Memories of College Teachers by Peter Selvaratnam
Many Thomians have very great memories of the time they had at St Thomas’ College (College) with their classmates and the teachers who nurtured and guided them. Teachers at St Thomas’ College came in different guises-as learned educators, pundits, mentors, advisors, disciplinarians or ultra-disciplinarians. This is true of other schools’ I have attended.
I was having a chat in Melbourne with a Thomian colleague during College’s 100-year celebrations of moving to Mount. We were reminiscing how teachers ‘can make us or break us.’ Some teachers were exceptional, others were disciplinarians, and some carried ‘demons of their past’ which affected how they approached students! He mentioned a positive point that irrespective, “These teachers made us who we are today!”
I have met many old Thomians who reminisce with fondness the teachers who mentored them, and a few who carry hurts from the ‘trivial words’ that were spoken to them by some teachers or ‘ soul hurts’ from the uncalled for ‘facial manipulations’ at the hands of teachers. We may require them now as our facial therapists!
St Thomas’ College has prepared us in many ways for the good times, enduring the challenges in life and dealing with people who are different from us.
I joined St Thomas’ College, Mount in 1964 from St Thomas’ Prep Kollupitiya. I enjoyed my time with my friends from Form One to Upper Fourth. We had good calibre of teachers who were keen to impart their knowledge and wisdom.
In Form One, I had Mrs Karunaratne who was an excellent English teacher and taught us the basics from ‘Path to Parnassus’ and the many poems which made you understand the intricacies of the English language. Her husband was briefly the lower school headmaster before Mr ‘Bamboo’ David took over the helm wielding his cane at many a ‘fearful’ young boy.
I also enjoyed the teaching approaches of Mrs Samuel in history and geography and subsequently Mrs Jacob, though learning poems in Tamil was a bit challenging.
Singing classes always excited us. Our young minds were given a glimpse of the future by the low-cut blouses of Ms June Boralessa and the curvaceous Ms Doreen Abeywardene. Their charm was balanced by Mrs Jayasekera who encouraged our singing talents.
During our singing classes in first term, we were grouped as singers or ‘non-singers.’ Some of us sang ‘off tune’ and were labelled as ‘non-singers.’ I thought this was not a good show as my mother sang and conducted choirs. The next term I decided to change my accent and sang in a British accent; to my relief I was promoted to the singer’s group! This demonstrated to me that teachers can be flexible when we made an effort. Years later this act gave me the confidence to sing at another school choir and subsequently in Australia.
In Form Two, I had the lovely Ms Olga de Alwis who too wore impressive sarees and blouses which worked on the imagination of the young boys. She was also a Cub teacher, and hence some of us joined the Cubs to enjoy her ‘maternal’ care.
Life changed in July 1965 when my father, The Rev John Selvaratnam became the Warden at College. I therefore decided I had to keep a low-profile in order to keep out of trouble. However, his ‘re-moulding of the school standards’ had some interesting effects on his two sons!
In Lower Third, Mr Leo de Silva was our class teacher. He was feared by some. I have been told that he would hold a boy by their shirt outside the window of the first floor- though I have never observed this feat! Mr Leo instilled in us the joy of learning English. He was also our Cub Master and taught us the importance to be good citizens.
I had Mr Brodie in Lower Third and Mr Manickam Atputharaja in the Upper Third who were also our Under 12 team cricket coaches. The basics in cricket I learnt from them, and later Mr Ponniah and Mr Jayasinghe in the Under 14 helped me subsequently in playing first eleven cricket at St John’s College, Jaffna where I scored an unbeaten century. The skills and tenacity learnt from the two schools helped me to play cricket in Melbourne at the Northcote District Cricket Club where Australian cricketers Bill Lawry, Gary Cosier and Rod Hogg played. My special thanks to Mr Jayasinghe who was the assistant Under 14 cricket coach who helped me to get into the squad. I will be ever thankful to him. The love of cricket and the contacts helped me later in looking after the sports injuries of the Victorian cricket team, and the Sri Lankan cricket team during their early visits to Australia.
Mrs Bandaratilleke was our teacher in Upper Third. She was called “ Pirimi Sappathu” because she was the only lady in College who wore shoes! She was a superb English teacher and she along with Mrs Jayasekera gave me the confidence to act in many plays in College. In the parallel class was Mrs Lorna Mendis whose son always scored 100 out of 100 in all his subjects!! We did envy him…
In 1968 we progressed to Middle School which brought in an era of new friends from St Thomas’ Prep. We had Mr Satchithanathan who was our class teacher. He was a dynamic teacher and enjoyed using the back of his hand to discipline his students.
Geometry and algebra took a dip to the South Pole with the joy of being taught by Mr K. Karalukulasingham. He had ‘soul wounds’ in his life that made him very intimidating. I certainly did not enjoy learning mathematics under duress.
I recall my father had to discipline a few teachers who were scooting out of school early in the afternoon to give tuition or to conduct ‘boogie classes.’ On one occasion Mr K did not like one of my father’s decisions. Hence, on one fine day Mr K selected ten of us after a class test and brandished our soft faces with “ten of his best” with the palms of his hands. We took it like men with this ‘facial treatment extraordinaire!’
