25 May 2016

Prof Ashley Halpe: a teacher in and out of class

There would have been more than 400 students gathered in the Ratnayake Hall, Dumbara Campus, University of Peradeniya on October 15, 1985.  They were all first year students of the Arts Faculty and strangers to one another for the most part.  Some words were spoken that morning.  Some may remember, some may have forgotten. Speaking strictly for myself they were words that went in deep and stayed there, words that defined lots of subsequent life choices since then.  They came in Sinhala.  Here’s the translation:

“If 100 children enter Grade 1, only 1 of them will enter university.  That’s not because the other 99 are stupid.  It’s because there are factors that prevent them from pursuing higher education.  Therefore the single entrant has a responsibility to think of those other 99 and do something to change the structures that prevented the other 99 from entering university.”

That was the first and most important lesson that Professor Ashley Halpe taught me.  In time I came to realize that for every 100 first year students only one would heed such words and if 100 did, only one would continue to do so after he or she graduates.   The magnitude of the burden is easily comprehended. 

And yet, Ashley Halpe was not considered a ‘radical’ or as someone who held ‘progressive’ views.  Not by the ‘radical’ students anyway.  Perhaps it was because he was an English professor.  Suffice to say that ‘Prof’ as most of his students called him was not a flag-waving, attention-seeking individual.  He was sensitive to issues and his humanity never failed him at crucial moments.  

He wrote what he felt, he did what he thought had to be done.  Many others, especially ‘radical’ teachers at Peradeniya wrote and talked, but when it comes to the doing of it, they slipped (away). 

Before we got to listen to him in the classroom, we heard him on stage, so to speak.  He directed an abridged one-act version of Bertold Brecht’s ‘Galileo’ produced by the Peradeniya Dramatic Society and performed at the Lionel Wendt a few weeks later.  That production won that year’s Inter University Drama Competition.   That entire production was a lesson. 

Prof had gathered the political essence of the play without robbing it of dramatic flourish.  I can’t remember learning so much about courage, integrity and political realities in such a short time and through such a truncated script.  The majority of the players were first year students and most of them were from the Sinhala Medium.  Some of them went onto play major roles in subsequent productions, for example ‘Hamlet’, directed by the late Gamini Haththotuwegama in 1990.  That’s what Prof was all about.  He taught even when he was not planning to teach, and it was not just about theatre, but life in all its complexity.

In class, he was funny at times.  He was struggling one day to get us struggling undergraduates to understand the underlying meaning of a certain line from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ which he was reading with us.  Finally, almost in desperation, he used the F word to get through to us.  That was the first time many of us had heard a teacher using the F word.  We were all shocked, I remember; so shocked that we just laughed hysterically.  

I remember just one thing that he said about Shakespeare: ‘You don’t need stage directions; it’s all there in the lines’.  It was a lesson about reading the text carefully, a lesson applicable to texts other than Shakespeare’s and indeed all scripts, metaphorically speaking.  It was a lesson about listening too.  In theatre it taught a lot about characterization.  Some of these lessons we applied to our dramatic pursuits on campus, but I am sure they directed us in life as well.

He was stern at times.  One day, he was livid when realizing that none of the students had come prepared to discuss the poetry of P.B. Shelley.  He picked up his things and left, insisting that each of us would have to come ready to talk the following day.  Once again we were shocked.

I can’t remember if anyone liked Shelley.   I did not.  I decided to cut the class, as did Prabath Sahabandu (today the Editor of ‘The Island’) and Andrea Vedanayagam.  The three of us chose to hang around the canteen.  Suddenly, Prof appeared.  He was looking for his students.  He was like that, we learned that day.  I promptly slipped under the counter and hid in the kitchen.  Andrea persuaded some female Muslim students sitting around a table to let her hide under it.  Prabath just hid behind a pillar. Prof found him and dragged him to class. 

After the first year exam, I wasn’t sure if I should specialize in Sociology or in English.  So I went to Prof for advice.  He said, “You could always study literature, so pick Sociology”.  He was correct.  The down side was that I never got to attend any of his lectures thereafter. 

Our second year dragged for three years due to frequent closure, so there weren’t too many lectures anyway, but there were random meetings and conversations.  He would have talked more with his English students; they would have been privileged to learn much more from him than I could.  But I suspect they’d agree that Prof, for all his rare bouts of sternness, treated students as equals even though we most certainly were not.  He listened.  He offered comment.  He even criticized, but never in a way that made you feel small.

I remember going to him when a student-directed play by Bernard Shaw (‘Major Barbara’), once again exquisitely condensed by him, seemed to have got stuck in a rut, rehearsal-wise.  I played a drunk.  I went to him with my lines.  I was so deep in what I later realized to be a characterization that did not do proper justice to the script.  Prof noticed.  He told me and gave me some tips.  Helped.  He never said ‘no’.  I will always remember with gratitude the foreword he wrote to my first collection of poetry.  Prof was kind.  Always.    

He helped a lot of students.  He helped everyone who came to him.  I still remember a comment he made on the proposal by the then government to turn Kandy into some kind of higher education focused city, a proposal that included plans to shift the Arts Faculty to Dumbara, the Medical Faculty to the Kandy Hospital, the Agriculture Faculty to Gannoruwa and the other faculties to similarly ‘related’ locations.  The Bogambara Prison was to be relocated in Peradeniya, we were told.  I am not sure if any of this corresponded to the actual plan.

“There’s no point objecting to Vidyarajapura (which was what Kandy was to be called) if you treat the so-called minor staff as though they were less important.”  That’s what he said.  Words to that effect, anyway.  He was not branded a ‘radical’.  In fact he was called a reactionary by some.  But Prof Halpe was above labels and labeling. 

One day he let slip something which perhaps explains his reluctance (shall we say?) to be overtly political in the way that some of his colleagues were: ‘the mistake here (I cannot remember the context) Malinda is the assumption that people are inherently good.’  He had understood, perhaps drawing from his faith, that human beings were essentially frail creatures, that they were fallible or rather that they were bound to fall.  That didn’t stop him from being generous.  It didn’t stop him from helping the less fortunate.  He did so without seeking even gratitude and more importantly without seeming charitable as was the common feudalistic practice of some of his ‘enlightened’ and ‘radical’ colleagues.  It set him apart and above. 

One day, a student of English literature will write a thesis on Prof’s literary works.  Not everyone understands literature.  Few, if any, will claim not to understand humanity.  They will all say in the language of choice and in the preferred manner of speaking, ‘Thank you Prof, we were privileged to have known you’.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.



Fritz Fernandez said...

Heartwarmingly written . A classic !