30 August 2011

I remembered Mr. Upali Munasinghe

I’ve communicated for some time now with Anura Buthpitiya, an ex-Naval Officer now working overseas.  A voracious reader on all subjects, he finds time to read what I write too and even comment occasionally.  I met him for the first time a few days ago at his residence in Athurugiriya.  He had invited a couple of old friends, Priyantha Weerasinghe and Vajira Kasturiarachchi, who had been with him at Ananda College from Grade 3 or 4.  There was a lot to talk about and much reminiscing too.
Among the topics that came up was the switch to Sinhala.  They were the first ‘swabhasha’ batch of students, apparently.  The conversation meandered to teachers.  One Mr. Thanabalasingham was mentioned.  ‘One of the best English teachers,’ Anura said.  Teaching skills as well as commitment to vocation was mentioned.  Reminded them of another teacher:  C.M. Weeraratne, who had been the Vice Principal at Ananda.
‘One of the best Maths teachers!’ Anura opined.
‘What do you mean “one of the best”?  He was The Best!’ Priyantha interjected. 
We spoke about teachers and how they are remembered.  And how they are forgotten.  I observed that people tend to attribute success to a lot of things but remember teachers last.
‘That’s wrong, we owe everything to teachers!’ 
It was late, so I left.  All the way back from Athurugiriya to Mattegoda, I thought of teachers and among my teachers, the one who made mathematics fascinating for me.  Upali Munasinghe. 
He was my Grade 8 class teacher.  He was also the Master-in-Charge of Under 13 cricket.  He lived in a place called Gonaduwa.  There weren’t many buses going that way during those days in the late seventies.  If he got late after cricket practices, ‘Upali Sir’ would get off at Pamankada and stay at our place. 
The man loved to teach.  He would tutor us (my brother and I to begin with and later our sister).  The previous year (Grade 7) I had scored 17 and 42 at the Mid-Year and Year-End exams respectively.  He turned things around.  In school, he taught us from scratch, ensuring that those who had for whatever reason lagged behind were able to catch up and follow the lessons as they got more complex.  It was very simple because he started from the simplest examples and gradually worked towards the more difficult exercises, making sure that everyone was on the same page.  My performance, like those of my fellow students and my siblings improved remarkably, so much so that I was fooled into thinking that ‘Mathematics’ was made for me and vice versa. 
At the age of 15, I was not in a position to figure out what would sustain my interest.  It took me a year into the A/L to realize that as much as I liked numbers, I liked literature and social sciences more.  It was however thanks to Mr. Munasinghe that I remained in the Mathematics stream for the A/Ls and in the following year, when I switched to ‘Arts’, retained Pure Mathematics as a subject.  It is because of him that I opted to take Pure Mathematics as a ‘Main Subject’ in my first year in the Arts Faculty, University of Peradeniya.
That was not the time to think about extra exams, but he got my brother and I to sit for the ‘Old O/L’ exam (Pure Mathematics).  We both got distinctions and that’s because of his effort, mostly.  It was fun and neither of us complained.  Neither were we upset about the encroachment into ‘free time’ which could be spent flying kites or playing cricket and French cricket. 
Upali Munasinghe was single.  He opted to remain so, because he was devoted to his mother, whom he looked after until she passed, I believe in her late eighties or early nineties.  By that time he was past marrying age.  He was devoted to his vocation, like Mr. Weeraratne, I am sure.  He just wanted his students to do well. 
It was the same in the cricket field.  Back then there were no assigned coaches.  The senior boys helped.  Upali Sir knew enough cricket to handle the coaching at that level.  He attended every practice session of all three teams he was in charge of.  That was a tragic year.  One of the most talented cricketers, Harith Nanayakkara, who played in the Under 15 ‘A’ team at the age of 11 and was the automatic choice for the captaincy of the Under 13 ‘A’ Team, was hit by a vehicle when he was crossing the road, returning after the first match of the season.  Harith had been a step ahead of Upali Sir.  He had seen it all.  The boy spent a few days in the Intensive Care Unit and succumbed to his injuries. 
I still remember Upali Sir addressing the ‘B’ team just before the toss of their first match.  He reminded us that it was the first match following Harith’s tragic death.  It was the first time I saw a teacher cry.  It shook me all the more because Upali Sir was not one who wore his emotions on his face.  He was strict.  Although he was a close family friend since he stayed at our place quite often and was a colleague of our mother, who also taught in the same school, Upali Sir didn’t treat us differently.  We were all students. All children.  I was too young then, however, to understand what those tears meant and why he choked over the words.  I am old enough now to understand how soft this man who looked so stern that students fell silent whenever he appeared anywhere, in the school corridors or in the playing field. 
Years later, as is always the case with special teachers, he became friend.  Even though he was such a huge influence and therefore a giant, he treated me as an equal.  I had no hesitation in inviting him to sign as witness when I got married. 
He died a few years ago, in Gonaduwa, as he was about to take medicine for a heart condition.  It had been a matter of a few seconds.  A simple man. Few wants.  Gave so much and asked for nothing in return.  Always, always neatly dressed.  A no-nonsense teacher who, simply by doing his job and being an exemplary human being, made the world a little better. At least for me. 
We all know of an Upali Munasinghe.  A Mr. Thanabalasingham and a Mr. Weeraratne.   Let us take a moment.  Let us honour them with a moment’s silence.  Let us be better than we are, by way of making tribute meaningful. 



