Run-Up to Graduation

6 Dec

“This is new for us,” Mr. Abeygunawardana said slowly, signaling that the school community needed time to understand what graduation is about. We were in another one of our meetings discussing preparations for the graduation ceremony to be held on Friday the first of December.

Rohana’s history with graduation is haphazard; prior to 2005, there was no ceremony to recognize departing students. There was a small ceremony last year where volunteers Jill and Peter equipped graduates with cell phones, but my students didn’t cough up additional details. One thing was for sure: they apparently did not receive diplomas.

When you consider that many graduates have spent all their childhood living at the school, letting them walk out of the school gates without any recognition or a certificate is criminal. In fairness, however, the concept of high school graduation is a little muddled in Sri Lanka.

After Grade 11, the students take the Ordinary Level (O/L) examinations, a grueling nationwide testing program that lasts for one and a half weeks and queries test-takers on all school subjects from Buddhism to agricultural studies and Tamil. So it’s only until after the students take the tests that they are officially “graduated.” And even with that, some can opt to come back to school to study the O/L tests so they can retake them the next year and get higher scores. And if they do, they can also come back to the same school to study for the Advanced Level (A/L) examinations, which is their ticket to university.

So high school graduation in Sri Lanka, because of its not-so-finality, isn’t exactly one of those milestones. But still, Rohana Special School is, in my eyes, a special case, and was deserving of a graduation ceremony because of how the students have lived, studied, played, and grown up together in a residential community with an unique communication environment for so many years.

So it was when I expressed these thoughts to Mr. Abeygunawardana that he appointed me as the school’s Official Graduation Day Planner. To make extra sure that I wasn’t imposing some foreign cultural event on the hapless Sinhalese, I asked Mr. Abeygunawardana last month if universities and other secondary schools had graduation ceremonies, and he responded affirmatively–“but only some of them, not all.”

So I began the preparations right there. Every graduation ceremony must have two things: gowns and certificates. Here’s how I accomplished each:

Gowns
Rohana’s colors are maroon and gold (hey, just like Torrey Pines! Go Falcons!). I dug up some photos of my RIT graduation, loaded them onto my camera, and showed them to the principal.

“See, that is what a graduation gown looks like,” I said.

“But this is not an university. They cannot wear university gowns.”

“But are any of them realistically going to university? This is a special school; let’s make this special,” I retorted.

Later, I saw the fallacy in my argument: a lot of people will not get Ph.Ds–does that mean they should get the chance to wear Ph.D regalia regardless? Still, let’s ignore logic here, okay?

He pondered this for a moment and said, “O.K.” Then he pointed, in the photo, at fellow graduate Amanda and our faculty adviser, Eileen Biser. “Is this your sister and mother?”

After I told him no and showed him for the umpteenth time the other photos of my family, I went to the fabric store and bought 20 yards of semi-shiny maroon fabric. The next day, Chaminda, the new deaf male matron, and I visited four local tailors who all declined to make our gowns (I was showing them the same photo of Amanda, Mrs. Biser, and myself at our graduation).

Then Chaminda had the brilliant idea of asking a teacher, the wife of the former Rohana principal, who lived nearby. She pointed us to a tailor shop behind the deaf association building. We walked there and Chaminda took over right there, detailing the entire outfit while I sat watching everybody speak Sinhala. It would all be done on Wednesday the 29th, the tailor said.

The next day, I went to talk to Mr. Abeygunawardana about something else, and he brought up the graduation gowns. He asked to see the photograph again, and I showed it to him.

After he pondered the photograph for a while, he said, “We cannot make this graduation gown.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because they look like lawyers.” (Sri Lanka’s legal system, similar to the British one, has lawyers dress up like American judges.)

“So?”

“In Sri Lanka, it is against the law to dress up like a lawyer.”

“Oh,” I said, imagining my perfect graduation ceremony burst into flames. Fortunately, Chaminda saw our conversation, and came to my rescue. He suggested adding Mandarian collars and school badges to the gowns, and pointed out they were maroon, not black.

