Charita Wijeratne, in the Sunday Island, 24 July 2011
I was fortunate to have sat the SSC in the late 1940s. Those days passing the English medium SSC was as simple as eating cadju. So simple that even I, in Kegalle where Eng lish was never spoken except by the teacher when taking a particular lesson, was through at the first shy. First, because, syllabuses were within the scope of ordinary humans; second, because, only 33 marks had to be scored for a pass and; third, because, of the seven subjects required to be passed four required no English and one required only a faint acquaintance – Sinhala language, Sinhala Literature, Art, Buddhism and Arithmetic. With those five and two others you are through. I shudder at the vastness of today’s syllabus for GCE (O/L). If I were to attempt it today I would never get even an ordinary pass, because, I am not a studious person, least a crammer.
My father was a village school head master and was so impressed by the son’s performance that he decided to send me to a big college in Kandy to do University entrance. In those times university education was hardly known, but my father being a school teacher, knew, UE classes were found only in large city colleges. So, with the help of a relative I was admitted to a big college in Kandy on the condition that I pay fees. On entering the school with my father I was so awed and even overawed by the splendor of the surroundings, the enormity of the building, the smart boys walking briskly in noisy shoes and chatting away in indistinctive English, well attired teachers and the Christian priests in cassocks, that I felt inclined to go back home. Of course, I couldn’t tell that to my father who soon went away leaving me within those mysterious surroundings.
I was taken to the HSC and UE class in which there were about twelve other students who looked at me curiously because I was in shorts. The class teacher entered. He was a full-kitted imposing personality carrying a large bundle of books which exuded a scholarly aura. I was to learn later that this Mr. Santiago was born in Corsica, was London educated and was a MRST (Master of the Royal Society of Teachers) diploma holder. He called me to his table and after a few questions on my personal life, which I answered falteringly, he asked me to write an essay. The result of my effort was a half a page of scribing, after reading which Mr. Santiago looked askance and proceeded to advise me softly and almost confidentially: ‘I am telling you for your own good. You are wasting the best time of your life. If you improve your English by 600 per cent you may sit in this but there is no hope of entering university. Your English is not sufficient even to enter a convent. I am very sorry about you but I have to tell the truth for your good. So, what do you say?’ I realized the truth but had no choice, because, I couldn’t imagine going back home and telling my father about what Mr. Santiago said. Seeing my hesitation he said that I may sit anywhere in the class and do what I like but I am not to disturb other students.
I took a seat far in the back, quite distant from others. By next morning news about a boy in the UE class with no English spread in the school making my life there an utter misery. On the corridors during intervals groups of boys would rush at me and ask questions in high-flown words, and before I could say anything they exploded into loud laughter. Seeing my wrist-watch one asked ‘what does your chronometer indicate?’ Even teachers looked amused on seeing me. I kept myself away as best as I possibly could. If I spotted boys approaching at a distance I did a detour. I dared not walk along corridors or be seen outside.
But one day they got me. I avoided the college tuck-shop and went to a wretched hotel in town for lunch. About six boys stealthily followed and started harassing me at my meal. Bewildered waiters and customers were watching the scene. I just couldn’t take it any more and impulsively grabbing a soda bottle hit out wildly, wounding three bullies. The hotel was in an uproar. The mudalali was dialing the police, but the boys pleaded and he agreed on the condition of their paying for the damages. They agreed and the incident ended. The episode was a blessing, because, hearing of my violent reaction everyone began to fear me. Many greeted me cheerfully and even tried to befriend me. If I were to end the episode here, I would be ungrateful to a saint – Fr. Leo Nanayakkara, who during my worst days spoke to me humanely and consolingly. I got so attached to him that despite my being a devoted Buddhist I attended church when he was taking the lunch hour service. I enjoyed singing with him Chitra Sompala’s melodies like Obe Komala ath vihida – mithukam apa thula pahada.
Now back to class, I spent the day reading story books, for nothing else to do. I also enjoyed Mr. Santiago’s lectures, though little understood. However, in Kegalle I was infected by public speeches of left leaders. I had also been drawn into the Hela controversy of Sinhala scholars, then raging in the country. So, knowledge-wise I was not so backward, after all. In all probability I was ahead of many in the college. Frustration in the class turned me to politics and I joined a LSSP youth league and attended a study class conducted by Doric de Souza, Senior English Lecturer in the University. The class was in a sort of hideout cell in Hindagala. I was elated to rub shoulders with undergraduates. One day I had the first experience of singing ‘Sadukin Pelena Wun’ and happened to keep rythm by clapping. At the end, Doric brusquely walked up to me and said sternly “did you take this for a baila party?’ Later he gave me an issue of the English weekly, the Samasamajist, which was to be the turning point in my student life.
