Sunday, July 2, 2017

Master Mind 2017: Reflections on a quiz competition

The Master Mind Quiz Competition, organised by the General Knowledge Club of Lyceum International School, Nugegoda, will be unveiled for the 10th consecutive time on Monday, July 3 at the school Aeolian Hall

Quizzes can be assessed based on the questions asked, the duration, the format, and the venue. Apart from these cosmetics, there’s really nothing that can distinguish one competition from another. Nothing, except for the stories that go into their making and, if at all, unmaking. This is the story of one such quiz and how, for 10 years, it’s tried to keep up with the world outside. A disclaimer, though: I’ve been involved with this particular competition for more than five years. I won’t brag, but I won’t promise that I will desist from flaunting what’s been done and achieved. So here goes.

I hated the idea of staying after school. For 12 years, through luck or sheer recklessness, I conveniently slid past the rule that students had to participate in at least two activities, a sport and a club. We didn’t lack either, and we were provided with everything we’d want in them, but I couldn’t have cared less.

I completed my O Levels, got lukewarm results, and waited for that moment when we’d be appointed as prefects. I remember that we had to submit all our achievements, inside and outside the classroom, in a file. I remember my file and the file submitted by a friend. Mine would have had 10 certificates at most. His would have had at least 50. No surprises as to who was inducted and who was not.

There are clubs that are popular and clubs that students try to avoid. These have their captains, vice captains, and committees. Some are widely known, others not so. It so happened that another friend of mine, also a prefect and a House Captain at that, was appointed president of a club that not many wanted to be in. Because he had too much on his plate already, he let go of that presidency, voluntarily, and “gave” it to me. That club, the only one I ever got to dabble in, was referred to as the General Knowledge Society. I didn’t know about quizzing then. Didn’t know what “General Knowledge” meant. I didn’t care.

It was a very slipshod club, I soon learnt. In other societies, there are lifelong members, even after those members leave school. Here, on the other hand, it was all about friendships, about getting in those you knew and then leaving it when the year was up. The first few classes were, predictably, a disaster. I didn’t have a clue about how to run a society, and if that wasn’t bad enough we had a set of teachers who were new to it. Everything seemed to end in chaos. Everything, every single time.

We had a quiz of our own. Master Mind. The problem was that the members weren’t interested enough. A few years before, we had triumphed at some interschool competitions elsewhere. But that was it. A cycle of promise followed by defeat: that was what characterised us. To break away from this cycle, then, and to establish better systems and consistency, was our challenge. We had about a year to deliver.

Six years and six committees later, it seems that Master Mind has a long way to go to keep up with the world outside. That we have progressed isn’t enough reason for complacency. We have improved, certainly, but for me, it’s those stories that led us to push ourselves which can help us understand how we can push ourselves even more. Six years isn’t a long time, yes. But through them all, we have delivered in our own unique way. We have broken away from that cycle. And best of all, we have broken away so well that it will be hard to return to it.

The General Knowledge Club or the Quiz Club of Lyceum International School, Nugegoda hasn’t exactly made strides that can compel an article. It has won, it has suffered defeat, and in competitions where it contended with far more formidable players, it has triumphed. In a context where international schools are (rightly) associated with a culture of alienation, with students being raised in an environment where the ethos of the country and their society is ignored if not disparaged, this is something to applaud. To me, however, all those triumphs, defeats, accolades, and self-congratulatory praises are nothing if the history of how we got to them isn’t recounted. That history begins with a person, a name. Dimuthu Amarasiri.

By the time I left Lyceum (in 2011), a new generation of teachers had come. Noticeably less strict than their elders, they were more easygoing, friendlier, though they could be and at times were quite ramrod. Mr Dimuthu was one of them. He was unyielding, got you to do what he wanted if it was best for everyone around you, and didn’t spare anyone, but we took to him at once. When I became president of the club, he was the coach. When I returned after my A Levels for my first real job as his assistant, the teacher in charge, Mr Mowlana, was about to retire. Mr Dimuthu became that teacher’s successor. And I became his.

It wasn’t easy, of course. I made mistakes, he rectified them, and I went around scrounging for sponsorships for the first real Master Mind Quiz that would involve sponsors. This was in 2012. Needless to say, we did get what we were looking for, but it congealed into what I got to love best about the entire enterprise: preparing the necessary letters and requests, questions and answers, and every other document that a cohesive quiz competition needed. Master Mind Number Five, because our aim was to make it more enjoyable, contained a special Pop Up Round that had rather peculiar, but commonsensical queries:

What does the face of Mona Lisa lack? Eyebrows

According to legend, what supposedly was Coca-Cola’s original colour? Green

For what domestic purpose is urine used in some countries? As a detergent

Meanwhile, Mr Dimuthu got his students to cut down, to economise. Where we would rather spend on posters, banners, and other promotional material considered as necessary frill, he made us get down on our knees instead, literally at times, and design our own posters, our own banners, by hand. The same went for every other aspect to a competition – from refreshments to getting feedback from competitors – and he made sure we didn’t miss his training sessions. I’ve seen teachers elsewhere leave everything to students without bothering to check on them. It’s a testament to Mr Dimuthu’s determination that, despite his schedule (he almost never answers his phone), he ensured that he was always there, on time, overseeing and guiding us.

I missed helping him out for the last two years, sadly. I left my first job in 2013, returned for a while in 2016, and left for good a few weeks later. During that time the club has, to be sure, gained more members and become an activity to reckon with. While I have run into certain disputes with its format in recent years, with last year’s competition including some terribly bizarre questions, I do agree that it has risen and reached that point where it can be improved on or undone by the slightest effort. And in the meantime, regardless of the politics that has gone into the Club owing to the intervention of various insiders, Mr Dimuthu has remained. His loyalty, as with the loyalty of many of his students, has never been questioned.

So as you can see, Master Mind is special to me. It’s special not because it’s big and out there (it’s not, at least not yet), but because it’s made its signature evident to other clubs, other schools, other quizzers. More importantly, it has forced its members and their classmates and friends to question everything that comes their way, to search for new facts. And now that I’ve said everything about it that needs to be said and written down, it’s best that I stop. Here. Right now.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 2 2017