“If you make those changes, then I think it will be okay. But I–not you or the students, but I–may have problems with the authorities,” the principal said.

So Chaminda and I went back to the tailor shop, handed him the school badges, and told him to make the necessary changes. We picked it up on Wednesday evening and they looked wonderful. I showed it off to Mr. Abeygunawardana Thursday morning, but he sat at his desk quietly, contemplating this strange outfit.

“Put it on,” he finally commanded.

I obliged; he then called a few teachers to come into the office. After a few minutes of giggling and tittering to the principal in Sinhala, all at my expense, they left. He told me that the teachers liked it, but thought it was still a little too similar to a lawyer’s gown. He had a few ideas, however, and would let me know in a few hours.

I was napping in the dormitory when one of the matrons woke me up and flashed a small bottle of gold glitter glue in my face.

“For Christmas cards?” I asked. We had gone through a few bottles of that same glitter to make hundreds of Christmas cards two weeks earlier.

“No, for the gowns!” he said. “I’ll write down the name of the school on the gown like Mr. Abeygunawardana asked, and then it’ll look perfect.”

Gold-glittered Sinhalese letters glued on graduation gowns? I thought. But I didn’t care anymore; I just wanted it all to be finished already.

“It’ll be done tomorrow morning,” he said.

On Friday morning, he handed me a bag of eight gowns, all inscribed with the school name in gold glitter. Surprisingly, it looked pretty good. I brought one sample to the principal’s office for him to see. I asked him to please tell me quickly if it was okay; maybe there was still enough time for me to give it back to the nearby tailor for last-minute alterations.

He quietly observed the gown for a while. Then he said again, “Put it on.” So I put it on. He then again called for teachers to come in and look at me. Again, they giggled at me.

“I think we should take a picture of Adam,” one of the teachers said. I motioned to my camera on the principal’s desk and the teacher took it. I picked up one of the diplomas to display for the camera. “Be sure to include President Mahinda Rajapaske’s portrait in the picture,” the principal said.

The teachers walked out of the office, still giggling, while I showed Mr. Abeygunawardana the image on my camera.

“Yes, this works,” he said. “Thank you.”

Certificates
About two weeks before the graduation ceremony, I asked Mr. Abeygunawardana if he had diplomas for the students (this was the same meeting where we discussed the gowns). He said no, and I told him I would make them for the school. In addition, they would be bilingual in both Sinhala and English, with Sinhala on top, of course. He seemed delighted at that idea.

I started working on them the next Saturday back at the hotel. I looked for a Sinhalese font online and found Malthi. After installing it on my laptop. It took me about ten minutes to type three words in Sinhala: Rohana Special School (I was working from an photo I took of the big sign in front of the school).

I then typed in a formal Old English font some fancy language about how the student, upon having satisfactorily completed the studies prescribed by the school administrators, was now hereby awarded this diploma on the first of December. Then I typed up some Sinhalese placeholder gibberish so others could see where the Sinhalese text, once somebody translated it from the English, would go on the diploma.

Amila and Chaminda visited me later that Saturday and I showed them the certificate. They both pointed at the laptop and said, “No! Wrong!”

I thought they were pointing at that gibberish text, so I explained that it was just there until somebody could give me the correct Sinhala translation. Chaminda shook his head and said, “No, no, you spelled the school name wrong.”

I looked at it, wondering what I did wrong. I had, after all, carefully re-typed it from a photograph of the school sign. Maybe the school sign was also misspelt?

“No, the sign is correct.” He pointed at one Sinhala letter. “This incorrect letter, for example, is very similar to the correct one, but there is just a little line that’s supposed to be there, but isn’t there.” I showed him the Malthi character map and he pointed at the correct letter. I replaced the wrong letter with the correct one, and we did this a few more times.

I suppose the closest analogy in English would be the difference between the letter i with a dot and without the dot.

“To be honest, this looks almost exactly the same as it did before,” I said to Chaminda.

“Yes, Sinhala can be very subtle, but this was wrong before and now this is correct.”

