13 October 2015

Of mothers, sons and general merit

The Dornhorst Memorial Prize for General Merit is considered by some as the most prestigious ‘trophy’ that a schoolboy at Royal College could aspire to capture. It is awarded annually to the most popular student and is based on a vote conducted among the senior boys, teaching staff and the Principal.

The voting system may have been changed over the years but 25 years ago the students had three votes each, prefects six, sectional heads of the teaching staff nine, deputy principals 12 and the principal 15, I believe. Voters are expected to make their choice taking into consideration both academic as well as extra-curricular records of the candidates.

I have always believed that sportsmen had an edge because they tend to be more visible.
On the other hand the winners’ list counts people of the calibre of Justice Weeramantry and Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe and in the eighties, Hemantha Jayawardena who got the top marks at the A-L in the mathematics stream in 1982.

I do remember an interesting story about the Dornhorst. There was in a particular year a teachers’ choice shall we say and a student’s choice. Let’s call them Nimal and Saman respectively. Some of the teachers actively canvassed for Nimal. Saman didn’t canvass.

The vote was over and Saman had won. Saman was not an ‘academic’ in the strict sense of the word. Neither was he a sportsman.

He was all over the school through his work in various clubs and societies though (he later became a ‘professional rasthiyaadukaarayabut that’s another story). The teachers believed that a travesty of justice was about to occur. The matter was taken before the Principal.

The two boys were duly summoned. Saman was told that he had indeed got more votes.

‘What should we do now, Saman?’ the principal has asked the impossible and utterly demeaning and irresponsible question.

‘It should go to Nimal,’ was Saman’s unthinkable answer. Nimal 'won' the Dornhorst Memorial Prize for General Merit that year, although no one in the history of the Dornhorst vote would have acquired as much merit as Saman did that day in the principal’s office.

There’s another Dornhorst story or shall we say ‘a general merit’ story. It happened in the new millennium. The person concerned is an old boy. My time. A close friend who I meet now and then. A couple of years ago, I received a text message from him: ‘My darling mother passed away this morning.’

There was mention of funeral arrangements too. I was unable to attend. I spent a lot of time remembering the lady.

The last time I met her she was in an advanced stage of dementia. My friend had a routine, I learned.
He woke up early morning, brushed her teeth, bathed her, powdered her, showered her in perfumes, dressed her up and sat her down in front of the television to listen to bana or pirith. Every day. For many years.

‘You were treating her like the way a little girl plays with her dolls!’ I observed a few weeks ago.

‘Exactly! I wanted her to be comfortable and to feel beautiful!’

I remembered the early eighties when I spent several months visiting his house to tutor a ruggerite in Mathematics so he would pass his O-L (second shy) and remain eligible to play for Royal.

My friend’s father was very ill at the time. He too was suffering from dementia. I saw how he treated his father. With love. Care. As though he was father and the father his son.

My friend had won the Dornhorst in 1984.

He was not a bad student and indeed later on went to acquire several professional qualifications in Sri Lanka and the UK. Back then he was a sportsman.

Cricket, rugby, basketball and I believe soccer and athletics too, if not at the college level, at least in the junior categories and house events. The person who came second in the vote was the Head Prefect.

He’s now a doctor. The sportsman was far more visible and had been so for years. He won. No intervention from the then principal or the then vice principal who I feel may have favoured the runner up.

That ‘Dornhorst’ was about general merit. ‘General merit’ is not a term that can be associated with the way he looked after his parents (in terms of its karmic output).

The more appropriate word would be ‘exceptional’. No prizes for this, no. He set a benchmark for all sons and all daughters although that was not his intention.

A year ago, to the date, my darling mother passed away. She and I had our moments and we had our quarrels. She was in full control of her senses until the moment of passing and made it a point to assert the fact. She would not suffer ‘dolling’.

I am not unhappy about it all. And yet, this morning (October 12, 2010) as I sat down to write something about my mother I could only remember a person by the name of Sampath Agalawatta.

He was a sportsman. And much more. He is a lesson for every child and a wish for every parent. I think I split my six votes between the winner and the runner up back in 1984. I would not vote on things like that. I just write. There’s a sense of awe right now.

We were privileged, both us, to have the parents we have. His parents were privileged too, far more than mine.

My mother taught English Literature and was the most giving individual I have ever encountered.
I write. She would not grudge this ‘appreciation’ which is dedicated to her but is about someone else and someone else’s parents.