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An Interview With The Author On His First Day Back At Rohana Special School

18 May

Q: When you got to Matara Thursday night, did you go visit the school the next morning?

A: Yes. I wasn’t sure at first what time I should visit. I got to thinking I didn’t want to disrupt classes. They don’t get out until 1:30. I imagined this scenario where the children would come pouring out of their classrooms in mid-instruction, running across the yard to greet me. At the same time, I did want to see Mr. A and the teachers before they left for the weekend. Another problem was the Wesak holidays on Monday and Tuesday, so school wouldn’t be back in session until after that. I decided to arrive at tea break at 10:30. That way, I could see the children for twenty minutes, then go talk with the principal and observe the school for the next three hours.

Q: So what happened when you arrived?

A: Nishantha, my favorite three-wheeler driver, picked me up and we got to very near the school, just on the other side of the road to Walgama, at around 10:20. I told him to pull over and wait until 10:30. I was actually so scared, excited, happy, nervous at this point that I needed a few minutes to pull myself together. The thing was that, I also brought my camcorder with me and wanted to capture the children’s first reactions on tape. And to do this, I needed to wait just a few moments after 10:30 so the children have had time to walk from the classrooms to the dining halls for tea. And the three-wheeler usually parks in front of the dining halls. I imagined this perfect set-up where I’d get some great footage. Was it manipulative of me to do that? Looking back, I feel a little bad about trying to control the situation and stuff.

Q: And did it work out that way?

A: Not exactly. Nishantha drove into the school. It looked gorgeous from the gate–the trees were trimmed and there was a new building to my right. There were Buddhist flags flying around above the road. But there was nobody. My camcorder was rolling and we parked in front of the dining hall. But there was absolutely nobody around. I stop filming. I saw a few strangers sitting in the pavilion, probably some parents or something. I stepped out and then the new Deputy Principal, Aruna, walked by. He went “hi” and then kept walking towards the main building. I’m like, hello? Your favorite Deaf American just came back after a year on the other side of the world, flew all the way here and all you can say is hi? But you know what? I’m like, whatever, where are the kids? I looked at the second-floor windows but saw no kids milling around.

Q: And where were they?

A: I started to notice a lot of activity in front of the main hall on the first floor. So I walk up there, and then, oh. I see them all sitting on the floor, dressed in white clothes, listening to one of the teachers explaining something. Today’s Buddhist Day! You know, that day, usually a few days before Wesak, where all the kids dress up in white clothes, learn all about Buddha, go to the temple, pray, things like that. Ginette and I got to dress up in white clothes for that last year, it was fun. No wonder, that’s where all the kids are, in an all-day Buddhist class. The Buddhist teacher is signing in her usual stilted way. The boys are sitting up against the long wall opposite of the windows I’m looking through, so they can see me, and they all just started smiling brightly. They didn’t do aything else–they’re in the middle of the all-important Buddhist class, of course–but their faces are just lit up ever so slightly, almost in a sly way, as if they can read my mind, they know I’m happy to see them and they’re feeling the same way but we just can’t do anything about it yet, it’s like we could read each other’s minds for a brief moment. I put my finger to my mouth to say “shh” then point to the teacher as if to say, pay attention to the teacher and we’ll catch up later. The girls were sitting on the same wall as the windows I’m looking through, so I couldn’t see their faces, and I walk away, thinking maybe I should go see Mr. A then.

Q: What about the teachers?

A: Oh, yeah, all the teachers were walking around at that time, and they’re all going “hi” but hurrying to their next task. I remember it’s a busy day for them. They’re preparing food and incense and whatever and making sure everything goes smoothly. I don’t know, I thought they’d be more interested in seeing me but guess not, which is totally okay.

Q: And did you see the principal?

