Tuesday, 18 January 2011

First Day of School

This morning I totally forgot it was Tuesday and it suddenly hit me that I should be at the little school up the road.  I dropped everything and pedalled like a crazy thing, arriving at 09:00 instead of 08:00.  I needn't have worried - it turned out that there were no lessons planned, but there was to be a 'function'!  All over Sri Lanka, today was the day to welcome the Grade One youngsters to their new schools.

There's a real sense of community at that school, almost like belonging to one big family.  Everyone knows everyone else and I guess there's a strong social interdependence.  I spoke to my teacher-friend, Mr Misthar whose daughter was starting today and he not only seemed to know all the parents but he knew all the children too!

The parents had arrived, with their offspring in smart, new, spotless whites and blues, and the children were all mingling and chatting away.  There was no hanging on to Mum's coat tails - these kids were happy and excited, if perhaps a little overwhelmed.

The other children arranged themselves (the older ones organising the younger ones) into two lines, but after about 15 minutes in the baking sun it became apparent that power was needed for playing the national anthem so there was a half hour delay while coils of wire and extension leads were found and slung up to convey the power to the classroom.  The older boys took charge of this - no one told them what to do as far as I could tell.  OK, it was a bit chaotic but they got there.  I can't imagine "Health & Safety" allowing kids to climb on the roofs, twist bare wires together and stick the ends in power sockets using matchsticks, can you?  Heaven forbid they actually operate switches!

The boys also wired up the sound system and microphone - we were having the full works today!  You may remember that I said the school had no electricity.  Well, the bill was finally paid by the Education Department and the power restored last Friday.  The Principal was quick to remind me that my organisation, AdoptSriLanka, had promised them a CD player.  I said I'd get that ball rolling.

So, after the electrics had been sorted and decorations hastily (but skillfully) put up, the new children were escorted by Grades 2 and 3 between two rows of cheering and clapping kids to their new classroom.  And they really meant it - they were truly welcoming the little ones into this next stage of their lives.

I was the only White there and I felt very honoured and privileged to be accepted and permitted to join with the celebrations.  As in India, there were a couple of VIPs there who may have been from the mosque or the council, I have no idea, and they made their long and impressive speeches.  Truthfully, they weren't too excessive, thank goodness.  All the time the kids were popping out to the toilets or chatting, as were their parents - no one batted an eyelid.  The speeches were followed by the Grades 2 and 3 doing little routines and recitals, and all with about fifty of sixty hot bodies in the not overly-large classroom, with little or no ventilation.  I was dripping and embarrassingly smelly by the end.  Not pleasant!

After all this, the new children took a turn at the microphone!  They had apparently learned songs and movements at pre-school classes and they were proud to share them.  It was great!  These kids felt totally unfazed and at home, even after an hour and a half of celebrations.  Amazing, and a pleasure to watch!

At the very end, each child was presented with a stack of government-supplied workbooks and three sets of clothing, plus a brown bag with bits and pieces in - maybe some pencils and pens.  Whatever it was, the children were happy to receive it.

The whole thing was compèred by a young girl, not from the school, who was obviously very practised in such things and did her job very professionally.  And finally, juice and bites appeared from nowhere, served by some of the Grade 6 students.  In all, there was great involvement from all the students, whether in front of the audience or behind the scenes, and all of them seemed to accept their roles and duties as if it was the most natural thing in the world - they simply got on with it.

I was the only one there with a camera and I snapped away as much as possible but the light was very strong outside and the room poorly illuminated by natural light inside, but I did what I could.  The Principal side-lined me later for prints of the photos - no problem.

As an aside, the boys in Grade 11 ('O'Level year - about 15-16 year olds) have been begging me to help them with computing.  The school itself has only one computer and I don't know if that even works.  They tell me that they use Internet Café computers when they can afford it.  At Rs.50 an hour (about £0.28 or US$0.45) that turns out to be about once every one or two months.  I arranged for six girls to come to use ASL's computers for an hour on Saturday mornings, and six boys for an hour in the afternoons, but only if they're accompanied by teachers.  Willing teachers were found so the kids were delighted!  Bearing in mind that I plan to leave in April, I'm not sure how these sessions will work out or what we'll achieve but I'm sure we'll think of something.  I'll ask what their expectations are and see what I can do to meet them.


  1. What a beautiful description of an amazing day. As we prepare for our new school year to begin in Australia, I can tell you there will be nowhere near so much pomp and ceremony.
    Love the photos. So glad you did not forget all together.

    Thanks again Clive

  2. Me too! I'm also really glad I remembered my camera because I think the pictures bring it alive on this page, and nice to have as a record anyway. Thanks for commenting Celia - you must be my top commenter! Always great to hear from you :)

  3. Thank you for sharing the story and the pictures! What do you think was the one thing that stood out to you the most about the day? Just from reading, I think it's wonderful to be able to celebrate rather then spend a whole day talking about rules and routines.

  4. Hi Becky, thanks for dropping by and commenting!
    "Name one thing..." sounds like something a teacher might ask ;-) I suppose the one thing for me would be a sense of harmony or one-ness. The feeling that the school was an extension of the community but still a part of it.
    Yes, the focus was certainly on the celebration rather than on dreaded Risk Assessments!

  5. Dear Clive,
    I alwaysz read your blog with great interest and what you wrote last tuesday was very special, enhanced of course by the wonderful, coloured pictures.
    I hope you are well and enjoying the time you are spending in this part of the world.
    I happened to be in Culham last week (for the very first time) and since my new boss, the new EFDA PI leader, is now Petra, I don't know exactly how, but we spoke of you. She is a very nice person and I get along very well with her. She mentioned she'll meet when you are back in spring.
    Dear Clive, I just wanted to say how I admire what you are doing and congratulate you on your outstanding efforts... to be an altruistic human being!!!
    All the best to you, take care and see you some time,

  6. Dear Aline,
    Great to hear from you and to catch up on a little bit of your news! Yes, I am certainly enjoying myself here though I am well aware that time is slipping by and my return to the UK in April is approaching fast. So much still to do!
    Ah yes, I did hear there were some management changes taking place in EFDA. As you know, I worked for a while with Petra and we immediately got on. She is a very professional and likeable person - she makes a good boss! I hope to catch up with her and Joerg when I'm next in Oxford.
    My plans are very much up in the air at the moment - I know I have to return to the UK but what I'll do and where I'll be are great unknowns and very unsettling. But no doubt it will work out one way or another.
    I wonder if you'll be making any more trips to the UK? It would be good to catch up in person after all this time! Best wishes to you and your family. Take good care and hope to see you soon!

  7. Wow! It's nice to be able to put you & your work in some context. These photos really help bring your role to life. Keep up the great work, and all the best for your future.