Daya Lelwela, in Sunday Island, 2 May 2010
Having lived past the biblical span of three score years and ten, I thought it opportune now for me to make this reminiscent journey back in time to my days in school [viz. S. Aloysius College] before my fading, patchy memory were to rob me completely of those golden moments that I have cherished all my life and wish to share with you.
I was born in the village of Galwadugoda, situated within the four ‘gravets’ of the district of Galle, aout a mile and a half from the city center and about a three quarter mile along the road that turns inland from the main Colombo Galle road by the side of the base hospital at Mahamodera, Galle. It is a village that had acquired its name meaningfully, on the basis of the vocation the large majority of the village community was engaged in. For, Gal-wadu-goda means the village of stone craftsmen or sculptors, or more precisely, master craftsmen. Most of the early settlers in the village were master craftsmen making pieces of jewelry and skillfully engraving various designs upon them. It was a lucrative business that enjoyed a boom time soon after the Second World War.
There were nearly a hundred families living in the village. Apart from the craftsmen in the village there was a native physician’ Donga’ Veda, so called because he lived opposite a ‘donga’ tree, a school master teaching at Mahinda College, Galle, who would walk to school daily, dressed up in the customary ‘tussore’ trouser and coat, a postmaster who was working in Colombo, but helpful to the villagers regarding any postal matter. Adjoining my uncle’s house there was a Burgher family several members of which worked in the railway department – a Mr. Koon, locomotive driver, two of his nephews, Jansz’s, both locomotive drivers. The Koons disappeared some time later to Australia as many Burghers did over time while the Jansz brothers continued to serve the railway until it was time for me to enter the precincts of the department. Sadly, though we had no opportunity to meet each other even once as railwaymen.
It had a school – the Paramananda Maha Vidyalaya teaching in the vernacular – about a hundred yards away from home. Every child in the village had to begin schooling in the vernacular and continue there for two to three years as was required then, in order to qualify for admission to a government assisted senior secondary school for further education in the medium of English. In the village school we were taught only the English alphabet.
After my vernacular education in the village school, I was admitted to St. Aloysius’ College, Galle, one of the leading senior secondary schools in the Southern Province. Situated in Kaluwella, in a location up on a hill known as the Mount Calvary, and overlooking the Galle railway station, it was about a mile away from home. My uncles who always had the last word on all matters connected with us children, had done the selection of the school as I came to know later. I do not know the reason why they did so when the leading Buddhist school in the city – Mahinda College, already made historically famous by then for the involvement of personalities such as Col. Henry Steele Olcott in its further development – was well run at the time and was situated in the adjoining village. However, no sooner I began schooling I saw several features in my school that were appealing to me as a child that kept me satisfied with the decision my uncle had taken earlier.
Firstly, it was the building itself that would impress any new schoolboy of my age. A sprawling ,’L’ shaped three storeyed building stood in majestic poise on top of Mount Calvary and therefore looked even taller from the road than its real height. It accommodated most of the classrooms from Grade 1 to Higher School Certificate/ University Entrance class, presently the GCE (A level). The shorter leg of the building at Ground floor level, facing the road, led to the foyer, which had a wide gate as the `state’ entrance, meant only for ceremonial reception of VIPs. That was closed at normal times.
Students and teachers had a smaller gate, adjoining it, for their daily use. Just behind the foyer was the school library, then known as the best school library in the Southern Province. While the first floor of that leg of the building had class rooms, the second floor carried the Physics and Chemistry laboratories and the lecture theatres that could match any such in a university making us proud as children. At the other end of the other leg of the ‘L’ shaped building was the school chapel and offices for the Rev Fr Rector, the Prefect of Studies, of discipline and for the other Jesuits.
A True Teacher
On admission I was selected to Standard 1A, the present Grade 1. The Master in Charge was a Mr. Gibson, an elderly Burgher gentleman, lean and tall, with a slight stoop. He came to school always dressed in a beige coloured tussore suit complete with coat. I cannot remember whether he wore a tie. He was a teacher in the truest sense of the word, devoted to his job. He was firm with the students though exuding kindness to us as new entrants to school. The medium of instruction in that class was English at the time. He handled the class so well that the change over was smooth, easy to take in, and formed the foundation on which we could build our future. His introduction to the subject was so good that most of the details of how he went through the class still linger in my memory.