A: Well, I was walking towards the office, looking at my camera strapped to my hand, trying to turn it off, and then I look up and see Milan, Ishara, and Dimuthu blocking my way, feeling me with their eyes, those same sly smiles on their faces. It’s like they’re saying, “Cool, you’re back.” Nothing more than that. I hug each one of them awkwardly, camera still stuck to my hand, which messes up whatever first words I’m trying to say in Sri Lankan Sign Language. We go over whether I remember their name signs (and I do). It’s all very strange to see them again, they’re looking exactly the same as the day I left, hell, everything looks the same, and I’m thinking, is it 11 months or 11 days that I’ve been gone? I’m especially surprised to see Milan because he left school in March ’07 and never came back, so i ask him what he’s doing back. He said he wanted to go work instead of going to school, but guess what, no one would hire him because he hadn’t finished school yet, so back to school he went. So there, I tell him, I was sad that he left because he was one of my favorite students, so he better stay right through Year 11. I ask them who else left school other than those who graduated last December–Ruwan left after maxing out at age 21, Shans Ahamed left too to take over his late father’s hardware shop, Priyankara dropped out to go find a job like he always said he would.

Q: Why weren’t the three boys in the Buddhist class?

A: They were helping the teachers with stuff, I don’t know. Anyway, then Amila comes up behind me, and I walk over to hug him, again, it’s awkward and I remember Sri Lanka is not exactly a hugging country, I can’t just hug like I would hug American Deaf. It’s so wonderful to see him. I’m not sure if I talked about him that much on my blog but he really was one of my closest Sri Lankan friends last year. All four of them ask me what my plans are. I tell them I’m here for just four weeks, that I’ve been a sub teacher at a deaf school for the past several months and now going off to university for two years so I can be a real teacher which is why I can only be here for a month because classes begin in mid-June. And they’re all wagging their heads in understanding. I see Udari, the school secretary, walking by, and I ask her if I can go see Mr. A. She says no, he’s on a really important phone call. I’m not sure what to do next; I’d love to keep talking but I’m already out of things to say and feeling too self-conscious about my sign language, and it’s good timing because the three boys have to go help set the oil lamps or something, so Amila and I go see Damayanthi, the head matron (who was promoted after Mr. Peiris left last December).

Q: This blog is getting a little long. What time are you at now?

A: This is just the first thirty minutes! I stayed at school the rest of the day until like 6:00p. I’ll go faster. So Damayanthi and I talk for maybe a half-hour, catching up. Then Amila joins in and we discuss the dictionary snafu (more on that later), then I ask Amila to show me around the school so we look at the younger boys’ hostel; some sheets are torn and I’m thinking we should probably get all new sheets for the hostels; they’ve been used daily for a few years now. New project! Then we look at the dining halls and the sick room where Kavindi is sleeping, apparently she’s not feeling well. Then we go back upstairs to the older boys’ hostel to look around, I see a couple of broken windows, and then the older boys start coming in, it’s breaktime and I’m like oh hello!! And they all show the same reaction, they’re not jumping up and down or whatever, it’s like, “cool, you’re back, whatcha up to now?” and I tell them the same story about why I’m here for four weeks and ask what’s up with them. But it’s only for a few minutes because then the boys go back and the teachers find me and say that Mr. A wants me to go film the monk who’s about to arrive for blessings, so after wondering how Mr. A knows that I have a camcorder (or maybe he’s thinking I have my digital camera which can also do movies) and I am happy to feel all useful again and sit in the main hall, filming the monk. And then I notice there’s no interpreter, and the monk is just mumbling, the fan going back and forth in front of his lips. I look behind me at the teachers and go, come on, can’t anyone interpret, and one of them goes up and starts interpreting, and she’s doing a terrible job of it but better than nothing. And here’s a picture:

Of course, the teachers expect me to film the ENTIRE speech by the monk, and I know nobody wants to see that, so I capture a few minutes of it and then go outside to maybe see Mr. A., but Udari says he left already or something. And then Milan insists that I eat now but it’s not lunchtime yet so I protest and say I’ll eat with the kids later and he says, no, they already ate. Right, it’s Buddhist Day, so I go and eat with Amila and the three boys watching me. It’s so good. About halfway through my lunch, a commotion occurs right behind me; it’s Kavindi (who was in the sick room earlier) and she was being helped by two teachers to the toilets on the other end of the dining room but she collapses, crying, she’s in pain, and I go and see what the hell’s going on. She isn’t talking, she’s just crying out of sickness and pain, and the teachers take her back to the sick room to lie down. And I remember Kavindi would often be ill during class last year because she didn’t have anything to eat for breakfast, and this is still the case? Amila says her parents have money for food but they don’t feed her because she’s deaf. I don’t find this hard to believe but also wonder if she doesn’t have another medical condition, I’ll try to follow up on her.