I asked him to write down the Sinhala translation for the English text I had written, but he said he thought it was better if the principal could see it first.

A few days later, I brought my laptop to Mr. Abeygunawardana’s office and showed him the diploma, asking him if the English text sounded okay.

He pointed at one English letter and asked if it was a b, h, or v. “I can’t read this. Are you sure this is English?”

“Yes, it’s English.”

“But it does not look like English,” he retorted.

Belatedly, I realized that to the untrained eye, Old English script might as well as be Klingon. I quickly changed the text to Arial.

“Ah!” he exclaimed. “Now I can read this.” Then he started shaking his head. “No, no, I already have some language for you.”

He then pulled out a very official-looking Sinhala diploma with a red seal on it from his files.

A little aghast, I asked why we weren’t using that one.

“Because this is from 2001,” and to stress this, he pointed at where it said “2001.”

“Oh, okay, but you want me to use the same language on this diploma for the new diploma?”

“Yes.”

I motioned to him to give it to me.

“I cannot give this diploma to you because this says 2001. I will have the secretary retype it for you in Word so that it says 2006.”

I said that wasn’t really necessary because I could just change the 1 to a 6, but he insisted, so I gave my USB thumb drive to the secretary. At least I can just copy and paste the Sinhala text without retyping it, I thought.

Before I left the office, he said to me, “In English, this must be called a certificate, not a diploma, because the students have not taken their O/L examinations yet.” I agreed, not in the mood to argue the nuances of academic English.

A few hours later, I picked up the USB thumb drive, inserted it in my laptop, and opened up the new document. It was garbled–apparently I didn’t have the right Sinhala font. After getting the Sandaya font off the secretary’s computer, I saw that I would have to, once again, re-type it in the Malthi font I was using for the diploma–er, certificate.

I did just that, then asked Samantha the deaf teacher to come in and help me translate it into English.

She looked at the Sinhala text first, and just like Chaminda last Saturday, pointed out dozens of mistakes I had made where I mistook one letter for another very similar-looking letter. “Sinhala can be tough, isn’t it?” she asked.

Then she started translating each word into sign language for me to type back into English. The word-for-word translation made no sense to me, so Samantha said, “Wait. Let me sign it all at once, then you type it down, okay?”

We did that, and to confirm the translation, I signed the English text back to her. “Yes, yes, it’s perfect,” she cried.

Chaminda, who knows English very well, came in a few minutes later to look at it and agreed.

The next day, I took the laptop with me to class where I had each one of the eight graduating students tell me his or her name in English and Sinhala. This was tricky because many students did not know how to write their second name (sort of like a middle name) in English, or how to write their family name initials (H.G., M.L.; these are often written in English) in Sinhala. But they were very fascinated with my laptop and how I was typing their names in both languages, so quickly and without too much trouble, I had eight certificates ready to be printed.

Then Pasindu asked, “This laptop? Do you have all the pictures you’ve taken of us on it?”

I said yes–all 1,528 photos and movies.

“Show us!” they all exclaimed, and I ran a slide show for about a dozen students to watch until the laptop battery ran out.

At the Beach Inns where I live, Indika is sort of the manager (his family owns the hotel), my scuba instructor, and my companion when I sit at one of the tables in the evening. He had just hung two large, colorful signs advertising his scuba diving services, so I asked him if he could take me to the print shop where he had those signs made. Perhaps I could print out the certificates on nice paper at the same shop.

He said that print shop didn’t do smaller jobs like that, but he would take me to a different printer. On Tuesday evening, I hopped onto his motorbike and we set off for the printer.

I wasn’t expecting a Kinko’s, but at least a shop with a couple color laser printers and copiers. Instead, I saw a very small, dusty brick-wall shop with two large antique-looking printing presses and a dirty computer in the corner. Where modern buttons and displays should be, I saw levers and pulleys.

