You may have noticed I’ve been absent for a while. I am going to try to get cracking on getting out blogs more regularly moving forward. I know at least my husband is anxious for me to get to the movie stars! Just to get you back in the loop – My family and I had moved into our rental home in Kandy. I was attending an international school, but had requested that my parents find me a school taught in Sinhala so that I could learn the language. Some of this may sound familiar to those of you who read my post-election post, but I want to give you the full story…
And so, we settled into our home on Sri Pushpadana with our new extended family. And, as promised my parents looked into local schools for me to attend. We toured several options and settled on Hillwood College, a girls school with a principal, Mrs. Perera, who was excited to work with us on developing a plan that would work for me.
Together we all decided that since I was going to be in an environment where the language would be an issue, that they should put me in a situation where the challenge of the work itself would not get in the way. Therefore, although at home I would have been in fifth grade, the plan was for me to begin with the third grade class and eventually work my way up to my contemporaries as my language skills increased. She handed us a list of approved tailors and we went into town to get fitted for my uniform. Almost all school children in Sri Lanka wear uniforms and early morning and early afternoon the streets are filled with large numbers of similarly dressed students heading to class. Most uniforms are white. This is perhaps not the ideal color choice for kids who play hard, but it is the perfect shade for a tropical climate. Usually boys wear short-sleeved shirts and shorts and girls wear dresses although sometimes skirts are worn as well.
My uniform was a simple short-sleeved white dress with a squared neck. A single pocket was on the left-hand side of the breast and the bottom was pleated. We went to a tailor in downtown Kandy and handed him the list of requirements for the uniform that had been given to us by the principal. It included the precise size of the pocket and the size and angle of its triangular shaped bottom. The list specified the number of pleats and the length of the skirt relative to the knees. The tailor was familiar with the specifications and as he measured me he told us where we could purchase the correct socks, shoes and hair ribbons that were required. We had a list of hair accessories that were acceptable which included black bobby pins, elastics and barrettes and white ribbons (of a very specific width). Because my hair was not black like the other girls in the school, we chose barrettes and elastics that blended with my hair. Several weeks later I was pulled aside after school and told to wear only approved barrette colors. I explained that I assumed the spirit of the regulation was to have the hair ties and barrettes blend invisibly into the hairstyle. The teacher however indicated that the intent was not the point and that everyone regardless of hair or skin color had to follow the same rules.
Three days later my uniforms were ready. I woke early on my first day. The night before I had laid out my dress, two white ribbons, socks and shoes on my desk so that they resembled a deflated school girl. I dressed and came down to breakfast where everybody made quite a fuss. Joseph had packed me a lunch and gave me a hug and my parents continued our first day of school tradition by taking my photograph outside with my books. “Subha davasak Akka,” said Wilson or have a good day, Akka. Most shopkeepers, waiters and strangers called me Baba which was a term used for little children. But at our house I was the older sister, so Janelle was the Baba. Akka or older sister was my nickname. Some in my family still use it.
Luckily a girl only two houses down the road also went to Hillwood College and was also in the third grade. Her family I heard were Burghers, a group of Sri Lankans who were descended from Portuguese, British or Dutch colonists. Raquel had wide eyes and cocoa-shaded skin. Her family spoke English at home but they were also fluent in Sinhala. I was lucky to have her as a friend and she promised my parents she would take care of me at school as we got in the van to head to my first day. We arrived at the same time as many other Hillwood students and I joined the long line of girls in white dresses walking down the steps towards my classroom. My classroom stood alone with windows on two sides with a small covered porch on the front. Unlike my elementary school at home, the class opened onto a courtyard. Other classrooms could only be accessed by going outside. Three girls stood on the porch and whispered to each other as I walked up the steps to my class with Raquel. Apparently everyone knew an American girl was joining their ranks. Other students peeked at me through the windows. Raquel showed me to an empty desk and soon the entire class was crowded around me asking me my name, where I was from, how old I was… As a woman in a green and gold sari started up the stairs all the girls quickly took spots behind their desks and folded their hands in front of them. I scrambled to my feet and did the same. “Good Morning Mrs. Dissanayake.” They all chanted in unison and then sat together with me a beat behind them. The teacher stood behind her desk and spoke to the class. There didn’t seem to be any pauses between words – it was all very fast. I could not understand anything she was saying, but I thought I heard the syllables of my name. I must have been correct as the class chorused, “Welcome Johanna.”
The teacher spoke again and gestured up with her hand and all of the students rose and started for the door. I followed and as soon as we got to the porch two girls had linked arms with me and were leading me down the stairs. They were smiling. As one of them touched my hair they both giggled. Students from other classes were exiting their classrooms and converging on the path. When we got to a fork in the path some were turning right and some left. I went right with my classmates, but Raquel ran up and stopped us. She fired off something to them and the girls responded and began pulling me left once again. “Eyaa Buddhist namae,” Raquel said as she took my hand “Eyaa Christian. We go this way.” I wasn’t certain what was going on, but it turned out that Hillwood began each day with short religious services. Although the school for girls was founded by two Church of England missionaries, it was a very inclusive community and there were services for a number of religions. I’m fuzzy on the exact number that were in my class but my guess would be about 15-18. Two of the students were Muslims and the rest were split about evenly between Buddhists and Christians. Raquel and I joined a line of other students in white dresses and entered the chapel, a lovely building with arched windows that reminded me of the chapel turned library at the college where my father taught in Geneva.