So that was the end of my lunch, I wasn’t hungry anymore, so I go wash off my plate near the girls’ eating hall and the girls are all there already, the monk is finished, and we stand there, I’m remembering their name signs pretty well except for a couple, and I meet a few new students who have no clue who I am but knows my name signs, they look at me as if they just realized I’m not a character made up by the older children. I’m a bit concerned though because the children look exactly the same. Shouldn’t some of them, especially the younger ones, grown taller or something by now? And maybe a few of them did, but not really that much despite being 13 or 14 or 15.

Finally, I ask them to take me to see the new vocational training building, it’s all very pretty. One room is for knitting/sewing/needlework, and the other room is a wood shop. And I see that they’re making photo frames. Delightful, and I think they should also make new windows for the boys’ hostel to replace the broken ones. There’s also a tiny guard house right next to the fence. It looks like a guard house but I’m unwilling to believe that it’s a guard house; why would Rohana need a guard house? The boys and Amila insist that it’s really a guard house but I don’t believe them; I need to ask someone else.

By then it’s 2:30 and time for Amila to begin his class; he is one of the school’s two new IT teachers and teaches in the afternoon. But electricity is out so class is cancelled so I ask Amila to tell me all about his class. He shows me his curriculum materials and syllabus. They’re all gleaned from different sources but it works for him. I tell him about the deaf identity program I want to try to do at school, and our conversation quickly grows much deeper as he expresses how he feels so empowered as a deaf teacher of the deaf and the huge impact that Anne and Derek’s visit had on him last February, and how throughout this whole process of becoming a teacher at Rohana, a place where he was a student for so many years, he’s realized how his past teachers failed him by ignoring him to focus on smarter students or just didn’t sign during class or used sim-com and he just really couldn’t understand anything in class because the teachers weren’t speaking his language. And with that realization has also come some anger at feeling cheated out of an education he deserved. We talk about this for two hours, it’s such an important and profound conversation we’re having, the story of all Deafkind is ultimately the story of Deaf education and he’s retelling this story in Sri Lankan terms. And he says he believes it’s so important to be a deaf teacher, he truly believes he is a better teacher because he is deaf, just like his students; they can speak the same language and know the same background, and it’s true, the kids are learning computer skills so quickly. I offer some tips on how to get children’s attention (flash the lights on and off!). He also expresses that he’s not sure if he wants to be a teacher; he really enjoyed his job at Fine Bit Computers before the owners moved to Australia last October. He had FOUR job offers but instead he went to teach at Rohana. And I’m telling him, why not work in the mornings and teach in the afternoon? It sounds perfect, and it’s an idea that he hadn’t really considered; why should he get paid for a full day if he only works for half a day (apparently, part-time pay isn’t a Sri Lankan concept) so I tell him we can work on that and see if we can find another job in the mornings if he’s really up for that.

This talk went on for two hours and then we need a break so I go and see Damayanthi again and she tells me about this girl, Irangika, who’s standing in the office. Apparently Irangika’s parents took her out and sent her to the Ahangama school 20 km west (but they live in Deniyaya in the opposite direction which means Irangika went to a school even farther away than Rohana!). The parents didn’t really have a good reason for moving her (maybe just curious about a different school) but after just a few weeks she was back in Rohana. Irangika explains to me that apparently the Ahangama school was dirty, there was problems, and there were no white people helping out. The last comment throws me off. I think, oh no, you can’t discount a school just because it gets no foreign aid, but it’s a small effect of the impact that we’ve all had at Rohana. But I know it’s not just that, Rohana really IS a good school with wonderful hotel facilities, Ahangama probably doesn’t even come close but I think it’d probably be a great idea for me to visit Ahangama and see another deaf school.