As was the practice then, there were separate ‘periods’ for Reading, Writing and Recitation in the English medium. The first few periods on ‘English Writing’ were remarkable. He went through an entire process of explaining clearly the formation of each English letter. He began by stressing that the choice of a proper pen was fundamentally important if we were to form each letter correctly. Hence it was compulsory that we used the pen he recommended to us and nothing else. This hand made pen was a ‘dip pen’ available at the time, that usually consisted of a metal nib with capillary channels like those of a fountain pen nib, but mounted on a wooden handle or holder. The pen of this type did not have an ink reservoir and hence every desk carried a tiny porcelain container filled with ink by the school, and buried into a tiny ‘well’ in the desk from which the user could recharge the ink onto the nib, in order to continue writing. Fountain pens though available in the market then, were banned in class. There were no ball points even heard of at the time and wouldn’t have been allowed even if available.
He next painstakingly taught us the sequence of steps that we should take in order to ensure that we achieved the best handwriting. Firstly, what we needed to be careful in selecting was the nib. There were two types of nibs that were available in the market: the ‘G’ nib and the Relief nib. His choice was the ‘G’, nib which was nickel plated and essentially had a significantly long and pointed tip as compared to the short and flat tip in the Relief nib which was also copper coloured. The school book shop carried only the ‘G’ nib as recommended by the school authorities. Explaining further, he said that it was only with the ‘G’ nib that each letter could be formed.
Having ensured that we got the required items, he described to us how we should sit at the desk, as equally important towards ensuring that we form each letter well. “Pull up the chair to a comfortable distance from the desk. Keep the book with its top edge slanted slightly to the left of the top edge of the desk.” he would say. He next explained how the pen should be held in the hand, only with three fingers- the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger- and the other fingers folded back on to the palm which would rest on the book just below the letter we are writing. The pen should be held above its metal sleeve and away from the nib. He was very particular that the vertical upward stroke of each letter should be written as lightly as possible and every downward stroke pressed hard. He explained that was how one could get the letters as printed at the top of each page in the Royal Crown Copy books. As we began this exercise in the manner he described, how close we could get to each printed letter!
He also did not fail to mention details such as the ‘t’ being shorter than the ‘l’, and the need to always remember to cross the ‘t’s and to dot the ‘i’ s. What was remarkable was the way he said what he said in a manner we would remember it as long as our memories lasted!
Why should such a trivial matter as selecting a ‘nib’ or pulling up a chair to sit properly before beginning to write, not pale into insignificance no sooner I left the class as a eight year old? And why did this trivia stick on like glue up until now? I would have been too young, then, to note it as an important matter. Was it because of the new school or the new environment that would have brought some fear in me? If so, why were no other events that occurred in that class remain in my memory? It surely was this remarkable quality in this great teacher that created such an impression in the mind of a young student, his approach, his power of persuasion and his desire to live up to the nobility of his profession.
Having received the best possible foundation for a school career in the English medium, we were in for an element of surprise in the very next class we were promoted to: viz. Standard 3. For, having found ourselves in Standard 3 instead of Standard 2, (since we were told that we have received double promotions!) we were informed that the medium of instructions in the new class would be Sinhala , thus bringing to nought all the pains Mr Gibson had taken to lay a sound foundation to an education in the English medium.. In our new class, it looked a sudden unplanned decision, taken more to fall in line with the government requirement at the time, as the school was government assisted, and hence had to comply with national policy on matters connected with education. Sinhala as a medium of instruction was continued in the Standard 4 and Standard 5 as well where English took a back seat being restricted to just one class period of 45 minutes each day.
We got back to studying in the English medium once again when we entered the Form 1A, (presently Grade 6). We considered ourselves lucky to be in that class as once again we got one of the best teachers as our form teacher- Mr. JWSR Senaratne who was also to take our English. Here we were taught the nuances of good English writing, of grammar, syntax, similes and metaphors, special use of figures of speeches, alliterations, etc. It was recommended that each of us should possess a copy of the Grammar book by P.C. Wren and H. Martin, published in 1935 for use in British missionary schools in India and neighbouring countries which was, at the time, considered the ‘bible’ for English language.
We were glad that the very first opportunity we got of studying in the English medium after leaving the Grade 1 in the English medium was the class of Mr. Senaratne. And the medium of instruction thereafter was to remain English until the end of our tertiary education. We were also introduced to the AL ‘Bright Story Reader’series, some of which had abridged editions of famous English classics.
