09 October 2015

Mrs Liyanagama made me fall in love with Sinhala

The first day of the school year is always exciting.  In the lower grades at Royal College in the early seventies the children were not mixed.  That happened in Grade Five.  So a new year meant you would be meeting your friends after a long December holiday.  That was exciting.  
That, and to me, the smell of fresh school books all neatly encased in brown paper covers by my mother.  Every year the covers had a theme.  Grade 3 was horses.  Different pictures of horses, one for each book.  
And then a new classroom. That was exciting too.  It meant a different ‘daily landscape’ for you gaze, a different part of the school would become your territory.  Then of course there was the not-so-simple matter of there being yet another set of boys who were junior to you.  One felt taller.  
The only worrisome issue was that no one knew who the class teacher would be.  Unknown quantities never excited me.  She was small compared to other teachers, but a giant to a 7 year old.  Pretty, I thought.  
Mrs C Liyanagama, ‘Miss’ to all her students as were all lady teachers in that school to all the boys, was one of the most enthusiastic teachers I’ve encountered.  She taught all subjects except English.  Actually I can’t remember her teaching.  I remember her telling us stories.  And she was a wonderful narrator who held the attention of all the 40 plus students in her class, even when she ‘taught’ arithmetic.  
There was neatness written all over her and in everything she did.  She made me fall in love with the Sinhala language, so pretty was her handwriting.  I wished then and still wish I could write like her.  Each letter was a work of art, it seemed to me.  
She taught me the rudiments of writing an essay.  Well, she didn’t teach, really, but her story-telling teaching methods naturally made me write essays as though they were stories.  She encouraged us to imagine and so when the term tests came and we had to pick a topic to write on, I naturally chose ‘මා කුරුල්ලෙක් නම්…’ (If I were a bird…).  Looking back, that’s when I learned that I could fly.  I flew over rivers and hills and even watched cricket matches from treetops.  Mrs Liyanagama made all that ‘okay’.  
History was not about dates to remember, but events, personalities and achievements.  She was quite a dramatist and used facial expressions and the rise and fall of the voice as well as volume to ‘entertain’ us all.  It was the same with Buddhism.  She taught the principle of impermanence in ways that 7-8 old could understand.  She taught us to question ‘truth’ by revealing the basic tools of deconstruction.  She simply brought down the walls of the class!  
She was by no means an ‘easy teacher’.  You couldn’t fool her.  She wasn’t harsh, but was quite firm, but she was an extremely kind person.  And she never forgot her students, even decades later.
Mrs Liyanagama made such an impression on me that on the first day of school every year after that I would go to her class with a sheaf of betel and sometimes a gift of a diary.  To begin the year worshipping her became a ritual of sorts.  
More than twenty years later when I ran into her at a funeral, I went up to her and introduced myself.  She laughed.  She said that I need not have.  ‘We never forget our students, son’.
And then she said something that made me sad, not only about her but all teachers everywhere.  
‘Thank you for talking to me.  The students we teach sometimes walk by without saying a word. Maybe they think we can’t recognize them, but we do.  We don’t forget, however old they grow, however important they become.’
She was teaching me even then! 
Mrs C Liyanagama attended the funeral of her colleague, my mother, and introduced me to her husband with much delight as one of her students in Grade 3A.  
She was comforted some years later when I held her close to me at her husband’s funeral.  She told me that she remembered me my mother everyday when she said her prayers and that she still had all the diaries I gave her, all neatly arranged together on a shelf.   She had become so much smaller and yet I felt I was still only 7 years old, safe under her watchful eye.  


Randima Attygalle said...

Thank you for this lovely writing about "liyanagama miss". She was my malli's first teacher at Royal many years later- in the late 80s. Despite the fact that she was my brother's first teacher and most-loved teacher to date, Mrs.Liyanagama was very much dear to us as well.
My brother still recalls with such fondness how she felt bad to sample birthday cake which was served to her by boys from other classes when her little boys got none! As the sister, I remember the perahera for which she got all boys to make an innovative flag, Primary school Concert in which she played a huge role. I think her the most heartening faculty of hers was her ability to call her boys 'putha' which came deep from her heart...

Lal Liyanagama said...

Gosh...this is our "punchi amma"...(husband's baappa's wife).She was there,when my son was@ Royal College,primary school. He was never LUCKY enough 2have her as his class teacher-may be bcos of d same surname. Now, when I went through Malinda"s mail,i feel really sorry for what my son had "missed"....tears came to my eyes....!
I hope other "old boys",would have time 2visit her, while she is living....