“No, this is too much; I just need a little color printer,” I told Indika. “Like an actual computer printer, not a big press.” The man at the print shop, after looking at my certificates on my USB thumb drive, confirmed what I said. He explained that they used templates to run off copies–in other words, a real printing press–and because I had eight certificates, they would have to make eight templates for one copy each, and that was just silly. But he was really nice about it and gave me ten sheets of heavy, stylish paper perfect for printing certificates.

We motored to Nilmini Matara, a private post office that had a new Canon color inkjet, but the owner said we couldn’t use our paper in it. We rode to the Nine Hearts digital photo printing lab thinking we could print out the certificates on matte paper, but the woman there said they were out of matte. So we tried the Fujifilm photo lab, and this time, the man behind the counter said they had matte paper, but couldn’t print from a PDF file for some reason.

So Indika told me, “Well, let’s try my color printer. The black isn’t working too well, but it’s worth a shot.” Back at the hotel, we did just that, but true to his words, the black would fade out halfway through each copy we printed.

The next morning, I asked Amila, who works at the Fine Bit Computers shop, if they had any color printers. He said absolutely, so after school, I went over there. Duminda, the manager, told me that they did have one, but it was old and out of color ink. He called a few shops nearby, but none of them had working color printers.

Does nobody in this entire town have a working color inkjet? I thought. I just want to print out eight certificates!

Then he said, “Why don’t you try the deaf association building? They have a new printer which we just gave them. A very good one, too.”

I thought it was poetic how the tailors who made the gowns happened to be right behind the building; that particular village block was turning out to be very useful for me.

I took a three-wheeler to the deaf association, but the doors were padlocked and there was was a sign in Sinhala. The driver told me it read that the building would be open today at 4:00 pm.

It was already 5:00 pm, but then I spotted somebody taking a shower using a well and a bucket behind the building. It was one of the association members, and luckily he had the keys.

Opening the doors, I ran inside and started up the computer. It didn’t have Acrobat Reader and the internet connection was so slow it’d take two hours to download it. Luckily, I found a pirated copy of Photoshop on the PC, so I used that to print out the eight PDFs on the very nice, very new, and very slow printer. After nearly a hour, I had eight gorgeous full-color graduation certificates ready for the principal’s signature.

On Thursday morning, I showed them to the principal’s secretary and she immediately pointed out a letter where the vowel line was supposed to be straight, not squiggly. “This is the difference between ‘ou’ and ‘oo,'” she admonished.

All my hard work ruined because of a squiggly line! I was ready to burst into tears when she said, “But the principal won’t notice, so go for it.”

I gave them to Mr. Abeygunawardana. He said they looked very nice, and that it was very important to laminate them as soon as possible. The angels in my head praised hallelujah as he put pen to paper. I got them laminated that afternoon and later in the evening, everybody at the Beach Inns remarked at how nice they looked.

Finally, it was time for graduation.

8 Responses to “Run-Up to Graduation”

  1. Elliot 06. Dec, 2006 at 3:00 am #

    It seems that Kinko’s in Silver Spring is modeled after printing shops in Sri Lanka…more good training and experience during your stay with us.

    On a more serious note… I wonder if the need to mark events or demarcate life changes is culturally based? You comment that graduation is sort of fuzzy generally and that at Rohana a ceremony doesn’t seem to be part of the regular schedule. Perhaps the difference lies in a Buddhist understanding of what is important. In Buddhism “Worldy knowledge can never lead to a pure religious life that leads to peace and emancipation.” (see http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/whatbelieve.pdf). With that as an underlying belief, perhaps it is not surprising that celebrating graduation seems a little muddled. In a strictly Buddhist sense, why all the fuss?

  2. Dianne K 06. Dec, 2006 at 6:29 am #

    It is so different there. I enjoyed reading your article. It seems like we take things for granted around here. Bless your heart for being determined to get the gowns and certificates for the graduation.

  3. Bobby 06. Dec, 2006 at 7:02 am #

    Kinkos! Do not speak of Kinkos! Thy name be struck from English forever!

  4. AdamzSis 06. Dec, 2006 at 7:35 am #

    All those rides to different print shops—I was feeling your frustration!

