The Class of 2006

6 Dec

I strolled onto the campus Friday morning filled with pride. All the preparations were done; the monk would come at 3:00 pm and we would have a ceremony that the graduates would remember forever and that would be so awesome the school would simply have to do it every December from now on.

Then Samantha came up to me and asked, “What’s going on at three o’clock today? Mr. Abeygunawardana just told us about some function and that a monk was coming here?”

“Graduation, of course. You mean he didn’t tell you before?”

“No. He didn’t tell anybody. He just told all of us about it this morning.”

I was dumbstruck. I had been assured by Mr. Abeygunwaradana that the teachers had known about graduation all along; after all, many of them had seen the certificates and gowns. What did they think it was for, my own staging of King Lear behind the girls’ dormitory?

A few more sympathetic teachers approached me later and said they probably could not make it due to the principal’s short notice but they would try. The feeling I got from the rest was that none of them would be able to attend. What is a graduation ceremony without teachers? I thought.

Then I recollected myself and reminded myself it was for the students, not for the teachers. Also, less teachers meant less chairs that we would have to move from upstairs into the main room.

Throughout the school day, I kept reminding the Grade 7, 8, 9, and 10 boys and girls that as soon as they finished their Sinhala and Buddhism exams, they had to help move the chairs downstairs and set up the room for graduation. Then, and only then, could they take the rest of the day off.

But when they finished their exams, they did neither. They all assembled around the Grade 11 students who were graduating, and started saying good-bye. Two students had borrowed their parents’ cell phones and were taking pictures of everybody else with it. I joined in the moment, taking many pictures of them. As usual, the students reminded me that I must not forget to print them out by tomorrow morning at the latest, and I told them I would do it within a few weeks.

However, it was getting a little late, past 12:30, so I told a few boys who were sitting around, bored, to start moving the chairs downstairs.

“What for?” Jeewatha and Sameera both asked.

“Graduation!” I said.

“What about graduation?”

“Three o’clock today! I’ve been telling you every day this week! Graduation! Grade 11! They! Go! Bye-Bye! Event! Gown! Sad! Finish! School! Monk! Come! Three o’clock!”

They continued sitting there, not quite understanding the tall order I was asking of them.

Finally, I took a chair and carried it downstairs. This action worked, because everybody immediately noticed the white American teacher performing actual physical labor–a big no-no–and sprang into action.

Jeewatha took a broom and started sweeping the floor, and almost all the kids took two chairs each and carried it downstairs. I began grabbing the black plastic teachers’ chairs from the primary classrooms, and Gayan ran up to me, saying, “No! Don’t work, we’ll do it. Sit down over there.”

I still wasn’t too trusting of them to finish the job, so I kept moving the chairs. Udaya, a Grade 11 boy who had installed himself as site boss, berated the younger boys, “Look! Adam is carrying a chair! A TEACHER! You lazy bums! Finish your jobs! Move those chairs!”

Within thirty minutes, the main room was done, and everyone went to play at the pavilion. The mothers (no fathers came to the graduation ceremony) started arriving at around 1:30.

Sanjeewani came up to me a few minutes after her mother arrived and said, “We have to leave at 2:30. I can’t go to the ceremony. Talk to my mother, please!”

I approached her mother and asked her to please stay until at least 4:00.

“No. We have to catch the bus at 3:00. Mr. Abeygunawardana told us the ceremony was 2:00.” I knew this was not true because I was in the room with the parents two weeks earlier when the principal clearly said 3:00.

“Please stay. Your daughter will be wearing a beautiful gown, and she will get a gift and a certificate, and she will give a speech. She has been here for years, what’s another hour?” She was unmoved. “A monk comes here at 3:00 to give blessings; won’t you stay so he can bless your daughter? Please?”

She refused, and Sanjeewani started sulking in the corner.

“Please?” I asked one more time.

“Okay. But we must leave at 3:30,” she said.

“Thank you very much,” I said, and went up to Sanjeewani to tell her that she could make it after all.

“But it probably won’t be finished at 3:30,” she said.

“Don’t worry; you’ll make your speech first before the other graduates, and then you can leave.”

She appeared mollified by this. With the family dispute resolved, my thoughts turned to another matter. The principal was not here at the school and it was almost 2:30. Where the hell was he? Would he miss his own school’s graduation ceremony? Was it that unimportant to him?

As if to reinforce this point, Kumara, a Grade 6 boy, came up to me and said, “What’s the chairs that we moved downstairs for?”

“Graduation. Remember, I told you many times?” I responded.

“Oh, yeah. But why? We already gave our gifts to them this morning,” he said.

“I told you to wait until 3:00 to give them the gifts at the ceremony!”

