The Sinhalese of Reason, Revisited

1 Jun

(This is an update to The Sinhalese of Reason post, March 2007.)

I didn’t notice Kasun’s absence right away on the first day I came back to the school (it was their Buddhist day prior to Wesak), and I don’t think I made note of it until the next day. I even forgot his name sign, so when I tried to ask questions about him to the other boys, I called him “that boy from just beyond Devinuwara town that I brought here to school.”

Fortunately, Rohana’s pupils, due to their small number, remembers clearly every new person to arrive on campus, and the boys quickly supplied me with Kasun’s name sign, and said that they hadn’t seen him in months.

So I followed up with Damayanthi, who was promoted to head matron sometime during the past year. She is doing a fine job at it, too, and promotes sign language fluency as one of her goals–she just explained to me yesterday that every Saturday and Sunday morning, she and some of the older girls teach signs from the national sign language dictionary to the younger children. And now during daily evening prayers, someone is randomly chosen to lead the rest of the children in signing Buddha’s blessings.

In any case, Damayanthi explained that she hadn’t seen Kasun since last October, his mother’s phone number no longer worked, and there were no responses to the school’s written inquiries.

When school sort of, but not really, started again after the Wesak holidays, I talked with Mr. Abeygunawardana about the boy. He directed Udari, his secretary, to open the safe and show me nine envelopes, each containing a 1,000-rupee note and individually labeled for the school months between last November and this June. Heather, Kasun’s sponsor, had provided this transportation money to pay for his daily van ride to and from home. When Kasun stopped coming, the school stopped paying the driver.

I told him I’d pay Kasun’s family a visit in Gandara, and asked if I could take Damayanthi along to speak with them. He said that was fine, so last Thursday, we left with Ajith, the same three-wheeler driver I always use for my Kasun visits because he knows where the village is.

In the week and half between my talk with Mr. Abeygunawardana and the visit, I thought a lot about what could be done. Perhaps there was a simple misunderstanding, a clerical error that could be cleared up quickly.

But I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. It was challenging to even get him admitted to the school in the first place and solve the transportation issues. And then the school wasn’t equipped to deal with his needs–at thirteen years of age, he had no language and depended on maybe a dozen rudimentary gestures to communicate. He was placed in the Year One class with a teacher who didn’t seem to have a clue about language development. I spent a hour with him almost every day trying to teach him signs–rock, tree, grass, yellow, blue, red, good morning. When I wasn’t busy being his Miracle Worker, he would get into tussles with other boys far younger than him. An attempt to have him try one night in the hostel ended up with an escape from school grounds and his nighttime appearance back home in Gandara; he’d ridden the public bus all the way back.

Still, he seemed to be improving; his vocabulary grew although he would still imitate people or communicate whatever was expected of him; for example, a “good morning” when I arrived at school. I believed that if he could just stay at the school long enough until the language light bulb went off in his head and he started understanding sign language, things would be fine.

But instead, there I was, on a gray and cool Thursday morning, in a green three-wheeler with Damayanthi and Ajith, trying to collect a boy who hadn’t been to Rohana for more than half a year. I figured he had probably returned to his village school (no doubt, the principal, who didn’t want him to go to Rohana in the first place, would be amused). Damayanthi would talk with the family, then perhaps we’d visit his school and decide if he should go back to Rohana or if we should somehow try to provide his village school with some resources for him.

Instead, when we chugged up to the path to Kasun’s house, he suddenly bounced into my view, his eyes beaming in recognition of Ajith’s three-wheeler and me. A few inches taller and sprouting the beginnings of a mustache, he moved in full technicolor animation, excitedly trying to explain something crucial even before I stepped off the three-wheeler.

I wasn’t sure but it looked like he was saying, “Water, water, far away! Water!” He hopped onto the fiberglass boat nearby–thousands of these boats were donated in the Matara area following the tsunami and they can appear in the most unexpected of places, often kilometers away from the ocean like this one which Kasun was in now, making the motions of a fisherman using netting to capture fish.

And on and on he went, miming everything a fisherman does–mending nets, hooking fish, sorting them into boxes–with such clarity that I was convinced he had been working as a fisherman for the past several months. His relatives explained that he hadn’t, but he had been by the beach and docks almost daily, studying the men working there.

Kasun, however, wasn’t using any formal sign language to explain this. Damayanthi and I signed to him, hoping to elicit some sign language in return, but it looked as if he’d forgotten everything he had learned at Rohana. With his family looking on, I tested him on colors–pointing at objects and asking him what color they were. He remembered some of the signs, not all, but used the wrong ones (signing green in response to a white chair, for example), indicating that he just didn’t know that green meant green.