    Elliot’s point:

    I understand the application of Buddhism and how this might play into this whole graduation thing. I could argue that Buddhism is also centered on the path of Enlightenment. It is enlightening for students to be acknowledged for their intellectual and academic accomplishments. This sense of self-awareness is paramount in Buddhist thinking and teaching. Rituals are performed to recognize the cycle of learning—from childhood to adulthood. (In our American culture, that’s clearly by attending graduation or in the Jewish culture, bar mitzvah). So, mebbe the muddy of Rohana graduation may be contributed by Buddhist teachings but I wonder if it’s from the disabled perspective—that it’s more suppressed? Just a thought. Also, this is a British-run school where recognition of excellence and accomplishment is expected somewhere. (There goes the constant influence of colonalism).

    Why all the fuss, but also why not push for that sense of overall well-being by performing a formal ritual to signify the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one? That was clearly Adam’s motive.

    Elliot said:

    It seems that Kinko’s in Silver Spring is modeled after printing shops in Sri Lanka…more good training and experience during your stay with us.
    On a more serious note… I wonder if the need to mark events or demarcate life changes is culturally based? You comment that graduation is sort of fuzzy generally and that at Rohana a ceremony doesn’t seem to be part of the regular schedule. Perhaps the difference lies in a Buddhist understanding of what is important. In Buddhism “Worldy knowledge can never lead to a pure religious life that leads to peace and emancipation.” (see http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/whatbelieve.pdf). With that as an underlying belief, perhaps it is not surprising that celebrating graduation seems a little muddled. In a strictly Buddhist sense, why all the fuss?

  5. AdamzSis 06. Dec, 2006 at 7:36 am #

    All those rides to different print shops—I was feeling your frustration!

    Elliot’s point:

    I understand the application of Buddhism and how this might play into this whole graduation thing. I could argue that Buddhism is also centered on the path of Enlightenment. It is enlightening for students to be acknowledged for their intellectual and academic accomplishments. This sense of self-awareness is paramount in Buddhist thinking and teaching. Rituals are performed to recognize the cycle of learning—from childhood to adulthood. (In our American culture, that’s clearly by attending graduation or in the Jewish culture, bar mitzvah). So, mebbe the muddy of Rohana graduation may be contributed by Buddhist teachings but I wonder if it’s from the disabled perspective—that it’s more suppressed? Just a thought. Also, this is a British-run school where recognition of excellence and accomplishment is expected somewhere. (There goes the constant influence of colonalism).

    Why all the fuss, but also why not push for that sense of overall well-being by performing a formal ritual to signify the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one? That was clearly Adam’s motive.

  6. amanda 06. Dec, 2006 at 8:42 am #

    ah adam, i loved reading about graduation preparations – and awww i loved reading about you using our graduation pic to explain to the principal what you were trying to do. reading this, i was planning to say, hrm maybe the concept of graduation is not quite as important, but then i read the 2nd post… and really — the chance to celebrate not just their hard work, but the years spent together and a real chance to say farewell.

    oh god kinkos….. honestly i am so computer impaired, i could not have even pulled off hte font stuff you did. way to go adam!

  7. sophie 06. Dec, 2006 at 1:20 pm #

    oh my god! I so feel your frustrations of this! Well done for not going crazy! And well done for getting round Mr.A… i think my fave exasperating moment with him was when i complemented him for knowing sign (the last principal in the deaf school i worked at in sri lanka didn’t know ANY sign) and Mr A replied with a fable about the crow who has a piece of cheese in his mouth, and the fox wants it so he tells the bird he has a great singing voice, so the crow would sing and the fox would get his cheese. Now, my retelling of that tale is already long winded; Adam- try to imagine Mr A telling that story!! I was like, i’m not trying to sweet talk you!!!
    If you are making a speech at the ceremony and it hasn’t already passed, please could you give the students a special message from me that i am so so proud of all of them and hope they do really well in English, and tell them wow!
    Well done Adam, absolutely great stuff you’ve done.
    Soph x x

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