19 January 2023

Lessons written in invisible ink


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous article] 

‘Learnt of books and learn of men,’ is a line in a school song that refers to fathers who within the same shades trod the path to man’s estate. Students pledge to do the same, i.e. to learn of books as well as men. And women too of course and of course that’s missing in the song considering the time and temper in which it was composed.

It’s what happens in all education institutes, whether or not it’s spelt out in an anthem. It is what happens in life outside of school too. We learn from books. We learn from people. And yet, we remember little of certain people and attribute success if at all to the teachers and among them the more colourful.  

People have school-stories and they have teacher-stories. Who did you learn from, you could ask and it is likely that some teacher’s name would pop out. Not wrong, not wrong at all.

We learnt from fellow students too. For example, I learnt from Samantha Madanayake, a toughie and yet a very bright student who was detested by a particular mathematics teacher who felt the boy was arrogant. He picked on Madanayake frequently and would as frequently punish him with a slap or two.  Madanayake snapped one day. He stopped the teacher with a threat: ‘sir, gahuvoth, mammoth gahanava (if you hit me, sir, I will hit you back)!’ Madanayake would have been 14 years old then, but he was taller than the teacher and the consensus was that he would have carried out the threat and bested the teacher if it came to fisticuffs.

The teacher took the more prudent path of complaining to the Vice Principal, a strict disciplinarian feared by one and all. The matter was taken up and Madanayake stated his case. Quite surprisingly, the Vice Principal determined in favour of the student. No one knows what he told the teacher.  

Sometimes you have to stand up, regardless of the consequences, Madanayake taught me. In this case, ‘consequences’ could have been getting sacked from school. A few years later the very same Vice Principal told me, in a different context, ‘you have to do what you think is right, whether or not the world appreciates it.’ Madanayake knew this long before any of us did and long before the Vice Principal put it into words for my benefit. He was a boy and a teacher. There are such student-teachers in every school.

So there are men. I don’t know his full name but Azeez (I probably got the spelling wrong) manned the gates for a long time and was as feared as the dreaded Vice Principal and the strictest of school prefects. Security was his subject but discipline was what he taught. Kadalai was as or more loyal to the school as the most loyal old boy. He knew and taught school history. He knew the unease of the transition from boy to man. He sold gram and hence the name, but he taught a wide range of subjects. The lessons, not taken as such, remained. Every school has an Azeez and some have a Kadaly, each unique and every one of them a teacher.

I don't know Dhammika's full name either. He has worked as a security officer at a girls’ school for years. He has seen them grow from anxious toddlers to excited and excitable pre-teens to more composed young women. He knows most of their names. He sees a parent and knows the daughter who is to be picked up after the particular extra-curricular activity. Every school has a Dhammika, each unique and every one of them a teacher.

Most of the teachers were women. Perhaps there were none when the school song was composed. Apart from the teachers, there were a few other ladies who ran the school canteen. They called it the ‘Room Mothers’ Association.’ Maybe it’s a nostalgic trick, but I remember the food being nothing like I’ve had since in any chained outlets selling sandwiches, rolls and such. They must have been rostered, although I do remember that some seemed to be there more often than others.  Then there was Margaret.

Margaret ‘Anti’ sorted out any kid who had wet his pants or worse. For twenty five years. When I visited her a few years ago, a few months before she passed away at the age of 92, I found her unburdened of all memory of clearly difficult times. She smiled the smile of one who recognises nothing out of age and blindness, but the moment her son mentioned that some ‘boys’ from her school had come to see her, this lady who is hard of hearing and has a sketchy memory, stated the singular indelible fact of her quarter-century of stewardship. And then she said ‘thunuruwangema pihitayai’ (May you be blessed by the Noble Triple Gem).

There’s a Margaret in every school. There has always been. A Margaret, a Dhammika, an Azeez, a Kadalay and others as well. They are books. Every single one of them. Unread for the most part or casually perused, they are often forgotten. Like the foundations of any spectacular tower of learning, they go unseen and are rarely acknowledged. And yet they do write in the minds of countless children using invisible ink. Sometimes the words are revealed when the soft heat of memory explores lesser known transcripts of our schooldays. We remember. We are grateful. 


Other articles in this series:

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road



Anonymous said...

Much honoured to have met you!