08 June 2015

Teachers and teaching I did hate a long time ago

This article was first published in the 'Sunday Island' on December 12, 2003.  It was inspired by something that Capt Elmo Jayawardena said at the launch of his book 'The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay'.  I visited Capt Elmo last Sunday and as he spoke, recalling his childhood, and as he laid out in his inimitable way his philosophy of life I remembered what he said and the article I wrote. 

As a student, I’ve had mixed feelings about teachers. Actually, for the most part, I have disliked teachers. Looking back, I went to school with two specific objectives: 1) get there early enough to play cricket, and 2) play cricket during the interval. The in-between never inspired passion in me. 

I’ve spent countless hours hiding behind the boy in front hoping that the teacher would not notice me and ask me a question. I have countless bad-day-at-school stories. I found Buddhism too slow a subject. Science too. In fact, apart from Mathematics, everything else was "slow". My exercise books were full of empty pages. I would write down a line or two and then give up. The following day I would leave a couple of pages blank promising myself that I would copy the note from the boy sitting next to me (a promise never kept) and started all over again. Two lines, followed by two empty pages, Two lines, followed by two empty pages; that was what "education" was to me. 

I hated science. I remember our Grade 9 Science teacher, one Mr. Senaratne, going round the class asking us for the symbols of various elements in the periodic table. When he came to me, he asked me the symbol for Potassium. I promptly said "PO". I heard a couple of my fellow-students giggling. Mr. Senaratne looked at me with what I believe was some concern and moved on to the next boy, who said "K". The next time around, he asked me "Sodium?" I said, again promptly, but with a questioning tone: "SO?" "You are the one who said Potassium was PO, right?" Of course the boy next to me answered correctly, "Na". I cringed because there were more than a few giggles now. I reminded myself that I must have sinned to have been forced to go to school. 

My mother taught in the same school and she had this constant line of complaint: "why can’t you be like aiya? Do you know that I can’t go to the staff room without hearing teachers complain about you?" I never knew what I did wrong. 

Anyway, somewhere along the line, I actually got interested in school work. This was when our Buddhism teacher, Mrs.B.H.P.R. Weerasooriya taught us the Dhammapada, the Pali stanzas, their interpretation, the nidhana kathava and all. It was so fascinating that I would come home and preach bana to my poor sister, who was forced to listen to me, although she probably preferred listening to the radio. 

Sure, I had my favourite teachers. I liked my Grade 3 class teacher, Mrs. Liyanagama. I would go to her class room the first day of each year until I left school with a sheaf of betel and pay my respects. There were others, liked because they were good teachers or, more common, because they didn’t seem to mind me. There were exceptional teachers, in fact, who taught me much more than the "madya lakshya prameya" , for example. Mr. Upali Munasinghe, who passed away recently warrants more than passing reference, and so I shall reserve writing my appreciations of that gentle human being for later. 

But teachers, liked and disliked, all taught me. Arjuna Parakrama once told me that he planned to dedicate his doctoral dissertation "to my (his) teachers". He explained, "Malinda, we always tend to think that we became who we are on our own, but thatnot true." He was right. Teachers are seldom appreciated. Mrs. Liyanagama put it best, in fact. I met her at a funeral about ten years after I had left school. She thanked me for having spoken to her! She had an explanation: "Putha, our students think we don’t recognise them, but we never forget. They see us and they walk away." 

My mother for example, an English Literature teacher, who has not only guided thousands of students through their A/Ls, but has helped literally hundreds secure placement in foreign universities through her counselling and spending many hours helping students fill in applications and writing recommendations for them, has seen little by way of appreciation. Less than a handful remember her contributions, a few send her New Year cards but then again only for a couple of years. It is the rare student, I believe those who really learnt anything of value, that would visit her and inquire about her duka-sepa. And whenever this happened, I have seen her heart fill with happiness. The saddest thing, I think, is that she feels grateful! 

I suppose at some level, at random times perhaps, all of us remember and appreciate those who taught us, whether in school or elsewhere. We just don’t show it. Or, probably more correctly, we don’t know how to show it. Which is why I began writing this story. I mean, the katha vasthuva or nidhana kathava of this story, which was not meant to be about my memories of school, schooling and teachers. Here goes.

A couple of nights ago, I went to a book launch: Elmo Jayawardena’s "The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay", a book I had reviewed for last week’s Sunday Island. Elmo insisted that I come, not for anything but because "I want to give you (me) a copy of ‘Sam’s Story’", i.e. the book for which he won the Gratiaen Award. I am not particularly fond of book launches or any launches for that matter. They tend to be boring affairs with much mutual back-scratching resulting in both the audience and the author being taken for a ride. Ours, after all, is a "polite" literary culture. 

I went and was not overly enthused by the proceedings, even though the multi-media presentation was done with a certain finess and with taste. I started reading "Sam’s Story" which Elmo had given me before the whole thing began. And then, more out of courtesy than anything else, I closed the book; the author was telling the story about the story. It was all very interesting, very warm and the man exuded such a genuine heart that I found myself actually enjoying it. It was his conclusion that moved me to tears. "I asked you for ten minutes, but please make it twelve," he said. This is what he had to say in those two minutes.

It was a short story about school. About the drudgery of school, about teachers, about learning and an absorption of lessons taught that took much longer than a few class periods. The following is basically what he had to say:

"I went to St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa. We were very poor at that time, my father being unemployed. None of the boys knew English and so we naturally hated the English period. We had an additional reason for hating the English teacher, Mr. Earl Fernando. He insisted in speaking only in English. One day he said that they were going to start a library and that we had to come with two rupees the following day if we wanted to become members. I couldn’t ask my mother for two rupees. You can imagine my plight, it was not easy to tell him what I had to say. I stood under the Araliya tree until he came out and then I told him, ‘Sir, I don’t want to join the library, I don’t want to read books, I don’t have two rupees’. He said ‘Putha, you don’t have to pay two rupees; you read whatever you like and no one will know you haven’t paid the money’."

Elmo did not present the first copy of his book to a celebrity in the conventional sense of the word. He gave it to his English teacher, the man he believed and still believes was a terror, Mr. Earl Fernando. As he presented the book to "Earl Sir", he said, "This is the two rupees I owe you". 

We can never repay our teachers for all they have done for us, I told myself. I remembered once again my Grade 9 class teacher, Mrs. Priyanthi Gunawardena. She was new to the school and I remember giving her hell because I wrongly thought she had wronged me. She taught us English and I remember pretending to be the worst student in class. I didn’t know that she had been in the university with my parents. I remember meeting her after I had done the A/Ls for the second time offering Arts subjects after having done Maths the previous year. She said simply, "That’s what you should have done, not Maths. Teachers know." We learn slowly. Sometimes it is too late, I know. 

The least we could do, even if we learnt the lessons or not, is to remember. Even if we don’t know how to show gratitude, we should never forget that love, the most giving and unconditional love of a teacher. Elmo did not forget. And that’s something worth remembering.