From then on, I was well occupied in the class, trying to read and comprehend the passages in the journal. It carried articles by NM, Colvin, Doric, Leslie, Ludowyck, Bernard Soysa and others. I read sentences with utmost diligence, broke them into phrases, noted the arrangement and tried to get some sense of what was being said and how it was said. The dictionary was close by. My own little knowledge of politics and economics made it easier to grasp or guess the meaning. The ways of expression and nuances stimulated my urge to learn English and express things forcefully or wittily. Doric wrote clear and straightforward English which made comprehension easy. I read word by word and phrase by phrase. Then I realized, there were patterns in sentences. Thus scrutinizing for six hours in school and late into the night in my boarding room, it took me about a week to finish one article. By then the next issue had come. My pre-acquaintance with facts stood in good stead and I was able to fit the meaning to the sentence pattern.
Three months went by and one fine day, who walks into the class – the Education Inspector. Mr. Santiago was hammering away on the Senate. Those days teachers were beholden to school inspectors because the latter could influence annual increments and promotions. Mr. Santiago was more concerned about his prestige as a scholarly teacher. Any way, now the inspector took command of the lesson and asked the class, ‘what are the advantages of the second chamber in Sri Lanka?’ No response. He pointed to each student ‘yes, you, you,’ but all looked up and down in embarrassment. I was too far back to be noticed. I saw Mr. Santiago’s indignant and embarrassed face. I really felt sorry because I thought he was being humiliated. This induced me to come forth, since I knew the answer. I had learnt almost by-heart an article on the senate by Doric de Souza who was then a senator himself. Diffidently and half heartedly, I made a gesture like raising my hand, at which the inspector spotted me and almost cried out, ‘yes, yes, come on, speak up,’ I arose and managed to say, though falteringly, ‘sir, there are no advantages but there are disadvantages.’ Then I looked at Mr. Santiago, because, he might think that this simpleton is going to add insult to injury. But the inspector was shouting, ‘so come out, what are the disadvantages?’ This provoked me and seized by an impulse I let go in full a critique of the Ceylon Senate by Doric de Souza. Word to word of first class English, I went on and on for twenty minutes or so. When I sat everyone was dumbfounded. I saw the inspector shake Santiago’s hand and saying something like, ‘of course, there is nothing to look in your teaching.’ When he left Mr. Santiago stood still staring at me, more amused than astonished, and then he burst into loud laughter, quite unlike him. In the afternoon he sent for me to the staffroom and said, ‘you know Wijeratne, I had noted you engrossed in reading and also heard the incident in the hotel. I always had the hunch that you one day will enter university or jail. The premonition became real because I entered both – a week’s stint in remand jail over a minor political squabble in Amparai. Next day I was elevated to the front row, being raised to the status of a student. Mr. Santiago also gave me Harold J. Laski’s grammar of politics which I was able to comprehend only in my final year in the university. The news of my performance echoed down the school corridors and a few weeks later many a boy was secretly approaching me to get their love letters polished or to write speeches for the literary association. Later I was to lead the college debating team and was one of the two to enter university next year.
True, my miracle was an act of memory. But in the process I had mastered the language. One advantage I prepossessed was that I was already equipped with some material, enabling me to comprehend or guess the meaning of a sentence. I read a sentence several times and observed how words were woven into a pattern to convey a certain idea in a certain way. After I learnt a pattern it was simple to substitute words with other words. I noted that there are only about thirty such patterns in the English language and that if I were to master about twenty four of them I could be fluent in the language. I practiced by substituting crucial words in a sentence pattern with other words to bring out a different idea, and it worked. In a simple sentence like ‘The sun rises’ I substituted ‘sun’ with ‘moon’ or the verb was changed from ‘rises’ to ‘sets’. Then I expanded the sentence by adding ‘ in the morning’ and ‘in the evening’. Similarly, the negative, the tense and the interrogative were tried out. So on and so forth, I made it sort of a game. After practicing complicated sentences, I took a chance by entering an essay competition in the Daily News. I won and still have the prize – John Still’s Jungle Tide. In the expression of Dr. Tennakoon Wimalananda, I ‘guard it like a dragon’.
A similar approach I saw in a teachers’ guide to the English language brought out in the early 1970s by the English section of the curriculum centre. It was such an excellent guide that a certain teacher who followed it to the letter produced 100 per cent passes with quite a few credits. The wise-a-cres of the 1977 regime quashed it. Most interestingly, that school inspector was a member of that committee. Whom I recognized and introduced myself, on a casual visit to meet a friend. His name was Manickkavasagam and when reminded about the incident he laughingly said ‘it was a good play-act’ – and we celebrated the occasion after 22 years!
When teaching English to students who already know one language, the teacher can approach by comprehending a paragraph himself, initially and then before introducing the passage, teach the meaning and usage of difficult words and phrases. Sentences can be made by the students themselves and made to repeat individually and in chorus. Once the word patterns are mastered the passage can be introduced. Learning English will then be joyous. It can be a sport.