The girls arrange themselves in rows by class with youngest students in the front and oldest girls in the back. Raquel handed me a prayer book which was in English and Sinhala. Services were conducted in English every day except for Friday when they were in Sinhalese. The service was not long, and consisted of a song or two and the Lord’s prayer. The hymn that first day was Morning has Broken. I had always liked the song, but wondered why they were singing songs from the radio in church. I liked Cat Stevens and as I joined in the chorus I thought to myself I had picked a very hip school. Only much later did I discover that the song was first a hymn and later a billboard hit. Looking back at my report card it is no wonder I received a 40 as my first term grade in Christianity.
School made me exhausted for the first few weeks as concentrating in another language is taxing. But, my classmates and teachers were wonderful and soon I felt very comfortable there. The culture in school was much more regimented and formal than at home. We always stood when our teacher entered and there our work was expected to be neat and organized. I would often copy over my Sinhala lessons when I got home to make sure that my letters were perfectly rounded and symmetrical. Mrs. Dissanayake taught all subjects except for English. For that subject a short, round-faced grey-haired teacher was our instructor. After several weeks we had our first exam including a written and oral evaluation. One at a time we were called to the porch to read from an English children’s book. To my surprise I did not receive a perfect score. I was faulted for the way I pronounced certain words. Hillwood used the British system of instruction and we were expected to pronounce words as the British would. From then on I spoke in English class with a Sinhalese accent to ensure that I was consistent with the teacher. I also learned that day that when “the” precedes a word beginning with a vowel that it is pronounced with a hard “e” as in tree.
Our lessons covered a broad range of subjects. We learned the history of the school and our role as students in the community.
We spent a lot of time learning about Sri Lanka and its history. History included everything from the evolution of sanitation and communication to the various invasions from foreign powers to the introduction of terracing of rice paddies.
We focused much effort on the four main religions in Sri Lanka including the varied customs, dress and places of worship associated with Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.
Sadly, although I can still read my notes, I no longer understand what the words I am reading mean. But, my notebooks are filled with many hand-drawn pictures, and coupled with my memory I know that we spent a lot more time at Hillwood learning about culture and customs than we ever did in my school in the United States. In science we studied the monsoons and the water cycles and how they influenced farming and the life cycles of plants and animals.
Although lessons were more regimented, free time was less structured than at home. At lunch time we were left alone. We could decide to eat inside or out, and were free during recess to visit and play with children of any age. Joseph packed my lunch each day which began as sandwiches of various types. But, the rice and curry that most girls brought filled the room with such amazing aromas, I soon asked for him to pack me a more typical Sri Lankan meal. As the months went on he challenged me with spicier and spicier offerings. After lunch, we had recess on the dirt courtyard right in front of my classroom. The older girls often played a version of hide and seek. Like in the version I was familiar with, one person counted while the others hid. There was a home base and people needed to sneak back to that home base without being seen rather than tagged. The goal was to shout the person’s name and say “I see you” before the individual reached home base. I found the game so difficult. Others would see a hem of a dress and yell the name of their friend. But, everybody had the same outfit with the same hair-styles. It was difficult to quickly conjure up the names of people I hardly knew from the older classes. After a month, Principal Perera gave me the opportunity to get to know the older girls better.
One of the upper class girls brought a note to Mrs. Dissanayake who excused me from class. I was escorted to the principal’s office where we chatted about how things were going. She complimented me on the improvement in my language skills and said my teacher had said I was ready to join my contemporaries in fifth grade. I would be sad to leave the friends I had made in third grade I explained, and wondered if I could remain where I was. She did not object and for that reason I stayed in third grade. When I returned to the U.S. I entered sixth grade and so I skipped fifth grade all together. In addition to the traditional subjects, we also studied Kandyan dance at Hillwood. We learned some of the traditional moves as well as their symbolic meanings. Unfortunately, the core subjects always took precedence over dance, and it was often cancelled for tests and extended lessons.
While I was learning Sinhalese Janelle was learning too. In mid-October, she pointed to a page in her favorite book, Barnyard Friends and said her first word, duck. Her second word was bala, the Sinhalese word for dog. Luckily she was also learning to walk. Floors in the country seemed to come in three colors; black, red or brown. Each floor was covered with the associated colored wax polish. Janelle was therefore constantly covered in either black, red or brown. Her knees and hands were always dyed to match the house we were visiting, and the color often made its way to her face as well. My mother was relieved when only the bottoms of her feet rather than her entire body were stained. And, Janelle’s feet were always dirty. She really never wore shoes as she had very few occasions when bare feet were not appropriate. When our time in Sri Lanka came to an end, my parents thought it was time for then two year old Janelle to get used to wearing something on her feet. Being barefoot in snowy central New York was not an option. When they finally wrangled her enough to put on the shoes, she toddled around like she was just learning to walk all over again.