My students at Royal College were very special to me


by Sumithra Nanayakkara

It’s not often that a teacher sings the praises of her students. It’s usually the other way round. However I have been extremely fortunate in the students I have had to teach in a long and rewarding career of over 50 years, a significant part of it has been at Royal College Colombo.

 A fresh graduate from the University of Peradeniya, my first posting came when I was in my twenties, and ever since then I have taught Chemistry the subject I love, and the teaching of which over the years I have become quite good at, judging by the results obtained by my many students at their examinations, and also from what they have said .In fact there are students of mine who passed only in Chemistry at the A Levels. I am a good Chemistry teacher, and in that field I believe I know how to communicate to others what I know.  This does not mean that I can put words together to convey what I feel about other things, because I am no great writer.  If I set out to write my memoirs for example I doubt that I would make it through ten pages.  Even that might take a long time.  

However some things are worth the effort…. ,so  I am going to put into words what I carry in my heart. And this is my memorable career at Royal College and the special bond I always shared with my students there.

But there are things I want to say, especially about my life as a teacher in general and as a Chemistry teacher in particular.  As I set out to do this I am acutely aware that not all things can be captured in equations and symbols.  But let me try.

I remember the time I joined Royal College in 1975.  The then Principal, Mr.L.D.H. Peiris, had a strategy that I would learn of only later.  He would put the new teachers in the toughest class.  As a result I had to teach one of the naughtiest classes in the school, right opposite the Staff Room.

I had a General Degree from Peradeniya University with Chemistry as one of my main subjects. In fact this was the first science batch at that university. I was confident about my knowledge, but was still nervous.  I remember there being 30-40 students in a large lecture theatre.  It was a Sinhala Medium class.  I was young then and naturally quite nervous.  I did my best not to show this. I introduced myself and said that I would be their Chemistry teacher.

A boy got up and asked me a question.  It was about a complicated reaction mechanism in organic chemistry.  Fortunately I knew it.  I didn’t know they were trying to test me.  The boy may or may not have known the answer himself, but I think they were adequately impressed because after that the class was very peaceful and the boys were very well behaved.  They didn’t try to bother me.  Maybe they talked about it and maybe the word went around, but since that day I didn’t have any problems with teaching.  I was never nervous after that. 

I retired prematurely in 1987 after completing 20 years of service and then taught for about five years at Stafford International.  I also taught London A/L classes in the afternoons at Ladies’ College and St. Bridget’s College.  Nothing, however, matches the period I was at Royal.  It was the best time of my career. 

We had a fantastic combination in charge of the school: Mr Peiris took care of the academic aspects while E.C. Gunasekara handled the discipline.

What is most unforgettable is the quality and caliber of my students.  There was always a mix.  Some were bright while others focused on things other than their studies.  Some were quiet while others were noisy, some were well behaved while others could be mischievous.  But I enjoyed teaching them all and maybe they were happy to have been taught by me.  No one ever complained!  

I still remember how touched I was when all my students came all the way to Negombo for my mother’s funeral.  The boys were good.  Very, very good.

I have long since retired from teaching, but something that I find special and which actually makes me feel very special is when I am invited for events organized by the various old boys’ groups.  They often felicitated, retired teachers and this is something that always amazes and touches me.  

I am surprised that we are still remembered.  The most wonderful thing is that our students consistently make us forget that we can be forgotten.  They remember us. 

Over the years I have attended many felicitations of retired teachers of Royal College organized by various batches of old boys.  My first students are now around 60 years old.  Even the final batch is closing on the half-century mark.  And yet, all of them still appreciate their teachers, they still go on their knees and worship us.  

Retirement is a difficult time for most teachers because of low pensions and reduced capacities to earn an income.  There are batches that understand this and help.  The 1974 batch once had a felicitation where they gifted each of us 25,000 rupees each.  Most recently, in September this year, the Group of 1985 gave 60,000 rupees to 88 retired teachers at a felicitation where there was dinner, wonderful music and all kinds of entertainment. I am sure the money comes in handy, but it’s the thought that goes with it that is very touching.  

They organize trips.  They arrange for retired teachers to watch the annual Royal-Thomian encounter.  They make sure we have everything we need by way of food and drink, and even arrange transport.  

The Old Royalists in the UAE organize an annual outing for us. They take us to a nice resort, give us lunch and bring us back.  They make it possible for us to reconnect with our colleagues and re-live the wonderful time we had as teachers at Royal College.  Some of us are old and not in the pink of health.  Some are aided by walking sticks and some arrive in wheelchairs, but everyone has a really good time.  I must mention in particular Prasanna Wanigasekera of the Group of 1983 who has made this entire annual project into a personal crusade of sorts, working tirelessly to make sure we can attend and have the best time we can have.  

And they never fail to say ‘we are in these positions because of you,’ even though that’s not strictly true.’  I’m just happy to see old friends and happy to see how happy the students are to see me.  They regale us with anecdotes and tell stories that we have long forgotten.  

Recently, for example, Mr H.M. Dayaratne, who taught Pure Mathematics, and I were talking about a boy of (Group of 1983).  He reminded me how I had expressed my disappointment   about his work. Daya recalled how I had said, ‘oya gena thibuna okkoma blaaporoththu nethi karagaththa’ which essentially meant I had given up on him.  He had gone around telling his friends ‘Mrs Nanayakkara mama gena balaporoththu thiyegenalu indala thiyenne,’ which implied that I had designs on him!  

So they make me remember my time at Royal.  I remember how I would occasionally go to the Principal’s office and call parents when children don’t come to class.  Sometimes I would ask the parents to come to school.  Once or twice the particular parent scolded his or her son.  The word spread I suppose and I didn’t have to do this after a while. They got to know me and I got to know them. Some times when they are asked to bring their parents to school to complain about their studies or their behaviour, the boys brought  unrelated people who pose off as their father for a  sum of money. That trick was not tried on me. 

We remember names and sometimes the faces.  A few words and it all comes back.  There are names I can mention such as Manoj Gunawardena (who came specially to see me when I was on holiday in England), Asitha De Silva and his brother Janaka de Silva, Janaka Gallage, Kaushalya Yahampath, Indrajith Wijesiriwardena,   Deepaka Weerasekera, Keerthi Gunasekera,Harsha de Silva, Gamini Galappatti, Asanga Nanayakkara and many more. The list is too long. I have taught some of their children too.  Many of them and still others are friends with me on Facebook. Some of these are now eminent doctors who have helped me, my relatives and even my employees.

Since I am not young enough to remember a lot of things, may be I have missed some important moments, maybe I missed a lot of names I should have mentioned, but then again, I am sure those who were my children at Royal College will not find fault with me.  They are all loved, dearly, and they know it.

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