Wednesday, April 20, 2016
A glimpse of my schooldays
By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
I wish to give the readers of this Blog a glimpse of my school life without making too much of a focus on the school itself as many of the readers were not from Wesley College. You may recognise the same emotions and the feelings of a certain time in our lives in a country that was at peace and we were smothered by the deep love and affection of our parents.
Well, doesn't time fly !!!! It was with a mixture of awe and pride that I passed through the gates of Wesley College for the first time in 1950. It seems like only yesterday that I was walking up the school driveway on that eventful first morning. The place was imposing to say the least. Those were glorious years I recall with pin sharp clarity. Now, here I am retired after an enormously satisfying 40 year career in Medicine. All those years have gone swiftly as the blink of an eye. There are a few advantages to getting old - still people tend to give you some respect. For us in the UK it is a free bus pass. The perks outnumber the downsides. But the main problem is that your body never allows you to forget the passage of years.
We had the iconic Welikada Prison just in front of our school. Built in 1841 in 98 acres it was a stark reminder of the big bad world outside. From the Biology corridor there was a lovely view of the front drive with a steady stream of Morris Minor cabs, red Leyland buses and bullock carts. There was a rather lonely road just in front of the school gates leading away from Baseline road by the tall perimeter wall of the Prison. This went in the direction of Wanathamulla. Every morning the prisoners wearing white were taken along this narrow road by the Guards in Khaki shorts. Being so close to the prison for over a decade I had often let my mind wander about the life of those in jail. For many of us even now prison is almost an unknown place. Very few knew what happened behind the grim gates that swallowed the convicts. We imagined that its inhabitants were desperate people and dangerous criminals. In our minds the place was associated with isolation, humiliation and suffering which were all part of the punishment. Sometimes the sheer lack of privacy and at other times the loneliness of solitary confinement must be soul destroying. Time then is not a luxury but a burden to endure. A few had any contact with their families. I would hate to think of what food they received and the many who walked out how they faced the world again.
Much has changed in the world around us since those halcyon days. Good manners are on the decline. Many political leaders are cynical, careless and blinded to the realities of the outside world. To some there has been a moral decline. The digital revolution has taken over our lives.
When I was a kid, children had no rights at home and none at school. We were only to be seen and not heard. At Wesley, in my day, life was not a bed of roses. It was worst in the Primary school where there was an aura of fear that pervaded the classrooms and the corridors. Discipline was administered with an iron fist and the school rules were to be respected at all times and at any cost. This climate of fear eased as we moved into the middle school. In the sixth form we were treated as adults and given responsibilities as Prefects to uphold the rule of law and discipline. On looking back I cannot find fault with the manner in which discipline was administered and the school was run. Those who were in school with me have turned out to be useful and respected citizens of this world. The old boys form a cross section of society with its complement of saints, scholars and sinners. Whilst some became politicians, lawyers and doctors, a few may not have kept to the straight and narrow ending up in the iconic building in front.
I was at Wesley from 1950-62. They were very happy times indeed. Those who recognise me from the old days will note the changes due to the ravages of time. I owe so much to so many in the school, Students teachers and Principals. I have a myriad of memories of things that happened at school. They must have made a tremendous impression on my young mind. Some of these recollections are happy ones but a few are unpleasant, even painful. There were times I hated school. There was too much home work and too many rules and punishments. But somehow good times finally shone through.
It amazes me still how the school managed to balance the demands of high academic standards with the time demands of extra activities like sports, art, music and drama. We enjoyed much of it and for this we have to thank the skill of the teachers and the Principal.
We owe a great debt to our schoolmasters. One measure of a school is the way teachers and students interact. We remember with much gratitude the interest they took in our development and welfare. The teachers at school, what great characters some of them were! I hope they still are. My memory of them extend to their physical features, their anger, smile and even the smell. Some had tempers that would terrify even the boldest. What distinguished them all, large or small in stature was their apparent venerability. Even now after 60+ years it gives me a shock and a pang to read of the death of an old master. The teachers seem permanent and the majority stayed on until retirement. Although their salaries were probably just adequate, they had a loyalty to the school, and did not use a teaching post as an ambitious transient stepping stone to a bigger and a better paid teaching job elsewhere, as many young teachers do now. I often feel that many of our older teachers, some of them though eccentric, may turn in their graves at the disloyalty and opportunism of our modern teachers. For them, the joy of knowing of the success of their students was payment enough.
They were human. In one way or another difficult, egotistical, strong minded and demanding. They loved the school and their profession. They made good friends. I wouldn't want them as enemies. Having said this I have the greatest respect for many of them. I still feel guilty to this day for not going round the school from the primary school upwards to say goodbye to every teacher many of whom I never saw again.
The image I carry with me of the school is still the view of Wesley College I saw on my first day in January 1950. I was mesmerised by the elegant sweep of the majestic buildings. Now as I reflect it is impossible to forget its history and the sacrifice of those Methodist Missionaries who founded the school. The family of 1200 students and teachers have made me what I am today. Growing up in such surroundings was a privilege. What I learnt on and off the classrooms has helped me in my long and tortuous journey through life. Despite its ups and downs the school remains, at least in my thoughts, as one of the finest in the country.
In this fractured and troubled world, what we seek more than anything is a sense of belonging, a feeling that we are part of a community of like-minded souls. Despite this it is ironic how many of the rising generation of students after having received a fine education leave the school never to set foot on those hallowed grounds ever again. It amazes me that even those old boys who live in Sri Lanka and some of them living in Colombo have never been to the school premises as past students. In the endless whirr of 24/7 life of the 21st Century it is perhaps easy to forget our formative years. Some must have good reasons to do so. I am sure they can find in some corner of their hearts forgiveness and to realise no institution is perfect.
Meeting school friends brings great joy. When past students come together they move into recollection mode recalling those beautiful, quirky moments of their youth. There is never a dull moment. Voices will be imitated, mannerism mimicked, idiosyncrasies enhanced and long since dormant episodes of school life will suddenly spring to mind bringing hilarity, affection or even sadness. As the wine and conversation flows we get transported back many decades. There will be a glow and a shared warm feeling of times past. The last to leave often provide a lusty rendition of the old school song.
Saying goodbye to Wesley which was my home for over a decade was one of the hardest things I have had to do. I still think about it. Late at night and at quiet moments in the day, those memories make me proud of being part of that institution. Sometimes this deep sense of longing can be overwhelming. The friends I made have remained friends for life even though I never saw many of them again. We lived our lives in the Wesley Village in Karlsruhe Gardens. It is impossible to recreate that life again.
The bee-like buzzing of a thousand schoolboys that was ever present throughout my stay at school, went silent as I stepped on to Baseline Road for the last time in April 1962. And of course, I had left behind a part of myself at Wesley that was my home for so many years. Life was never the same ever again. As the sunset on my schooldays there was a new dawn of a career in medicine.
But I shall forever cherish my time at Wesley.