So, from Class Four, my education was by scholarship.
Before I left the University College, there was a day the head of the department asked whether I would continue with the research after my first degree. He said he was impressed by my performance, but I said I would prefer to go and teach.
Who were your playmates?
I can remember one Mr Adenuga, who was my mate at Baptist Boys’ High School, Abeokuta. It is difficult for me to remember others now because they are late.
What were those pranks you played while growing?
Well, I played football and other native games. I won’t say I was not a rascal, but I was very serious about my future. I always liked to involve myself in many activities, even in the school – games and all that.
Apart from former President Obasanjo, which other prominent Nigerian did you teach?
Hah! The last time MKO Abiola met me, he shouted, ‘Our teacher!’ Some of my students said I used to spend extra time to teach them. At Iwo, I used to go to nearby villages to call my students for evening lessons. Abiola was highly impressed when he met me. The present Olubara of Ibara in Ogun State, Oba Jacob Omolade, was also my student.
How would you describe Obasanjo as your student?
He was a very hardworking student. It was no surprise that he became a soldier. He was a very interesting student. He and other students were very resourceful. I can remember he once came to my house and gave my cousins some lessons. He is no stranger to Ilaro because he was very close to me through my cousins who stayed with me. Even after I graduated from the University College, we still maintained the relationship. In fact, it is no surprise that he became what he became. He was a special student. Like Abiola, he was very dynamic.
Apart from the fact that I was their subject teacher in Class One B and Class Two; when I was in the university, each time I went back to do holiday job, I taught them in Class Four, Five and Six before they left school. So, I know him very well.
It seems the age difference between you and your students was not much; is that true?
My first contact with Obasanjo was in 1952. I was 25 then. I think the age difference was not much; it would be about 10 years.
Obasanjo paid you a surprise visit, how did you receive your former student?
I felt elevated. I was very happy. ‘You mean I will host you in my house today before my death? It was 35 years ago that I met you. You are welcome. Oh! I am delighted, very delighted,’ I told him. Long before that day, I dreamt that Obasanjo as president came here (my house) alongside the assemblymen. I related that dream to his coming. So, when he eventually came I thanked God that what he showed me in my dream was a reality.
It was a wonderful experience that one of the highest heroes in the country, somebody who ruled Nigeria for 13 years, remembered to visit me and show appreciation.
In 1983, when my old students invited me to a hotel for their meeting, Obasanjo sat at my right hand side. It was a God-made connection, probably generated by my activities and the appreciative spirit which Obasanjo, MKO and other students had. They all visited me and gave me money.
I am happy for the visit, and the fact that I am alive to meet Obasanjo again at the age of 91. It is a special gift from God.
Looking at the system of education during your active days as a teacher and what obtains now, would you say that anything has changed?
Well, from observation, the standard is a bit lower than what it was. In fact, I can remember somebody saying that what students do in the university nowadays is more of secondary school standard. All I know is that the standard was very high that time. More so, the system was handled by expatriates. The standard is now low.
If you were not a teacher, what would you have become?
There was a time I applied to be a pilot. But somehow I was not taken. When I left secondary school I was interested in flying, but somehow it did not come to pass. But I know that I was also interested in contributing a lot to other people’s lives. I remember that during my university days, my friends advised me to come back and do research. But I said I wanted to work where I would influence a lot of students, especially at the beginning of their education. I don’t know what gave me that interest.
In fact, my missionary teachers were pressing me to go the preaching way. That was at the Baptist College, but I said no. I said I was alright as a teacher. With teaching, I said I could project and influence some students, and somehow, God helped me. There was no school I taught that my students were not fond of me. At the Baptist Grammar School, where I was the first teacher, the students would send me gifts and visit me. In fact, many times I am always thanking God for directing me to be what I became. Many of those students who are in high places now rose because of the subjects I taught them – doctors, lawyers, chemists and a lot of them.
Except for a period of six months – between January 1 and June 30, 1949, after secondary school education, when I was a forest assistant-in training at the School of Forestry in Ibadan – the rest of my working life was spent in teaching.
Were you at any point involved in activities that brought about Nigeria’s independence in 1960?
At Iwo, during S.L. Akintola’s reign, I was specially invited to contest an election, but I was satisfied with my teaching job.
Would you say you are fulfilled as a teacher?
I am very fulfilled. I am always very happy and thanking God for making me a teacher. You need to visit any of the schools I taught and meet my old students. I feel very fulfilled.
Nowadays, many people run away from the teaching profession; what is your take?
During our days, once anybody decided to teach, he or she must be really interested; and he would definitely perform. Unfortunately, it is no longer about interest. Many teachers are there now because they have no other job to do; hence there is no commitment.
I can remember that when I went to teach at BBHS, I was the least paid, yet I was interested. People are no more interested in teaching; they just go there to earn a living. And this has affected the standard of education.
At what age did you marry?
My marital life is God-made. The way we met was miraculous. Women worried me to be my partners, but my concentration was on my future. In 1952, a friend of mine wanted to marry and the wife happened to be the friend of the one I later married. After the wedding, I went to visit that my friend alongside others, and when we were coming back, I saw this lady resting on a gate. I just asked somebody, “Who is this?’’ They said she was a friend to the wife of my friend. I later requested for her attention. That was the beginning of our relationship. So God said she would be my wife. She also happened to be a teacher. We were also together at one of the schools I taught. This woman is very helpful. In fact, what I am today is a joint effort of my wife and myself.
There is a logo at my gate, which means that what you see here (my house) is the result of the love and cooperation of Alpha and Omega, with Akanbi and Olutayo.
What are your unforgettable experiences?
My encounter with Adelakun; I was lucky I was not killed. He sent some assassins after me, but somehow, they failed. There was a day I was about to enter my compound in Ibadan and Adelakun’s thugs were coming in their vehicles. They had an instruction to hit and kill me. I looked into the mirror and saw them coming behind me, so instead of entering into my compound, I suddenly drove towards another direction, and somehow, I escaped death.
Also, I had a happy time in all the schools I taught.
Are you a title holder?
Here at Ilaro, the late Oba Adekanbi invited me to be a chief, but I modestly rejected it. I told him I was satisfied being a simple member of the community.
As a teacher in Ibadan, I was a member of the Ilaro Youth Organisation, a virile and non-political group. I equally served as the president of Ibadan branch of the association.
How much was your salary when you retired?
I retired on N12,500 as salary. I retired on second point of level 15. It should have been more than that, but that was the havoc Adelakun did for me. I should have retired on level 17.