While I videotaped Kasun delving into the art of capturing fish, Damayanthi collected information from the family. Apparently, one day Kasun decided he didn’t want to go to school anymore, and that was it. The family accepted his decision, he never went again, and his new life of hanging around the fishermen began.

He was fifteen years old now, and his mind was totally consumed by the fishing industry. Damayanthi and my repeated questions about Rohana, delivered both in sign and mime, got absolutely no response from Kasun, who instead kept on chattering about fishing.

We sat down in their house and drank some tea while Kasun worked the DVD player and stereo for us, playing an Indian music video.

I asked Damayanthi to ask Kasun’s relatives why he didn’t go back to his old school. After all, education in Sri Lanka is compulsory until eighteen years of age, so he needed to be in a classroom somewhere, anywhere. The family said they couldn’t make Kasun do something he clearly had no interest in doing, and it’d be hard to do so given his dominant personality.

Heather, in an e-mail to me which I read prior to the trip, suggested that maybe a tutor could visit Kasun once or twice a week, or perhaps an arrangement be worked out with his local school. But I saw quickly that there weren’t really any solutions here that would be sustainable for years to come.

And so, that was it–the dream for Kasun’s formal education died in that living room. Finishing our teas, Damayanthi and I shifted tracks and discussed the possibility of his employment. If he’s so interested in fishing, so why not have him train or work as a fisherman now, we asked. I threw in Indika’s name, a very friendly deaf fisherman and Rohana alumnus in nearby Dickwella; perhaps Kasun could train with him?

The family had thought of that, but Kasun’s mother was afraid for him. Sri Lankan Fishermen aren’t known for their agreeable personalities, and she did not want his deaf son out at sea working such a dangerous job. And as an underage employee, he could be caught by the police and sent away.

We were out of options. Damayanthi feebly requested that Kasun’s family find some sort of vocational training for him, but they feared his headstrong personality would land him in trouble anywhere he went, except for the docks.

Throughout Damayanthi’s conversation, Kasun showed off a few items he had purchased with his older brother’s money: a Rastafarian bandana, a spent jar of Black Gold hair gel, a belt printed with the United Kingdom flag, and a small bottle of cologne. He was proud of those objects he bought on his own, and he told me he wanted to own a motorbike next. He twisted his fists like throttling an imaginary motorbike, saying he would go very far away and then come back. Maybe to the docks and back.

How could I tell him he would have to wait at home for a couple more years before he could start working on the boats? He didn’t even understand numbers or that 15 represented his age. So I hovered my palm a few inches above his head, and explained that when he got to be that tall, he could go and work.

I asked Damayanthi to translate to the family that the video footage I took of him would be put on a DVD and mailed to him along with a sign language dictionary I had forgotten to bring to Gandara. And then we left.

And we left. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see him again. I realize you cannot help everybody in the world. But this was a mortal blow to a tenuous illusion that I had created during my fifteen months of teaching–the first nine at Rohana in Sri Lanka and the rest at Fremont in California. I believed that as long as deaf children could find their way to deaf schools, the details would take care of themselves. Kasun, once immersed in a deaf school, would gain language, make friends, and accomplish his dreams.

Children, of course, are not like new saplings that will adapt to any pot you plant them. I knew that, of course, and I knew Kasun’s challenges were considerable. I still hoped for the best, but that didn’t happen here.

The next day, the honorary manager, who had been doing a superb job of terrorizing the school the entire week (the principal was on leave preparing his home for a mirith, a house blessing event with twelve monks that’d begin Friday 9:15pm and last into Saturday afternoon), asked in writing “if my mission was successful.”

I wrote back that the family and the boy were no longer interested in attending the school, and that they would find other arrangements.

“Well, there is nothing more that we can do if the mother is not willing to accept responsibility for his son’s education. Please credit the school for your transportation fees. Is my English good?”

“Yes, quite wonderful,” I wrote back.

“No compliments needed. Thank you.” and then the manager waved me away. And the school continued with its education of one hundred and twenty minus one pupils, Kasun’s short attendance all but forgotten.

I don’t know. I still hope, and I do believe that Kasun will, one day, reach his dreams, whatever they may be.

One Response to “The Sinhalese of Reason, Revisited”

  1. amanda 02. Jun, 2008 at 7:09 am #

    big hugs.

    I believed that as long as deaf children could find their way to deaf schools, the details would take care of themselves. Kasun, once immersed in a deaf school, would gain language, make friends, and accomplish his dreams.

    i think many of us struggle with this illusion. not just with the deaf, but with all children. schools are incredibly important, but so are networks and other means of support. we need a vast network that includes schools, training programs beyond schools, contacts, etcera etcera.