And it’s around that time that I’m pooped, so I call the three-wheeler and go home. It was just a great and amazing day.

Q: Wow! Thanks! What’s next?

A: I went back on Saturday all day to make Wesak lanterns as you saw from my last blog. There were only about 10 boys left; everyone else had gone home for the long holiday weekend. Then I plugged my laptop into the TV and showed them lots of pictures, videos, and even the presentation on Sri Lanka that I did at DCARA last week; they loved finding out just what I’ve been telling everyone else in America! And then I introduced them to Photo Booth where much hilarity ensued.

Sunday, went to visit the deaf association and Shans Ahamed’s house, then just chilled out at Blue Corals, my hotel, the rest of the day watching movies.

Q: And today?

A: Naushan’s house for lunch, and then tonight I join the school boys to go walking around the village at night looking at all the Wesak decorations. Can’t wait!

DIY Project: Wesak Lanterns

17 May

As you may recall from about three-fourths down the Auspicious Times, Parts 2-115 entry last year, Wesak is May’s Poya full moon holiday, and the most important one of the year. Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death are all celebrated during Wesak. This year’s Wesak is Monday, May 19 (the day after Wesak is also a holiday).

The whole country is suddenly decorated with handmade lanterns with colorful streamers, floating around gracefully among the heavy winds that is characteristic of May weather (this is also the time of the year kites fly high in the sky a la The Kite Runner).

You have two options in Sri Lanka–buy some off the street or make your own. Making lanterns from scratch happens to be way more fun!

To make your own, take a bamboo trunk, and whittle it down with a small machete so that you have 24 equal-length flat pieces of bamboo (suggested length: six inches). Make sure the ends of each stick is filed down to a narrow, even more flat point.

Take string and tie together the ends of four sticks to make a square. Do this six times for six squares, then tie together the squares to make a polyhedron with six square faces and eight triangle faces.

The end result should look like below, which Jeewantha has already started covering with colored tissue paper.

Mix flour with some water in a coconut half-shell to make a sticky glue. Using your fingers, spread just a little glue along the edges of a single face. Then take tissue paper (you can pick the colors yourself!) and carefully affix it onto the lantern. Make it as taut as possible without ripping the paper. After completing one face, carefully trim off the rest of the paper, saving as much paper as you can for covering the entire lantern.

Don’t worry too much about excess paper at the edges; those will be covered up later. It is recommended you do the squares first, then the triangles. Leave the top and bottom of the lantern uncovered.

Ishara has opted to go for an all-white base, while Supun is using white for the squares and blue for the triangles.

You can further embellish your lantern with a crosshatch pattern like Sameera has done here:

To make the scrunchy fringes for the edges of the lantern, take a large piece of tissue paper. Fold it several times along its length so you have a long, folded strip of paper. Cut it completely into several folded pieces of paper. Take one folded piece, and, using the scissors, nip it several times along both sides to make fringes. Unfold the paper and you’ll have a long, narrow strip of fringed paper.

Observe Rajitha doing a splendid job of affixing the fringes onto the lantern. Wet one edge with the flour-water sticky mixture, and put the fringe onto it. Scrunch it up with your fingertips to make an interesting pattern. You will also probably see that Rajitha has used his slipper to hold some glue too.

This is also a good time to tie string to the top of the lantern so you can hang it.

To make the colorful streamers hanging off the sides and bottom of the lantern, pick two colors of tissue paper. Cut both into wide strips. Glue together the wide strips, along their sides, to make an alternating pattern. Use slippers to hold down the paper in case you’re working outside and it’s very windy.

Fold it up several times (like you just did with the scrunchy fringes). Instead of cutting clear through the folded paper, leave some room at the top, and nip the folded part many times to create thin strips. Here’s an example from Ishara:

After you’re done, carefully shake the paper to unfold the fringes. Place some glue inside (not outside) the bottom of the lantern, and affix the top, uncut part of the fringes.