ramli said...

Lovely post bro, brings back memories of so many teachers. We were indeed blessed.

Dr. Aruna Muthumala said...

Thank you for the interesting article on Mr. Upali Munasinghe.

I was fortunate to learn maths from him in year 10 and 11 for our O'levels. He was indeed a superb teacher who was a strict disciplinarian as well. He never hesitated to punish students when necessary and this made us to complete the homework without fail. at the end of the day we found that EVERYONE in our class got through the O'level Maths with good results. Ours was the only class that did not have a single student who failed Maths.
May he attain Nibbana- Dr. Aruna Muthumala

Anura Buthpitiya said...

Malinda you've forgotten to mention what fools we were not to reap the benefits of such knowledge and dedication.

Samitha Midigaspe said...

It brought tears to my eyes. Mr. Munasinghe taught me Maths in Grade 6 and the fundementals he taught has stood by me up to even today. This brought two more such great maths teachers to my mind. Usa Karu and Mr. Dayaratne of A.L. pure fame. Even Usa Karu is no more and I regret that since leaving school I did not made enough contact with these gentlemen to whom we owe so much.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Samitha, there are others who are still around. There's a website for retired teachers. With phone numbers and email addresses.

pubudu pathirana said...

Reading this article let flow a surge of pent up emotion and sorrow which have been festering in my mind for decades. I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholy sweep over me, re-reading the life of Mr Munasinghe, a man who I hold in very high esteem and respect. He was not only a passionate teacher of Mathematics, he was a model of perseverance and resilience to me. I knew Mr Munasinghe quite well and later in my life he became a very close family friend. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Malinda for taking the time to honour Mr Munasinghe.

Back in my early schooling days , my world revolved around the sport of cricket. Mr Munasinghe was my ‘Master in Charge’ and he seemed to be one of the only people who understood and recognized my passion for cricket and the methods I needed to improve my game. I decided to give up cricket to commit myself to my studies, this choice was made in regards to my financially constrained family background in year 9. To this day I can still remember Mr Munasinghe saying ,
“I will teach you maths and you keep playing cricket.” He perceived my talents at cricket and yet empathized with my current state. He placed me in his after hours tuition classes and taught me maths. I was thankful that the classes were one or sometimes two years senior to my year level. He refused any money from me due to my financial background as well his desire to impact someones life. Through his systematic and instructive teaching, I became exposed to a much higher level of mathematics. These classes were the foundations in which my love of Mathematics was built upon. I formed an intense connection with the subject and this is very much the reason for my success I had subsequently in field. Due to this arrangement, I was able to play cricket for nearly two more years.
I still remember the day before my O/L exams, Mr Munasinghe came to my house quite unexpectedly and asked me if I need any last minute clarifications/help.

Every time I came to Sri Lanka for holidays, he attempted to rope me into assisting some of his younger students in maths. I am very much indebted and grateful the wonderful human being who taught me, not only maths and how to play cricket, but also many things in life which are very much in line with what Malinda mentioned. Mr Munasinghe ignited a flame, inside me. A flame which I believe is still burning to this day. Due to the guidance of such a remarkable man, many students around the world have been given the gift of knowledge which is something that cannot be measured.
I have some consolations that I managed to help Mr Munasinghe later on in his life and also even few weeks before his death. But for a man, whom I believe held a strong part in changing my life, mere material goods are not enough. For a man who provided me with inspiration and the means to forge my own path, I will always feel that I haven’t repaid him enough.