|Sunday, 4 December 2005|
Dedicated English teacher
by A. Kandappah
Wilbert Ranasinghe, a teacher in his early 40s at Ketawala Vidyalaya in rural Inguruwatha, Mawathagama is an exceptional man in this largely material society that blindly worships only 'winners' - those who accumulate big bucks - and fast. The means are often overlooked for as the saying goes "success is a great deodorant, It washes away all your past sins".
We are sadly a society where the success of men are measured only by the cold yardstick of accumulation of wealth. But there are amongst us men of greater character and integrity though less poorly endowed with material trappings.
What makes Ranasinghe different from other teachers is his inherent and passionate humanism, his dedication to equip his economically disadvantaged students with a working knowledge of the English language in a background where only Sinhala is spoken. He has taken upon himself the task of teaching English to these children of poor farmers and cultivators - as an instrument for their upward social mobility when they enter the job market.
There are about 200 children in this cramped, underprivileged school located in an almost inaccessible rural setting where students get up at dawn and walk to school in rubber slippers. The timings of the only bus from Mawathagama town to the four kilometre ride to Ketawala is not in line with school opening time and the meagre bus fare, totally out of reach for these children.
The children shyly admit they often have one square meal a day and that too "Parippu" and "Polsambole" and yet their cheerfulness and the radiance of their omnipresent smile betrays their inner dream that one day they will "make it". Though himself not an English graduate or with exceptional competence in the language, what teacher Ranasinghe has accomplished in turning these rural children to enthusiastically read, write and speak English is remarkable.
Ranasinghe arrives in school an hour ahead of opening time and leaves two after closing time to teach them English since the regular syllabus has to be covered during normal school times. That the children have gained better - than - average grasp of English-achieved with minimum tools of education available to them is not only a tribute to the dedication of their teacher but also the reality even in the harshest of conditions there remain in simple children talents within that cry out for opportunities to manifest.
I learnt of this school and teacher Ranasinghe while watching TV some months ago. I got in touch with Ranasinghe and told him I have friends who might be of assistance and enquired how I can help. I was told these children go about in rubber slippers, for they do not have the means to buy shoes.
I spoke to a friend of mine - one on of Sri Lanka 's largest makers of shoes. He kindly consented to donate the 200 pairs of good quality leather shoes.
Other friends gladly gifted chocolates, biscuits and other sweets. I visited the school a few week ago joined by two friends who shared my thoughts to be of assistance to these children. One a well-known medical man identified with public health and the other, a successful Colombo businessman.
Another friend, a former Vice Chancellor and a former Minister of Education, who was keen to join us called it off at the last moment since he contacted a bad bout of influenza.
The Principal K. Wimaladeva, teacher Ranasinghe and the Divisional Director of Education, Mawathagama D. C. Ranasinghe were there to receive us extending typical rural hospitality, with the children singing the national Anthem and the School song unfurling the National flag and the School flag. They were keen we speak to the children in English.
We did and were impressed by the knowledge of English they have acquired conditions of clear handicap. We have no doubt at all, of given the right facilities and opportunity, these children will match the best in the more developed areas. We took along with us a little girl of eight - a winner of the Trinity College English of Speech and a student of a leading International School to interact with these children.
The Ketawala children grilled her in English and one girl asked her in perfect English "What language do you speak with your parents at home?" The Colombo girl replied "Mostly in English" and the Ketawala children giggled - obviously meaning "There you are".
The school had arranged for two girls, aged 11 and 13, to make brief impromptu speeches for us. They did well.
That the children of Ketawala have accomplished much sans the disadvantage of conversing with their parents in English and lacking an enabling environment was quite obvious but, nevertheless, what they have accomplished is encouraging.
If the excellent example set by this simple but dedicated English teacher in far away Ketawala inspires other under-developed areas, there is little doubt, like the children at Ketawala, if given the right opportunities, there can be thousands of children the quality of whose simple lives can change substantially if they secure a working knowledge of English initially, as a key to increasing their chances of a better job or better higher educational opportunities.
Already a leading Rotary Club in Colombo has expressed interest to see in what way they can help these children realize their dream of securing competence in English. I am also confident there are many others keen to assist talented children in under-developed areas to improve their lot.
The Ministry and Department of Education should look into this matter and offer necessary encouragement to the Principal and the English teacher referred to in a focused campaign to improve English at the national level.
Produced by Lake House