This is the third in a series on my teachers that I started writing for 'The Nation'. Due to the (temporary) closure of that newspaper, this was not published. Scroll down for other articles in the series.
School had a learning component, I remember. Somewhere during my fifth year in school when it seemed that all we did was dividing ourselves into two and asking crazy ‘General Knowledge’ questions, I lost it. I recovered some interest in Mathematics when in Grade 8, this is true, but by and large Monday to Friday was about getting to school early enough to play cricket, waiting for the interval bell to play cricket and then waiting for school to be over to play chess or go home.
Something important happened in the intervening hours, I am sure, but I can’t remember. There were exams in the middle of the year and again at the end of the year. I must have studied but it couldn’t have made a big difference because note-taking was boring. There were subjects I didn’t have to study, like Mathematics, English, Western Music and Sinhala, but preparation for tests on the other subjects was basically telling myself ‘you were in class, something must have gone into your head’.
Almost everyone copied at exams. I am pretty sure that this didn’t help any of us because we were all equally dumb. And so, even in the O/L year, the days passed from Monday through Friday in much the same way. Until June that year.
Mrs B.H.P.R. Weerasuriya never smiled or if she did I missed it. Later, after I had left her and the O/L classes, I would say ‘Good morning Madam,’ if I ran into her as per usual courtesy and she would give a half-smile that didn’t show excessive delight at seeing me. I believe it was pretty much the same with other students.
She was my Sinhala teacher in Grades 8 and 9. Both those years was spent doing my best to find a place behind a tall boy so the teachers wouldn’t see me. I can’t remember anything from the Sinhala periods but that was also true of all the periods.
In Grade 10, she taught us Buddhism. Somewhere in June that year, Mrs Weerasuriya started on the Dhammapada. There were 10 gathas in all (in the syllabus). She took us through each, one per period: manopubbangamadhamma……
Each verse was followed by its meaning in Sinhala and then by the nidhana kathava or the context which prompted the Buddha to expound on the particular aspect of the dhamma.
She was so thorough and so clear that for once she won my undivided attention. She made it all so fascinating and so easy that I found that I was actually looking forward to the days when we had Buddhism. She was so clear that I would come home and repeat the entire lesson to my sister or rather would try to do so. I wanted to tell the entire world those stories, along with the verses and their meaning.
Most importantly, listening to Mrs Weerasuriya I suddenly realized that learning was a fascinating thing. I can’t remember regretting the lost years, but I decided then and there that I was not going to miss out on the fun thereafter. All of a sudden Science and Social Studies became very interesting subjects. So too Sinhala and Health.
So I completed all the notes that I had in my vagrancy refused to write down. I poured over the text books. Made short notes. And I decided that I will not copy.
I didn’t become brilliant all of a sudden of course, but I passed the O/Ls with decent results. I lost interest in the subjects I had chosen for the A/Ls (Mathematics) but that’s because I had realized that much as I enjoyed numbers, I liked literature more. The decision had been taken though so I had to trudge through those two years, do the A/Ls and then switch subjects.
My abiding interest in learning, however, can be traced to the intervention, if you like, of Mrs Harindrani Weerasuriya. I return often to the Dhammapada and not just to those 10 gathas ‘prescribed’ in the syllabus. She sparked an interest in the Dhamma that has inspired me to read and reflect on many other Buddhist texts.
Mrs Weerasuriya saved me from sloth and possible failure. She saved me from myself.