I understand that after I left College, he was the boarding master and some boarders were unhappy with his antics and poured some excreta on him. I found that one had to forgive teachers who hurt them to move on in life or else one has a ‘hangover’ of being a victim for the rest of their life!
One of the outstanding teachers I had was Mrs V Welikala. She was our class teacher and taught us English. She was an exceedingly kind teacher who had exceptional talents of guiding teenagers in a very impressionable stage of their life.
The Middle school headmaster was Mr C S Weerasinghe. He was referred to as ‘Pol Oora.’ Though he was strict he was incredibly supportive of the leadership in the school and encouraged boys to try their absolute best. We got to know him better as prefects in the middle school.
Mr Thambithurai taught us the basics of science and was good at preparing us for exams. He was strict. Mr Thambithurai came first off the rank ‘courting’ Ms Swarna Navaratnam the ‘belle’ at College when she came to teach us Art for a term.
Mr Wilson was referred to as “Kotiya” and taught us history. He was strict but kept his wrath for his son who was in our class. Mr Devathason was referred to as “Dos” and taught us Latin which improved my understanding of English and later the study of anatomy. I also studied Sinhala from the Principal of the Montessori next door, Mrs Nita Silva, J.P. which helped me tremendously in preparing for the GCE O/L.
I recall Mr Orville Abeynaike, the first eleven cricket coach. Orville was a gentle man. In 1964 we beat Royal in the “Big Match “under the captaincy of PNW Gunasekera. In 1965 Anura Tennekoon became captain and that year “Attiya” as he was known was selected to play against the West Indies. Anura subsequently captained Sri Lanka. We enjoyed the cricketers visiting the Warden’s home just before the Big Match for the “blessings” from the Warden.
Though Orville was mild mannered he was terribly upset with the captaincy of Dennis Chanmugam during the “Big Match” in 1968. In this Big Match, Royal scored 232. On the first day St Thomas’ replied with 70 plus for 5 or 6 wickets. On the second day STC was 133 for six; without consulting Orville, Dennis ‘the Menace’ declared the Thomian innings. Orville was not a ‘happy chappy’but in Royal’s second innings, Dennis was impressive in bowling the opener in the first ball. St Thomas’ survived due to the great partnership by Ajith Jayasekera and David Ponniah. On the Monday after the match, despite Orville’s initial reluctance and the non-nonchalant attitude of Dennis, he received the Warden’s award!
Orville had another predicament in 1969. Under the captaincy of Prabodha Kariyawasam we lost the Big Match. We were all very disappointed. Prabodha however still remained the captain in 1970 ; moulding characters was integral to Thomian ethos and that all important ‘win or loss but play the game fair’ example was evident.
I enjoyed the Carol Services conducted by Rev LGB Fernando who was fondly called “Lajaba.” He was also an excellent maths teacher. Rev LGB was always dressed in splendour at the carol services as the choir master waving his ‘wand.’ The Festival of Nine lessons was the pinnacle of the Chapel services. Rev LGB was ably assisted by Mr Russell Bartholomeus who was an excellent organist. I recall when I visited College in January 1983, Russel was still playing the organ. We also had Rev Baldwin Daniel and Rev David Townsend from Australia as our chaplains.
Rev Baldwin showed great attention to detail. Once he placed the statue of St. James stationed at the rear of the chapel. At the end of the service we were requested to look at the statue and walk out of church. I recall having a fleeting look at the statue. He called me back and said, “Mr Selvaratnam, come back and look at the statue!” Such was the discipline at College to obey the teacher.
One of the highlights in my time at College was when my father invited Mr David Paynter to paint the ‘Transfiguration’ of Jesus Christ. The cost of the painting was Rs. 10,000; the College did not have the money. My father appealed to the old boys and they raised the funds (which I observe is still the case when funds are required!). Mr Paynter stayed in our annexe and would get up in the morning to pray so that he was inspired by the Lord to paint the figures of Jesus Christ, Peter, James, John , Moses, and Elijah.
We had two very able scout teachers, Mr Muttiah and Mr Edirisinghe. The scout movement helped me to prepare for life in Australia where my brother and I had to clean our flats, cook, iron, and polish our shoes after being spoilt by home help in Sri Lanka. We used to do ‘chip a job’ to earn money to attend scout camps. One of the memorable camps was in Nuwara Eliya; these two scout teachers made it an exceptional one.
One of the highlights was climbing Pidurutalagala at 4 am. The mountain was 8282 feet above sea level, and we had to get there before sunrise. Along with us came Rev David Townsend (from Melbourne) who became ‘very red-like a beetroot’ as he climbed the mountain. He told the Warden that his breakfast in Australia included 4 eggs in the morning with bacon. Mr Gauder, the boarding master who supplied meals had to comply!
The other teachers who stood out were the Sub-Warden, Mr Jayasinghe, Mr Godfrey Senaratne, the enigmatic Mr Vinnasithamby, Mr Brookie Da Silva, Mr Pereira (Bulto) to name a few. I left school in early 1970 to join our Anglican brother school, St John’s College before I went to Australia.
Looking back, all my teachers at St Thomas’ provided me and many others the foundation and building blocks to live life at its full potential. The education at College has made me confident to get up and speak in public and in the world stage. Our teachers, apart from our parents helped to form our personalities our characters and made us who we are today. The ability to read, write and speak in three languages at College has also helped me to listen to people and conduct inner healing work.