After a couple of months of our stay in this class of Mr. Senaratne, we noticed, seated in the last row of the class, a Jesuit priest. On inquiring further about this very special ‘student’, we came to know that his name was Rev. Father Pogany, a Rumanian Priest who had newly joined the school and was eager to study English as a subject that would enable him to communicate with others as he wished to stay on in Sri Lanka. He looked as good a student as anyone of us were, and was seen intently listening to what was going on in class. As he did not mix with any of the students as expected, we did not have the opportunity to talk with him. His interest being only English, he was seen only during that class. He followed the English class until the end of that year when we moved over to the Form 11A.
Mr. C. A. S. Manathunga, was the class teacher of Form 11A, who also took the subject of English. He continued the syllabus where we had stopped in the previous class. It was then that we got the first chance to test out what we had learnt up to then. One day Mr. Manathunga had given us an exercise on ‘précis’ writing. Having completed our précis we submitted our exercise books for his perusal. While discussing the work of individual students, he was having one student’s exercise book in his hand and, while raising it said “Look at this handwriting! They are like ‘pearls’!”
I was glad that the book in the hand of Mr. Manathunga belonged to one of Mr. Gibson’s students!
It was in this same class that we had the honour and the privilege of studying subject of Sinhala under Mr. Hewawasam, who at the time was a mere trained teacher, who was another teacher of distinction. He later went on to study further, got through his post graduate qualifications that included an MA and a PhD and eventually retired as Professor of Sinhala of the University of Colombo.!
In the class of Junior School Certificate (present Grade 8) we came across for the first time, two Jesuit priests as our teachers. Rev Fr Paul E. Pieris was a Sri Lankan priest, who took our class of English. He was the Prefect of Studies as well for the school who had just replaced Rev. Fr. Gaspard, a Jesuit from a European country, and a genial gentle giant! The latter was just the opposite of the former both in physique and in their mannerism. The former was hardly four feet tall. But he looked and behaved as if his height was double that! He was a terror. There used to be another Italian born Jesuit priest Rev Fr Anjello, who was officially the Prefect of Discipline. But it was Rev. Fr. Pieris who showed the children what discipline really looked like and what it felt like.
He took our English language class in the JSC. In that class there was a hosteller named Godfrey who was an usually a quiet guy. No student and not a hosteller at any cost, would try any pranks with him. One day, we in the front row, saw Rev Fr Pieris, beckon Godfrey, a six footer, to come up to his desk. The Jesuit was visibly angry. He ordered the student to kneel down in front of him. We realized that he was getting ready for some drastic action. In a flash he dealt a thundering slap on Godfrey’s left cheek with the palm of his right hand and, having moved his right arm a full semi circle brought it back landing another severe blow on Godfrey’s right cheek with the back of his right hand. He was too tall for Rev Fr Pieris to reach his cheeks to deliver the blow. The offence: being inattentive!
Rev. Fr. Chiriatti taught us two subjects, one of which was Latin which according to the choice available to us in school, had to be offered for the Senior School Certificate examination as well. Hence we had to take the subject seriously and hence we did reasonably well it Latin at our term tests. He had never punished a student, nor had he used any harsh words on any of us. The most he would do was, in case a student made a mistake in his reply to a question, generally to ‘decline’ a Latin noun, for example, he would shout out the words: WRONG! you ……….supprolibobet or you ……..macaco zucone, and laugh over it! .He never explained what those Latin words meant nor did we ever succeed in getting to know what they really meant! But all that the shout did was to put the entire class in roars of laughter!
The second subject he took was the subject of ‘Moral Science’. It was not a subject in the regular school syllabus. but was considered by the school authorities as a very important subject nevertheless. No other school in the Southern Province had that subject taught. It referred to the teaching of good morals and good ethics in the way one should conduct oneself both in one’s private capacity as well as in public life. It taught us that we should draw up our own code of ethics and ensure that we comply with it in our day to day dealings. We were told that we should cultivate good socially acceptable habits and patterns of behaviour.
