16 January 2020

When we stop, we can begin to learn

The best teachers graduate into friends. The best teachers graduate their students into friends. The best teachers are friends from the get go, even if they may not state, make obvious or imply the fact. The best teachers, teach; friendship has nothing to do with it. The best teachers recognize those students who have the potential to teach and impart knowledge and wisdom without reservation. 

I don’t know how to define ‘best teacher.’ Some teachers are unforgettable. Some lessons remain. Sometimes it is best to leave assessment and definition aside and just talk about teachers.  

Karunatissa Athukorale taught Sociology at the University of Peradeniya. He is officially retired now but lectures postgraduate students. He never taught me. He would have had I not left before I was supposed to. He taught my friends. When they graduated he recruited some of them as part time research assistants to help him on some study he had been commissioned to conduct. I met him through them and eventually was also roped into the project.

He was ‘Tissa Sir’ because that was what everyone called him. About his teaching I only know through anecdotes. My hunch is that the best lessons were taught outside of the lecture rooms, in particular during field visits where groups of students were tasked to study particular social issues. 

‘That’s where we really learned sociology,’ I’ve heard more than one of his students say. There was some sociology I learned from Tissa Sir. He was after all the principal researcher and responsible for analyzing the data we collected. I can’t remember the details of the study but I won’t forget how he spooned up insights from a soup that had both qualitative and quantitative data. The sociology of it all must be lodged somewhere in my head and it probably seeps out now and then. It’s heart-things I remember most. 

Tissa Sir was not exactly a no-nonsense teacher from what I’ve heard and seen. He didn’t suffer sloth. He didn’t cut corners and didn’t go light on those who did. And yet, he was by far the most jovial lecturer in the department. 

One night, in his house in Hantane where several of us ‘research assistants’ had taken up residence, we were in the middle of a discussion on the Catholic Church and whether or not it should inscribe an authentically local culture into all activities. Walter Sumith Pradeep, a Catholic from Kuliyapitiya who argued for such transformation (the rest of us essentially said ‘What is authentically Catholic should not be compromised’), went to get some water. He didn’t get too far. He came back giggling.

‘Saratha pissu kelinava’ (Sarath is playing up).

Sarath Senadheera, dubbed ‘Alaw Yaka’ like almost everyone from Alawwa, was a sleepwalker. The time was 10.10 pm. Tissa Sir hadn’t know about Sarath’s sleepwalking until then. He immediately went into action.

‘Sarath, ehenam yanna laesthi venna (Sarath, then get ready to leave).’

Sarath, ever obedient, quickly got ready. Tissa Sir started the engine of his car. Sarath got in. Tissa Sir asked if Sarath knew where they were going. Sarath said he didn’t know. The he was asked if he had forgotten something.

Ow sir, gettuwa vahalane (the gate is closed).’

Sarath opened the gate and got back into the car.

‘Velaava balannako,’ Tissa Sir asked him to check the time.

It was 10.25. Sarath went back into the house, looked at the clock and returned, ‘dan pahata langai sir (it’s almost five o’clock).’

Tissa Sir asked if he was sure and started laughing. We all did. Sarath was duly ‘woken up.’ He laughed too.

Life was not all a laughing matter for Tissa Sir. He took things seriously. He chided me for taking things light at a time when I was not too keen on looking for a job. And no, it was not about money. 

Tissa Sir loved and still loves research. If he turned a fraction of the hundreds of studies he was commissioned to conduct into academic papers or into a comprehensive doctoral dissertation he would be known the world over. He didn’t do that. 

And it is not that he just wanted to money for there’s bucks in research. Money he could make and he did. If and when he had to. He wasn’t attached to it.

I still remember him laughing on one occasion when due to a personal issue he lost every cent he owned. That was a lesson. We bring nothing when we arrive, we take nothing when we leave. Known wisdom, true. And yet, when one encounters it in the form of a life that affirms subscription to the truth of the adage, one stops. Tissa Sir made me stop. And that’s the beginning of learning. 

He wasn’t my teacher, but he taught me. We were always friends but I always called him ‘Sir’. He lives far away and we rarely meet. He loves children and treats all students with great affection, rejoicing in their achievements just as he does over those of his two daughters and son. If I wanted to tell him all the things I’ve written here, he would probably stop me and say ‘let’s have some tea.’ Sometimes, things need to be put on record. So this is it. 

Tissa Sir, you are remembered with great affection. Now laugh! 

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [January 15, 2020]

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