13 March 2023

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

I remember Muditha Hettigama when he was around 9 or 10 years old. Grade 4 at the time, if I remember correctly. A frail-looking asthmatic kid. I was his teacher by default. It so happened that I was the senior chess captain of the school who was forced to coach the juniors; the junior coach having decided to give up worldly pleasures in favour of the more sensible and infinitely more arduous pursuit of truth.

At the time I didn’t know anything about coaching and I knew only very little about chess. I didn’t have a clue about mentoring kids. Nothing of child psychology either. And no time to learn such things ‘on the job.’ They were a few years younger and shorter. ‘Seniority’ helped I suppose. Height too. What really counted was the fact that the boys under my charge were really bright. Moreover, a few of them had been ‘taught the moves’ and more, privately, by excellent coaches, especially the late M N Johar, who was quite a strong player, a keen student of the game and knew how to nurture young kids.  

That team didn’t win the All-Island Under 15 Chess Championship that year. St Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia did. I believe they came second. Three members of that team eventually became very strong players, Rasika ‘PPR’ Perera, Jayendra De Silva, Akhila Amarawickrama and Muditha Hettigama, the last winning the National Championship a few years later. PPR led the team to the championship the following year and the school would win the junior trophy for 6-7 consecutive years. Good players. Nurtured well by older siblings and private coaches. So good that in all the years I ‘coached’ my role was mostly as a motivator. Just for the record, the senior team also won the national schools title in all those years, not surprisingly because there was a steady stream of strong junior players making their way up the ranks.  

Many of them helped coach the younger kids. Some of them took on coaching jobs in other schools after leaving school, part time assignments while completing their degrees, some on a voluntary basis and some for a nominal fee. Muditha coached Bishop’s College for a while, but he is best known as the head coach of his alma mater, Royal College.

It’s been forty years since the title ‘coach’ was first thrust upon me. My association with chess in that school has been minimal during this time. I kept myself informed, attended events, helped raise funds when necessary and on the rare occasion delivered pep talks before an important tournament. Until about five years ago. Finding myself in the happy circumstances of being an unemployed graduate for the sixth or seventh time, I thought that coaching might be a good idea. Voluntary, as always, of course.  

It was more than 30 years since I last played in a tournament with any degree of seriousness. Chess theory advances rapidly and compared to the last century at exponential rates. Thanks to chess engines, enormous databases of games and unimaginable online resources which include ever-improving training methodologies, the work of chess coaches has gotten easier. And harder. It is not easy to keep up with new knowledge and training techniques. I just can't do it.

So, the default option. Kids. Beginners. Aged 10 or less. Manageable, I thought. The basics can be taught. Interest in the game can be maintained. Relatively easy. And as they start getting a grip on how beautiful this game is, as they become fluent in basic tactics, it is not too difficult to nudge them to explore and understand more complex principles. Up to a point.  Beyond this point, there’s Muditha Hettigama. Head Coach, no less.

He’s been at it for more than a quarter of a century, seeing the tiny tots grow taller, more skilled and competitive. He’s seen them move from the lower age group categories to the senior team, nurtured them into sportsmen, gently helped them grow into citizens of integrity and strong notions of social responsibility and justice.

All around him are coaches with far less experience and competence making millions, literally. Muditha charges not a cent. And this in a country where paid school coaches arm-twist parents to send their children to their private classes.  

So I put the kids through the basic paces, frequently consulting my ‘student’ who is now my ‘boss,’ so to speak, my teacher in fact. He moves in at the right time and takes them to levels I could never reach. The frail boy who I had to discipline on a few occasions, even dropping him from the team for poor attendance, would nevertheless surprise me by defeating much older players who were, on paper, stronger. Now he amazes me with his coaching and nurturing. He knows kids. He knows teenagers. He understands temperaments. He notes preferred styles, points weaknesses and suggests ways of building on strengths. And when it comes to team tournaments, he’s a master strategist.

I watch. I ask. I listen. I learn. I feel blessed to have a teacher like Muditha Hettigama.  

['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. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

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