John Michael Testa

‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Thus spoke Sir Isaac Newton. John Michael Testa was one of the first giants that crossed my path in life.
John Michael Testa

When used by educators, the term school community typically refers to the various individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions that are invested in the welfare and vitality of a public school and its community—i.e., the neighbourhoods and municipalities served by the school. When used by pupils, the school community is home away from home: its effects are long-lasting and are evident up to the day one dies. In this respect, I was blessed with being a student of the bestest schools of the time. My primary education was at De La Salle College, led by the La Sallian brothers who were expelled from France in 1903 and set up shop in Malta. Led by a replica Professor Dumbledore (without the beard and presumably without the magic) in the form of Brother Edward Galea, one of the longest serving brothers after fleeing the Nazis, De La Salle gave me the love of knowledge and the love of expanding one's talents.

But when my mind thinks of school, the visual images triggered take me to the area known as Tal-Handaq, in Qormi, Malta. My secondary education was all undertaken at the Mikiel Anton Vassalli Junior Lyceum.

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The Liceo Mikiel Anton Vassalli was situated on the site of the former Royal Naval School of Tal-Handaq (1947–1978). The Junior Lyceum was founded in 1981, and offered top secondary education to male students aged 10 to 16. The school complex was characterized by Nissen huts and small blocks in a random layout. Having formerly been a barracks during World War II this layout intended to give the site resemblance with a Maltese village, in order to give camouflage from the air. This unique layout was, decades after my leaving school, totally destroyed in order to give way to a modern complex forming part of a cluster of schools. And to add insult to injury, instead of keeping the school's name (Mikiel Anton Vassalli was one of the earliest Maltese patriots and is referred to as the father of Maltese literature), the complex ended up being named after an innocuous catholic saint with nothing whatsoever to do with our local heritage and mores.

I fondly remember the Vassalli uniform: it consisted of a white shirt, green tie, grey jersey, dark grey trousers and a green pinstriped blazer.

The Junior Lyceum educational experiment was a successful first in Malta, where top students were placed in these highly geared academic complexes. The education department opted to bring in one of the most successful and highly disciplined Assistant Directors of Education to act as headmaster of the newly founded Liceo Vassalli. John Michael Testa was my headmaster throughout the period of 1981 up to 1986; all of my secondary schooling phase. In 1987, after a change of government, Testa was transferred back to the department, with all the students of Liceo Vassalli heeding the call of the national students' movement which I presided for day long strikes and protests. The protests were so successful that other schools who had lost their headmasters due to political transfers joined the demonstrations. But the cries of 'Jew Testa jew Protesta' (Either Testa or we Protest) caused untold panic with the authorities, who deemed it necessary to send in police from the canine section together with their four-legged furry partners in an effort to intimidate the kids on protest.

But why was Testa such a strong personality? Throughout my school years, I had the pleasure and the honour of being handpicked by this great man and given all the mentoring possible to not only represent my fellow students, but also to become involved in other social, economic, educational, semi-political and cultural pursuits. All this was demanded whilst we kept our word that our academic results in the ordinary level general certificates of education would not suffer.

Some would say that Testa handpicked me and others like me because he had the same left-wing, political leanings and was scouting political talent for the party. This is indeed a fallacious statement. A year before I was elected as the Head Prefect by the Headmaster, the same Testa had handpicked another student for the role. David Agius came from a conservative leaning family. Later, Agius contested as parliamentary candidate with the Nationalist Party and ended up as Deputy Leader of the same party.

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Testa was feared by all and sundry for his discipline. No student ever dared have Testa on his tails. His high pitched call to attention and his piercing eyes were enough to instil fear in all of us. And if he ordered you to do something, you would do it. Period. No questions asked. The same could be said of all the teachers in the school. None of them wanted to be on his black book. In return, Testa was the most respected father figure I have ever met. His zeal for excellence was forever etched in the school motto, 'Nihil Nisi Optimum'. He demanded the best results from anything under the sun, and he invariably got us to get them for the school: academically, Liceo Vassalli had the best registered end of school certifications in the GCE Ordinary Levels; school TV quizzes were always won by Liceo Vassalli (except once, when we were finalists with a post-secondary school, but that's another story); we were the school with most pupils obtaining their results at the youngest of ages (Hubert Theuma, today working at the office of the Attorney General and myself both obtained our English Language Ordinary Level results at thirteen years of age); we were the school with the highest fund raising initiatives of those times; we were the school which won the most prizes and competitions in all subjects taught…the list goes on.