“Oh. But why?”

The uninformed teachers. The absent principal. The uncaring mother. The preoccupied students. At this moment, I decided that I had been going about all this wrong. No one cared about graduation. Despite it being celebrated at other schools and universities, graduation was obviously a completely foreign concept to the Rohana community, like trying to teach the Eucharist to Buddhists monks. Why couldn’t I have left well enough alone and respected their cultural norms?

Then Mr. Abeygunawardana came riding on his bicycle, saying that he had a meeting that went on longer than expected, and asked if all was ready for 3:00? A few minutes later, two other teachers came walking through the school gates, ready to watch the ceremony.

Then Iresha, a Grade 9 girl, said, “Isn’t it almost time for the ceremony? What should we do now?”

Maybe there was still hope. It was now 2:45, so I told the eight Grade 11 students to come to the library to put on their gowns. And as soon as I saw them giggling when they looked at each other wearing the funny costumes, I was reminded why I had done this in the first place: to recognize and celebrate the graduates.

From left to right: Ishara, Lakmal, Sanjeewani, Chintha, Roshani, Chintha, Pasindu, and Udaya. They loved their outfits and some of the other kids started looking into the library, wondering where we had all disappeared to.

I told the eight graduates to come outside for photographs. The boys came out first, showing off their maroon gowns.

However, the girls were mortified to be seen wearing these gowns. “It’s like we’re at university!” Chintha squealed. With the exception of Ishara, they came out huddling together, trying to hide from everybody else who were watching from the central courtyard.

Many photographs were taken, including one of all the students who happened to be present and not sleeping (a few boys stumbled out of the dormitory after the photo shoot, wondering what they had missed).

The mothers were all seated in the pavilion, watching the commotion at the playground, so after I had taken the photos, I told each graduate to come grab their mother for a family picture. The one exception was Ishara, whose mother unfortunately couldn’t make it because she was sick and her home is twice as far away as everybody else’s.

Sanjeewani, when it was her turn, came up to her mother, said, “Okay, we’re done fighting, right? Let’s take the picture,” and her mother smiled and walked with her to stand in front of my camera. Peace in our time!

Finally, it was time, and I told everybody, including Mr. Abeygunawardana, to come sit down in the main room. Then the monk came, and suddenly the boys went wild.

“The monk is here! The monk is here! Go get flowers! Candles! Incense! Where’s the white sheet for his chair!” they all screamed.

I realized I had not taken the time to think about how to properly welcome the monk. Everyone stood up in the room for ten tense minutes while we waited for the flowers to be collected, the incense lit, and the tray with a cream soda bottle and glass prepared, and all offered to the monk before the ceremony could begin. I kept imagining next Tuesday’s meeting with Mr. Abeygunawardana, being scolded for neglecting such time-honored and sacred rituals.

After this offering had been made (the monk revealed no emotion during all this), I welcomed everybody to the ceremony, especially thanking the parents who had traveled far just for this moment. Then the monk spoke for about ten minutes, with the former principal’s wife/teacher interpreting to the graduates and me copy-interpreting back to everybody else. It was more of a prayer than a speech because everyone had their hands clasped together, and the monk repeatedly asked for blessings to be given to the students to do well on their O/L exams and to support them in their quest for a good life.

Then Mr. Abeygunawardana spoke to the audience. First, he spoke in Sinhala, then he repeated it all in sign language. If you have met Mr. Abeygunawardana, you will know that he likes to talk. And talk.

It was already past 3:30, and I kept looking to Sanjeewani. She had a pained expression on her face, probably imagining her mother yelling at her later for making them late for the bus. I kept whispering to her, “I’m so sorry, so sorry!”

By the way, the principal’s speech was really nice, and he validated all my hard work by saying it was so important to recognize these eight graduates who were wearing beautiful maroon gowns and how they had grown up at the school and would be very missed. It was very good for me to hear that from him.

Then it was time for the eight valedictorians’ speeches. Sanjeewani went first.

When she was done, she bowed down to her mother, who had tears in her eyes. I was thrilled that she could be convinced to stay to watch this ceremony and be proud of her daughter.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to see any of the graduates’ speeches because I was too busy taking pictures and giving the diplomas and gifts to either the principal, the monk, or a teacher (we kept changing the procedure as we went along) to officially give to the graduate. Still, I’m sure they were great although a few clearly came down with stage fright and forgot what they were planning to say.

However, Sanjeewani, after a couple others had given their speeches, approached the principal to bow to him and say good-bye. Instead of touching Sanjeewani’s head, he turned to her mother, saying, “No. Please stay a little while longer.” And of course, you can’t argue with the principal, so her mother stayed put in her chair, and Sanjeewani walked back to her seat with a huge grin on her face.