As we graduated to the Higher School Certificate and University Entrance class, we had the privilege of using the best laboratories for our Science subjects and the long tiered benches elevated off the floor for our lecture theatres. As we entered the Physics lecture theatre on day one, we were pleasantly surprised to see a very special person in cassock, standing behind the desk, with a copy of the Physics text book in his hand. He was Rev. Fr. Pogany, who had been studying English with us in the last row of the English class back in Form 1A. He was to be our Physics teacher. As he began taking the lesson, talking in a soft and measured tone, pronouncing the words carefully, he looked comfortable with his explanation of the subject matter. He spoke little, perhaps much less than what the text book said. But it was meaningful, and more than adequate for us to get a complete grasp of the subject. He was fluent enough to make himself understood in the subject he taught us. He turned out to be a very good teacher in Physics pretty soon!
That wasn’t the end of the story for Rev. Fr. Pogany. We were aware that, two classes behind us the medium of instruction would once again be Sinhala, for all time, as required by the government. Although we were out of school by then we were anxious as to whether Rev. Fr. Pogany had packed up and returned to his home country. On the contrary, he was such a committed teacher that we were informed that he was very comfortable teaching Physics in the Sinhala medium, and to the entire satisfaction of the students and capable of producing good examination results.
Hunched back Jussey
Other than the teaching staff of the school, there was one personality by the name of Jussey who did yeomen service to the school. Always dressed in a white cloth and white shirt he had a hunched back. He had an important assignment for the day. That was to be the time keeper for the school – the guy who rang the school bell. The bell was hung up at a height of about ten feet and the gong was tied with a rope that enabled him to pull the other end, standing at ground level opposite to the room occupied by Rev. Fr. Anjello, the Prefect of Discipline. He rang the bell to a particular chime, but lasting different durations. At the start of the school, at breaks and at the end of the school, the bell was rung for a longer duration than when notifying the end of a period. There was also a rhythm in the manner he rang the bell. His body used to move vertically in an up and down motion to the tune of the chime. And it used to be said that he got the hunch back by ringing the bell almost ten times a day, with his arms pulling the rope down, also bending his back as well.
The college had a very impressive Hall for holding the assembly at the end of every term for the purpose of distributing the reports for the first three students of each class who have secured the first three positions in class, and making other important announcements before the school closed for the next vacation. Assemblies were also held on special occasions to fete distinguished past students who have attained positions of eminence in society and for holding the Annual Prize Distribution. It was used at other times for voice training of students taking part in the college choir and for elocution practice by students. It was also rented out to outsiders for stage plays and concerts
When it was time for me to depart from school after a period of twelve years, I had two precious gifts the school gave to take with me. The front wall of the foyer, at the VIP entrance, just a few steps away from the edge of the road was supported on two columns finished to ‘gothic’ architecture and cement colour washed. The columns were made robust with reinforced concrete as if to carry the weight of the two value laden, famous words CERTA VIRILITER, embossed upon the front face of the wall, words that struck us in the face the many times a day we walked towards the entrance to get to our class rooms, and the spirit of which has been running through the veins of every Aloysian all his life long, and giving him the strength to FIGHT every odd MANFULLY, be it a University Professor, or poor Nande, who, even having once come first in class and carried the class prize in Standard 5, beating all the ‘brightos’ in class that year, had to later leave school prematurely finally ending up selling sweet tickets at the Galle bus stand after leaving school. (When I saw him selling his ware one afternoon, while I was getting off a bus at the Galle bus stand, walked up to him and patted him on his back, to say ‘hello’ to him, he pulled me to Hotel de Queen’s -nothing to do with Her Majesty!- opposite the bus stand, sat me down and told me his harrowing tale while we both enjoyed the cup that cheers, courtesy Nande!). CERTA VIRILETER – it was the memory of these two words that I took away with me!
Just across the hall and separated ONLY by a very narrow four feet wide passage along the edges of which were built two strong walls, was the sister school, the Sacred Heart Convent. It had the usual complement of educated, accomplished and beautiful girls, and well protected by the pair of walls and the passage. Or so everyone incorrectly thought! For, towards the end of one’s school career, this sister school naturally became a perennial source of prospective partners for the college boys, two strong walls notwithstanding! The second of the precious gifts I received was one of them, those pretty ones, with whom I had only had a couple of fleeting, sideway glances during my school career, and that too not across the passage and the walls. Some years later, I was to meet her, per chance, in my domain, in a passenger carriage of a train, in Galle on our way to Colombo, after which I took her into my fold, to become my faithful wife. She had stuck with me like a shadow through thick and thin for thirty seven years, and even now, as I type this last sentence is standing behind and tapping me on my shoulder to say “Dinner is ready.”