by Anura Gunasekera
Recently, Divesh Alek Gunasekera, not quite six years of age, dressed in the regulation blue shorts and white shirt, walked in through the gates of S. Thomas’ , Mt. Lavinia, and thus became a Thomian. His maternal grandfather Chamlal, paternal grandfather Anura and father Isuru , preceded him on this same journey, having made it in 1950, 1955 and 1981, in that order.
So , young Divesh inherits a rich tradition , a glittering tapestry stretching back to 1851, encompassing academics, sports, other extra-curricular activities and , more interestingly, stories both written and unwritten , of the school; or, more appropriately, “College”, as we always refer to the place, perhaps in unconscious arrogance that STC is the only institution that deserves that title, and that when one says ” College”, it can only mean STC, Mt. Lavinia.
Divesh has the advantage of the Thomian history that his two grandfathers and father will pass on to him. He will benefit from the accumulated wisdom , and stories, of two generations which will enable him to integrate in to the Thomian family with ease. Perhaps, one day, he may also understand the personal importance of being a Thomian, a concept that is difficult to convey to non-Thomians.
I did not have the advantage of a pre-Thomian indoctrination, no tales of STC carried from home, as I was the first Thomian in my family, my late father having been educated in the first quarter of the last century, in a series of obscure village schools, now possibly no longer in existence. I must confess with some shame that I do not know what those schools were, though for the simple reason that I was not told by my father whilst I also did not care to ask. Possibly, he did not speak about those schools as they did not matter in his later life. They had no history or tradition which one took away in to adult life as memories, but were simply places where one acquired basic academic skills. Once you left the school, you left everything behind you, including the memories.
It is this difference, that makes schools such as STC outstanding in the contribution that they make towards a student’s development. Obviously, my father understood it and ensured that I had the opportunities he missed and I am very grateful to him for that. I also understand now, how difficult it would have been for him, without either a Thomian connection or a Thomian background, to have secured my admission to STC. Finally, that I may not have delivered on his expectations is another matter entirely, and the responsibility for that lies with me!!!
Once you are in STC, you soon believe that you are in the best school of all. It is not a stated concept but an impression which quickly permeates your adolescent psyche. From the inception, bred in to the student body was this sense of elitism, the specialness in being a Thomian, this sense of a great and unique history that you soon became part of, the peerless tradition that you become heir to, that set you apart from all those who went to other schools. That many other students, in other schools, believed the same thing of the schools they attended was not a view that concerned you.
This belief in an inherent Thomian superiority provided useful muscle in inter-school competitions, particularly the sports encounters. There is much talk of Thomian grit, Thomian spirit, especially in those annual encounters when you are faced with the possibility of imminent defeat. Staving off what seems inevitable is personified as another example of that special Thomian spirit, a reversal of what seems inevitable an example of a “never –say-die” attribute, specific only to Thomians, and succumbing to the inevitable a result of the cruelty of fate which even Thomians need to stoically bear, only to return with a vengeance in the next encounter!!! These were heroic myths to live by and when in College, we believed in them.
The College I entered in 1955 and the College that Divesh has just joined must, surely, be different in every aspect as all institutions must move with the times, evolve and mutate to meet fresh educational and social challenges. I am looking at a sixty two year gap, but I would like to believe that the values that made this school special are still valid and are yet being upheld.
My recollection of College is an institution in which students were judged, both by fellow students and the teaching fraternity, on individual merits only and on what each contributed to the school in terms of academics or sports. I do not recall any racial, religious or social bigotry, or the identification and exploitation of differences and divisions arising thereby. I do not recall the separation of students on any lines, except that of the House one belonged to, or the class which you were assigned to in any particular year. If you were a Christian you went to Chapel and, similarly, learnt Divinity or Buddhism as applicable. Tamils had separate Tamil language lessons, others studied Sinhala and all learnt English. None of these differences signaled a point of departure from the commonality of being Thomian, which superseded any other possible identity.
My indelible impression is that one got ahead entirely on results. If you got the most marks you were awarded the prize and if you scored or otherwise performed consistently, you retained your place in the team. I can honestly say, that in the absence of quantifiable results, a student’s social or economic background, or other significant connections, did not provide that individual with a sustainable advantage over his colleagues. Influence peddling is as old as man himself but, the fact that I cannot recall any example as a bad memory suggests that results obtained thereby would have been negligible.
In my time at STC I passed through three Wardens – Heads of School – the legendary “Kunji”, Canon Reggie de Saram, a remote, godlike, awe-inspiring figure, succeeded by the marginally more accessible “Poeta”- Christie Davidson , followed by the friendly, excitable Rev Selvaratnam. Even at close quarters in his Latin class, the austere “Canon” maintained this aura of apartness, countenance and manner both equally frosty, with the clear understanding that one did not speak unless spoken to by him. Over time, I understand that the successive heads have become more accessible and less distant, possibly in acknowledgement of the current reality that those who teach must have greater, and closer interaction with those being taught. In the present Warden, Reverend Marc Billimoria, I see with much relief and appreciation, a College head who combines accessibility with both the dignity and gravitas which are prerequisites for a man of his position.
There are teachers whom we talk of still, with both amusement and respect. Some were great teachers, some great eccentrics and a few combined both qualities. In retrospect, it is clear that they, individually and collectively, contributed to our development. They are too numerous to be named here and to recall a few and leave out the others would be disrespectful to their memories. These dedicated men and women, possibly never adequately compensated, created a tradition all by themselves and that even the academic non-achievers, such as I, recall them with affection and respect, is a clear indication of the role they played in our lives then.
Whilst I have no great school accomplishments to speak of, I still recall with great pleasure, most of the things that I did in school, in the company of contemporaries with many of whom I have formed life-long friendships. I loved the college library and over the years read most of the books available, even the ones I did not quite understand. I learnt how to interact with a wide spectrum of personalities, with disparate points of view, representing possibly all the ethnicities and religious denominations in the country. We interacted with lasting harmony and what friction that was generated, had nothing to do with what we were or where we came from. There were bloody fights from time to time, the aggression being generated, invariably, as a spontaneous reaction to what any one of us was engaged in at that point of time.
In College, I came to appreciate the lasting richness of comradeship, the unquantifiable pleasure that comes with successful team effort and the soothing value of the commiseration of fellow Thomians in defeat and failure. I learnt that to obtain an unmerited advantage for oneself was to disadvantage another fellow Thomian. I learnt what it was to accept punishment stoically and, through trial and error, how to break the law and still stay out of trouble. I also learnt the value of unity in adversity, especially in the face of the wrath of authority. I also learnt that there were ways and means of questioning authority, when appropriate, and that it was possible to fight it, successfully.
The contours of life in a boys’ school must be very different now, but the values that constitute decent human conduct and that which should govern a just society, the concepts of integrity and honourable interaction and the easy acceptance of human diversity, much of which, I realize in retrospect, is what one learns in school, should not be any different to what they were in my day. They are part of this Thomian tradition that we speak of and that which must be fostered through each generation.
This is what I wish for Divesh – and for his younger brother Tarun when he becomes a Thomian – that he will emerge from College, having absorbed the best values that it will impart, having experienced all that it has to offer, the pleasant and the unpleasant and, that in retrospect, on mature reflection, he will tell himself that he is happy and proud to be a Thomian; that he appreciates the wealth of his inheritance, that he has become a member of an exclusive fraternity, which many aspire to but to which only a few gain admission.