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Re-placing people in the story of schooldays

At the launch of the first volume of his memoirs titled ‘Towards One World: the Sri Lankan years,’ the late Justice C.G. Weeramantry did not speak about his book. He didn’t talk about his career. Nothing about things legal or academic. He didn’t touch on commonalities associated with the title. He spoke of his teachers, which is not uncommon. What was special is that he began with his kindergarten teachers. 

People don’t attribute success to all the contributors. Teachers tend to be afterthoughts. Kindergarten teachers are rarely mentioned.  There are others who are forgotten. Justice Weeramantry made me remember Auntry Ranjini, my very first teacher at Joyce Gunasekara’s Montessori. I also remembered my Grade 1 teacher, Mrs Rajapakse. I didn’t remember Margaret though. 

Margaret Samararatne Nona Silva made me remember all these individuals and she also made me recall something that the late Raja Gunasekara told me about ‘distinction’. 

It was in the year 1994. I went to see Mr Gunasekera seeking advice regarding a dispute at my work place. I was young, agitated and quite out of order and blurted out at one point, ‘we can’t let minor staff decide research agenda!’ 

His interjection was soft and came with a wry smile: ‘there are no minor and major staff, surely?’ 

I corrected myself, ‘alright, but non-research staff should not call the shots about research.’ 

What stuck with me was his objection. Today, 25 years later, those words took me to a line in my school song, ‘we will learn of books and men, and learn to play the game.’ Men and women, obviously, but back then when the lyrics were composed there were no female teachers in the school. However, if the word ‘learning’ was read in a broader sense, then ‘men’ would be misleading. Mothers, for example, teach us so much. That’s another story. 

Back to Margaret. She was known as Margaret Anti (the Lankanized form of ‘Aunty’). I don’t know what her job description was. I don’t know everything she did. However, if any Grade 1 boy were to wet his pants or worse, it was Margaret Anti who sorted things out. This much was known.  For the beneficiaries it was probably a major issue that she resolved. 

Time passes. Boys become men and by and by are able to exercise better control over things like bowel movements. In a world where even parents are neglected or forgotten and where the demands of the moment often obliterate all else, it is not surprising that people rarely remember or acknowledge teachers. The Margarets are typically forgotten altogether. 

Margaret’s four sons studied at Royal College including Priyankara who was in our grade. She was mother to seven overall. She was at Royal Junior School for 25 years. For her, undoubtedly, all the children in the junior school were ‘sons’. It was no minor task to be there when they most needed her. She didn’t have a classroom, she didn’t have students to teach, she didn’t have a blackboard and chalk (in that era before whiteboards and marker pens). She was just there. And that counted.

Margaret Anti is now 92 years old. She has lost her sight. She is hard of hearing. Her memory is sketchy. She repeats herself. The moment her school is mentioned, her face lights up. 

Raajakeeya vidyaalaya. Mama avurudu visi pahak hitiyaa!’ (Royal College. I was there for 25 years). And she concludes, ‘thunuruwangema pihitayai’ (May you be blessed by the Noble Triple Gem).

Margaret Anti with ‘boys’ from Grade 1 (1971) — her youngest son, Priyankara is on the far right


Margaret. Every school, every institution, every town and village has a Margaret in that there are men and women who do things that need to be done but which few would take on. Men and women whose names are known briefly and are forgotten along with their faces and their contributions. I have seen them at the school my daughters attend, for example. The Head Prefects, when delivering votes of thanks at the end of annual prize givings mention them and this pleases me. 

Ten years ago, Justice Weeramantry made me remember forgotten teachers. Fifteen years before that Raja Gunasekara taught me that minor-major is a false distinction. Yesterday, Margaret Anti taught me the meaning of a line in a school song. No, not the part about learning from books and men (and women) but learning to play the game: if we leave out some people from the story, then we are not playing the game as it ought to be played. She helped move the story of my schooldays closer to completion. 

A minor point, perhaps. A major lesson, nevertheless. 

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.




This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [January 16, 2020]

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When we stop, we can begin to learn

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