You can also make fringes and affix them to the four outer corners of the lantern. You’re done! Sameera’s lantern has turned out to be a real beauty:

Hang them from the ceiling, or if you’d like, from a hanging light bulb so it can be illuminated at night.

Once you’ve made your basic Wesak lantern, you can see how there is a lot of room for creativity. Cut out snowflakes from folded paper (in Sri Lanka, they’re called flower patterns, not snowflakes, for obvious reasons) and paste them onto the square faces. Or cut out temple silhouettes, bo leaves, and other Buddhist symbols.

If you’re feeling quite bold, you can make elaborate lanterns like the Year 10 class did to win second place this year’s secondary school contest:

First place went to Year 11’s tall lantern:

And I think this flower-shaped one, by Year 4, placed second in the primary school contest.

In the end, the lanterns will last for about a week or two, depending on how well-sheltered they are from the high winds and nightly rains, so be sure to make them no more than a week before Wesak Poya day. When they’re starting to look worn, dispose of them in an environmentally responsible matter. By this, I mean that I think all these materials can be composted, but Sri Lankans like to put them in with their regular rubbish and burn it.

*Note for Westerners: regular school glue will work fine as a substitute for the flour-water mixture. In fact, that’s what we used last year. If you are not skilled at whittling down bamboo (or if you even have bamboo growing in your backyard), wooden sticks are plentiful at crafts stores. You can also take strong plastic or wax straws, and melt the edges together–tricky but worth the effort.

Killing Time at the Cinnamon Grand

14 May

Transcript: Hello! I’m here in Colombo, at the Cinnamon Grand hotel. I’ve got about 45 minutes to kill; am waiting for the mall next to the hotel to open at 10. I need to go shopping for some stuff, like a cell phone (not to talk into, but to text with!), shampoo and soap and other bathroom stuff, maybe some art supplies or a shirt or whatever.

I just got here last night, around midnight. I landed at 10:45 and it took about 30-45 minutes to go through immigration and get my passport stamped and everything else and then the driver picked me up. The nice thing was that we got to chat before getting into the car, so we talked about his family, about how many times I’ve been to Sri Lanka. I said three, which is technically speaking because I left Sri Lanka last year for one week to go to Detroit for my cousin’s bar mitzvah. So it’s really my third time at the airport, but I consider this my second visit to the country.

Anyway, it was a nice chat, and then we hit the road. It took about 45 minutes to get to Colombo proper. It was dark and I couldn’t see much, but I could recognize everything; it’s all very familiar, normal, and regular. I wasn’t confused or lost or bedazzled as I’d be in a different country–I knew exactly what I was doing and what was going on. It’s a good feeling to be back.

This hotel is nice–it’s one of the best ones in Colombo. I’m treating myself to a night of comfort before heading to Matara today. Another driver will pick me up at 3:00 PM. I know this driver, Punchi; he drove my sister and I all over Sri Lanka for two weeks during the December break. It’ll be good to see him again.

I had a great breakfast this morning. It’s a huge buffet with all kinds of foods, including, of course, Sri Lankan food. And I just gobbled that down: milk rice, hoppers, dhal, everything else. I ate with a fork this time, not my fingers. I didn’t see anyone else eating with their fingers so I didn’t want to attract any attention.

I took some time to read the newspaper while eating, catching up on the news. There were elections in the recently liberated Eastern Province, the usual government wrangling, and even a news item about Hillary Clinton!

I’ll arrive in Matara between 8 and 9 tonight, and chill at the hotel. I’m not sure what to do tomorrow–show up in the morning and possibly disrupt school, or show up in the afternoon after school. I’m nervous. Some kids won’t be there, and there’ll be new kids. I’ve no idea what will happen tomorrow! We’ll see.

Photographic Proof of Hong Kong

14 May

Taking advantage of the high speed access in my hotel room at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo. I really should be asleep as it’s 12:36 AM and who knows in what time zone my internal clock is now.

But it’s wonderful to be back! Tomorrow I’ll have a great breakfast downstairs, go shopping at the attached mall, then head to Matara at 3:00 PM. For now, here’s pictures of Hong Kong, sans captions.