The first day of the school year is always exciting. In the lower grades at Royal College in the early 70s, the children were not mixed. That happened in Grade Five. So a new year meant you would be meeting your friends after a long December holiday. That was exciting.
That, and to me, the smell of fresh school books all neatly encased in brown paper covers by my mother. Every year the covers had a theme. Grade 3 was horses. Different pictures of horses, one for each book.
She taught me the rudiments of writing an essay. Well, she didn’t teach, really, but her story-telling teaching methods naturally made me write essays as though they were stories
And then a new classroom. That was exciting too. It meant a different ‘daily landscape’ for you gaze, a different part of the school would become your territory. Then of course there was the not-so-simple matter of there being yet another set of boys who were junior to you. One felt taller.
The only worrisome issue was that no one knew who the class teacher would be. Unknown quantities never excited me. She was small compared to other teachers, but a giant to a 7 year old. Pretty, I thought.
Mrs C Liyanagama, ‘Miss’ to all her students as were all lady teachers in that school to all the boys, was one of the most enthusiastic teachers I’ve encountered. She taught all subjects except English. Actually I can’t remember her teaching. I remember her telling us stories. And she was a wonderful narrator who held the attention of all the 40 plus students in her class, even when she ‘taught’ arithmetic.
There was neatness written all over her and in everything she did. She made me fall in love with the Sinhala language, so pretty was her handwriting. I wished then and still wish I could write like her. Each letter was a work of art, it seemed to me.
She taught me the rudiments of writing an essay. Well, she didn’t teach, really, but her story-telling teaching methods naturally made me write essays as though they were stories. She encouraged us to imagine and so when the term tests came and we had to pick a topic to write on, I naturally chose ‘ud l=re,af,la kï…’ (If I were a bird…). Looking back, that’s when I learned that I could fly. I flew over rivers and hills and even watched cricket matches from treetops. Mrs Liyanagama made all that ‘okay’.
History was not about dates to remember, but events, personalities and achievements. She was quite a dramatist and used facial expressions and the rise and fall of the voice as well as volume to ‘entertain’ us all. It was the same with Buddhism. She taught the principle of impermanence in ways that 7-8 old could understand. She taught us to question ‘truth’ by revealing the basic tools of deconstruction. She simply brought down the walls of the class!
She was by no means an ‘easy teacher’. You couldn’t fool her. She wasn’t harsh, but was quite firm, but she was an extremely kind person. And she never forgot her students, even decades later.
Mrs Liyanagama made such an impression on me that on the first day of school every year after that I would go to her class with a sheaf of betel and sometimes a gift of a diary. To begin the year worshipping her became a ritual of sorts.
More than 20 years later when I ran into her at a funeral, I went up to her and introduced myself. She laughed. She said that I need not have. ‘We never forget our students, son’.
And then she said something that made me sad, not only about her but all teachers everywhere.
‘Thank you for talking to me. The students we teach sometimes walk by without saying a word. Maybe they think we can’t recognize them, but we do. We don’t forget, however old they grow, however important they become.’
She was teaching me even then!
Mrs C Liyanagama attended the funeral of her colleague, my mother, and introduced me to her husband with much delight as one of her students in Grade 3A. She was comforted some years later when I held her close to me at her husband’s funeral. She had become so much smaller and yet I felt I was still only 7 years old, safe under her watchful eye.