Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some goodbyes are not meant for time

Schools are like offices. People come and go. They are hired and fired. They are subject to decay and hence grow used to and wary of where they are. As such some go quicker than others. Well yes, some stay and live the better part of their lives in them, but they too (have to) leave sooner or later. Naturally enough, those who stay back for long figure in memory more than others.

Teachers are no different. They come. They have their moments. They leave. That’s life, after all. Brief.

Bandula Galappaththi taught for 50 years. That’s half a century. He saw what many of his students (and in one way his children) didn’t. He waved goodbye to wherever he was very rarely, three times to be exact. Others like him left earlier. Pretty much everyone who met him got to know about the man. All bets are what they knew was a drop in the ocean.

Few teachers are like that. Very few. He was fortunate.

He started at Ananda, the school he studied at for 18 years and the school he taught at for another 25. He would be the first to say that it wasn’t easy. Teaching was tough and children grew up with those who taught them books and life itself. Schools operated differently back then. So did teachers. Not surprisingly, they changed with time.

Galappaththi didn’t change. He can count in very few peers in this respect. That’s why he has stories to recount from memory and how he lives and relives them every time he lays them bare. For us.

Few won’t know, for instance, that he was teacher to Sarath Fonseka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and Wasantha Karannagoda. Those who knew him will tell you of the risks he took, to protect not just students but school-name too. They will tell you of the leadership he symbolised, the Big Matches he helped with, the interaction between student and outside world (especially one as turbulent as Maradana) he "eased up" regularly, and the transition from teacher to Deputy Principal which “coloured” his stint there.

There are other stories. Other anecdotes. His comments on how things worked back then will entertain many. His reflections on the way children interacted with teachers will hold appeal. His outlook on the then and now of teaching will startle some. All this was of course after 1956, after L. H. Mettananda (who was principal when he was a student) and the nationalisation-thrusts which figured in the first half of the following decade. He endured them all.

Laurels do scant justice though. They tend to erase or marginalise what’s most opposed to them, humility. He himself would be the first to agree, and in a way this bears testimony to what Shakespeare wrote: “In peace there's nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility”. Well, if that IS the truth he has, through thick and thin, seen peace and stillness. Humility was never a stranger to him. He embraced it long ago.

He didn’t stay at Ananda. He left. In 1998 he "joined" another school, Lyceum (Nugegoda). He taught there and became, according to those who fell under his spell, more than a mentor. Mentoring for him wasn't about enforcing discipline. It was about winning empathy. And respect. Tough task, yes. But he did it.

Students there will tell you of the encounters they’ve had with him. Some have run into him more than once. They will add colour when offering anecdote. All of them will have “moments” to relate. Even those who didn’t turn him into disciplinarian and consistently (for good measure) refrained from ruffling feathers (a rare breed though, and naturally so).

He didn’t spend 25 years at Lyceum. He spent 17. He was a class teacher like at Ananda, but that’s not how Lyceumers will remember him. He will be remembered first and foremost as giver of advice, advice kept to heart upon departure from school. Almost every student will have pearls of wisdom gained from him, and pretty soon there’ll be those who’ll try to collect them all, to bind and put together, and hold and love.

Peace comes with solitude, some think. With Galappaththi that wasn’t the case. He gave into peace long before it gave into him and that had nothing to do with solitude. He got that peace through his career and more importantly through those he disciplined. For their part, students knew him enough to appreciate that for all his gruff exterior and admonishments, he was and always will remain a gentle soul to everyone he offered advice to. No wonder. He didn't use the cane. He used words.

All that is gone though. Done and dusted. He retired last Friday, not only from Lyceum but from a career he sustained for 50 years. Well, it would be wrong to say he retired, more correct to say retirement visited him. Neither Lyceumers nor Anandians would have wanted him to pass. But that’s life, again. Brief.

There probably are a hundred or so stories Anandians will relate to you about him, and probably a hundred more Lyceumers will too. They’ll all try to capture the man. At his best. A rare privilege, especially for a teacher and for a man who carried so much bag and baggage with what he carved for himself.

He would be the first to deflect excessive praise. He is correct. What he’s done speaks more about the man than what words and verses can conjure up. He’s given more than his share (the proverbial lion's share) to those who’ve profited or gained from him. We can celebrate his life in more ways than one, not only with praise.

Retirement is not an end but a beginning, some will offer. True. It’s not the beginning of a new life but a beginning of what visits teachers over and over again. Posterity. Teachers do not unburden themselves of the life they chose for themselves, after all. They give it to those they tutor. Gratitude, therefore, is hardly enough to repay debt. Still, the most we can do is to offer thanks. And smile.

Bandula Galappaththi, student, teacher, deputy principal, disciplinarian, and resident of this small world, has retired. He is not the first to have done so. He will not be the last. But in what he’s done and how he achieved them, there’s a giving away of sorts. A handover, if you will. He’s gone beyond time and embraced posterity, hence. No doubt Anandians and Lyceumers will be celebrating this. Rightly.

Thank you Mr Galappaththi. You can take a bow.

Photo courtesy of Dimuthu Amarasiri