The last two years of my education at Liceo Vassalli were spent at very close proximity with our headmaster. He organised a room in the administration block near his offices for the Students' Representative Council. I therefore had the bonus of seeing him in action daily. I would be present when he would be on the phone with the Minister of Education and other Ministers, cajoling them to give in to his demands for the betterment of the school. He feared no-one. Not even the Prime Minister.

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If he wanted something bad enough for the school, he would ensure that the political class would endorse it, by hook or by crook. I would be present when he would cajole embassies for donations of thousands of pounds worth of books for the school library; private companies for school equipment, some of them so innovative and unheard of at that time in other educational establishments; transport authorities to secure punctual transportation for the pupils to all parts of Malta. I was there and formed part of his special action force when he realised that if the teachers commandeered the school tuck shop, this would result in more affordable prices for the students and bigger profits for the school.

I was there when he grudgingly gave us the green lights to organise social events after school hours, so long as school profits were ensured and so long as discipline was maintained. This created the legend of Liceo Vassalli's most sought after discos and rock nights which were the talk of the town. The experience gained in organising these events would serve me well for my future commercial and political initiatives. He also involved us extensively in all the school publications; again this served us well in the future.

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He knew that I was slowly but surely going down the road of political activism. He opened the doors for me with his invaluable contacts. But most of all, he gave me all the advice he possibly could. Being of such a young age, some of his priceless counsel did not sink in there and then. Later, when circumstances proved him right, I would vividly recall his words of guidance and marvel yet again at how right he was.

One of the biggest didactic instructions he gave me proved so true throughout my life and career. When, one day, I went happily to his office in my fourth year of secondary school, gleefully informing him that I had successfully passed all my required GCE exams (these normally were taken at the end of the fifth year) and that meant that I had the rest of my fourth year and all of my fifth year to dedicate for politics, his feedback proved puzzling for me at that moment. Instead of elatedly concurring to my rightful joy, his facial features contorted into a pensive and brooding mood. 'Never show how good you are to your friends, sometimes it is wiser not to show all your strengths, especially in politics,' he said. I did not understand this statement at all. I had successfully passed my GCE subjects in English Language, English Literature, Maltese, French, Italian, Arabic, Mathematics, Physics, Economics, Religion, Maltese History, European History and Sociology. Surely these were invaluable assets which the Party would deem vital in an up and coming Party activist? 'The problem with politics is not your political antagonist,' he told me. 'You know who they are and you can see them coming at you and your ideas. The problem in politics are your comrade in arms. Jealousy and in-house rivalry create too many Brutuses and you will not see them coming, daggers drawn, behind your back.'

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Later scenarios in the political arena inevitably proved him right. Notwithstanding, his mentoring achievements with me proved invaluable to overcome and override such setbacks, since his didactic qualities imparted on me gave me the necessary tools to always rise to the occasion.

Later, when I became Assistant General Secretary of the Party, his counsel was always sought after and freely given. He was delighted to see one of his star pupils being so involved in the goings on of the period in question. When my campaign team announced my standing for parliament in 1994 for the general elections which were scheduled to take place in two years' time, he was over the moon, phoning incessantly and giving me all the advice he could think of.

Suddenly in May of 1994, I received a phone call that John Testa had been hurriedly hospitalised and had lung cancer. Testa had proudly informed me a couple of years before that he had stopped his chain-smoking habit. It proved too late. The red Du Maurier packets had done their work. He was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was in hospital for a very short time and I visited him regularly. In my last visit to this giant of a man, he knew it would be our last meetup. He gave me his Parker pen and pressed it in my hands and told me, in no uncertain terms, that he would appreciate it if I would sign my oath of office with his pen should I get elected, since I would have been the first Liceo Vassalli pupil to be elected. I promised him that I would do so. Days later, on the 3rd of June 1994, at the age of 62, John Michael Testa breathed his last.

I was devastated. The editor of the daily Maltese language newspaper L-Orizzont phoned me up and told me that he had reserved me a full page for my tribute to the great man. I could not get myself to attend his funeral, surreally thinking that if I do not attend, I would still imagine him as large as life.

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And what happened to the pen that he gave me? I contested the 1996 general elections and did not get elected by a handful of votes. Later, in a function held in Villa Overhills that my organisation underwrote in honour of a fellow Liceo Vassalli student who also entered politics, I gave this same pen to the Honorable Carmelo Abela so that he would be the one to sign his oath of office with it. There is a photo of that event here as well. But most importantly, the sage words of John Michael Testa still reverberate in my mind and have been essential in making me who I am. His shoulders were freely given for me to stand on.