07 March 2014

Do you remember your kindergarten teacher?

I got a call around 5.00 pm on November 24, 2010.  I was ‘cordially invited’ I was told to the launch of Judge C.G.Weeramantry’s memoirs; well, the first volume, titled ‘Towards One World: The Sri Lankan years’.  Galle Face Hotel.  I went. I saw. I heard. Was humbled. 

Wickrema Weerasooria made a speech, rolling out the anecdotes with finesse.  He introduced Jayantha Dhanapala to comment on the book and the ex diplomat spoke to different aspects of the man of the moment.  Both painted him in the iconic tones and dimensions warranted by an exceptional life.  They both gave insights to the man behind the name and whetted audience appetite sufficiently to make book-purchase unavoidable. 

I got the book as I walked in, but this is no book review, no, not even an event review.  It was all about Judge C.G. Weeramantry (google that name if you want to find out more about him) and therefore natural for his ‘few words’ to get the most attention.  He didn’t speak about his career. He didn’t mention landmarks. He didn’t talk of things legal or things academic.  He didn’t even dwell on the topic of a common humanity and the humanitarian issues that concern him so much. He didn’t say a word about the ‘one world’ the title of his memoirs suggests he wants to inhabit.  He just rattled off some names. 

He spoke of father and mother, brothers, wife, children and grandchildren. All natural.  He spoke of colleagues and co-workers. Again, quite natural.  He spoke of his students with affection.  And he spoke of his teachers.  All to be expected, come to think of it.  There was a difference and this, to me, seemed to be what separates this erudite and warm human being from the rest of us. He began by paying a tribute to his kindergarten teachers. 

We don’t remember teachers enough, and this is why I say this every now and then. We believe we are self-made.  Even if forced to think ‘school’ and ‘university’, we think of the big-name teachers, those who we believe taught us most. We end up listing the names most associated with who we’ve become; mathematics teachers if we are engineers, biology teachers if we are doctors and so on. We might remember the teacher who was in charge of literary activities if we were interested in such things, or the teacher-in-charge of a sport if we had been inclined to take part in such activities.  How many of us remember our kindergarten teachers, I wonder.

I remember my Grade 1 class teacher, Mrs. Rajapaksa.  She had been my brother’s class teacher the year before.  He was a good boy and I benefited from the fact. I remember the last time I met her. The year 2002.  At the Royal-Thomian.  I wrote about the encounter (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lkawgw/group86.html).  Here’s a quote:

I hadn’t seen her in almost twenty years. I went up to her and said, "Madam, I was in your class". She turned round and asked, "So, you recognised me?" I said, "How could I not?" and laughed. She had forgotten my name and when I told her, she exclaimed, "Malinda! You were such a little boy when you were in my class!" (I couldn’t have been huge at the age of 5 plus, but I didn’t tell her that.) "How is your mother?" she asked, a natural question since my mother is also a retired teacher of the school. "I remember very well the day she retired. Indrani came to see me in my classroom and told me that she wanted to say she was leaving and to thank me because I was the first class teacher of both her sons.” She had tears in her eyes when she said that. I had tears in my eyes when she finished.’

My mother is no more, so the tears of this moment are many faceted, but I won’t go there. I quickly went past Grade 1 to Joyce Gunasekera’s Montessori. The location shifted around Colombo 3. I remember a house at Charles’ Circle and one down Alfred Place. I remember Aunty Joyce and remember her remembering my name about 10 years later when I ran into her with my mother.  I remember the two teachers. There was one I called ‘Aunty Bona’ (I believe she must have been Buvanasundaree or had a name that began with the first 6 letters of this name). There was Aunty Ranjini.  She was kind, I remember. I would run to her whenever something upset me.  She always comforted.  I felt safe because she was there.  I am not sure what exactly she gave me or what of what she did got ingrained into the signature of my character.  It must have been good, even if it didn’t stay and if it didn’t it was not her fault. 

The good judge remembered and was thankful.  That’s humility.  That’s also the mark of greatness, the conscious recognition and open acknowledgment of the wells one drew water from, the trees that were harvested, the grain that sustained and the landscapes that gave the strength to weather all storms. 

I don’t know where Aunty Ranjini is.  I just went for a book launch. A great man made me remember once again an unforgettable woman.  Disparate worlds, unacceptable juxtapositions, one might say.  I think not.  I am glad.