Chamali and Lakmal:

And Ishara receiving her diploma and gift from Samantha (the shorter one), another teacher, and Principal Abeygunawardana:

After all eight had made their speeches, the former principal’s wife/teacher then gave a short speech, and I also gave one talking about how deaf people could do whatever they wanted or something like that; I really don’t remember. And then it was all over and I could scarcely believe it. A few graduates had wet eyes as they hugged other students good-bye and bowed down to teachers and matrons.

I told them to put their gowns back in the library (so future classes could wear them for their graduations), and they picked up from the principal’s office a new savings account book with an initial deposit of 500 rupees (USD $5.00) each.

And all too quickly, pairs of mother and child, with luggage in tow (many could fit their worldly possessions in a small duffel bag), walked out through the school gates. I want to type here poignantly “out of the gates for the last time” but they all actually come back 11 December to take a van to Colombo to take the O/L exams so I will see them again and give them prints of their graduation photos.

But it doesn’t make this good-bye any easier for me. Because I’ve gotten to know all of them as real human beings with minds and hearts, it’s scary to know that possibly only a few of them may triumph and many of them may not. In my eyes, they deserve every last chance they get and more.

This is my first graduation as a teacher; how do people who have worked in this field for decades deal with the constant uncertainty surrounding their students’ futures? Do they get used to it, much like funeral directors supposedly get used to death?

Pasindu was the last residential student to leave, and the most father-like figure to all the other boys, so we all followed him to the bus stop down the street for one last goodbye to the graduating class. Before he boarded the bus, he told me to please tell all the other volunteers at the school, Nerissa, David, and Sammi that he will never, ever forget them. That’s him in the middle, between the needlework teacher and Prasad:

In a community of about than 100 students, Chamali, Chintha, Ishara, Lakmal, Pasindu, Roshani, Sanjeewani, and Udaya have been the pack leaders. They walked away from the school feeling acknowledged, honored, and proud–but most of all, with the knowledge that, in a country indifferent to their struggles, they are valued, loved, and will be missed. That’s all I wanted to accomplish.

Congratulations to the Class of 2006!

7 Responses to “The Class of 2006”

  1. amanda 06. Dec, 2006 at 8:48 am #

    how wonderfully written! loved the photos ! :-)

    re: teachers saying farewell tos tudents.. im not sure theyre supposed to get used to it :) ive heard many a veteran teacher remark on the overwhelming emotions on graduation. :)

    question: when you talked, did you use SSL?

    miss y amillions!

  2. sophie 06. Dec, 2006 at 1:30 pm #

    Fantastic!!!!

    Great photos, made me laugh about Udaya shouting at the others!!
    I hope i see those students again, is there any talk about job training for them after the exams?
    Soph x x

  3. jeremy 07. Dec, 2006 at 8:17 am #

    dang, adam! i got teary-eyed as i visualize the successful graduation ceremony. i’m confident all the other students feel the same as pasindu, recognizing the volunteers’ support through their education and lives.

    congratulations to the class of 2006!!

  4. anne 07. Dec, 2006 at 1:02 pm #

    Golly Adam – it made me breathless reading about all your rushing about preparing for the graduation – striving to achieve all that efficiency in that oh-so-different culture. Heart aching! CONGRATULATIONS to you as well as the students. You made it really special for them. You’re right, it’s a moment of mixed emotion when students leave. But what a joy when they turn up years later, proudly showing off their families, or when you bump into them on the bus and they say ‘remember me?’ I’ve had the experience of actually WORKING WITH two of my former students! They are now colleagues, and boy am I proud of them. Of course it’s tough for the students at Rohana and they don’t ( at present) have the certificates or qualifications we’d like them to have. BUT they have had a supportive environment, the Rohana family, and have experienced warmth and friendship which will stand them in good stead. And, Adam, they’ve had the example of this deaf American guy, who loved them, and worked for them, and moved mountains to get things done for them. God bless them, and you too. xxx

  5. Sacha 07. Dec, 2006 at 5:12 pm #

    what a story, adam… you’re offering us a fine example of what making a difference in others’ lives mean. i envy you, really. congratulations!

  6. gabe 12. Jan, 2007 at 2:15 pm #

    just stumbled upon your blog recently…

    glad to see that those students are very lucky to have you as their teacher on their last year. i’m certain that in the long run, you’ll cherish this moment as much as these graduates will.

    now, susie and i are hoping to volunteer abroad sometimes this fall somewhere in vietnam/cambodia/africa.

    stay enlighten!

  7. Shureha 03. Apr, 2007 at 3:13 pm #

    Hey! are you guys tamil or sinhalse? cuz the story is sooo goooooood!!!