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The Observer Effect, Among Others

1 Jun

The thought has crossed my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t visit Sri Lanka anymore after this trip. Perhaps it’s just a temporary feeling of moroseness brought on by the clouds and torrential rains that have pounded Matara the past three days, but there are real issues at work here, both personal and social.

First: There seems to be a faint, undercurrent of sadness surrounding my trip here. The first question I’m asked when I meet with somebody is “When are you leaving?” And I tell them, “The 9th of June.” And it’s the same thing again and again with everybody; my name might as well as be, “Adam June Nine.” As soon as I’ve arrived, I’m already leaving, one foot on the plane. Other than myself, no one seems more aware of this than the school boys.

Last Saturday at the school ended weirdly. I had finished interpreting Ratatouille for the children at around 6:00. Evening prayers are around that time, so I told them to assemble outside. We waited for about twenty minutes for Damayanthi to finish a meeting with some visitor, and it was growing dark. A queer feeling came over me; it was that damp, dark evening of June 23, 2007 all over again and I was about to leave them after nine remarkable months.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. After prayers, Prasanna walked alongside me back to the dining hall, and said, “It’s so sad, you’re leaving us now.” I shook my head and looked at at him as to say, “But I’m not…not today.”

“No worries, I know. I’m just kidding,” he said, and walked away.

I didn’t think it was funny; it was unpleasant to have him articulate exactly what I was feeling. Nishan walked past me, saying, “Sad, sad.” And my throat got caught; I felt I was truly leaving them, a group of children whom I absolutely love to death.

Nishantha came soon after and spirited me away from that whole cloud of sadness and parting that was engulfing me at the school, and my thoughts shifted to considering the all-night monk chanting I had ahead of me at Mr. Abeygunawardana’s house blessing.

But still, everywhere I go, it is the same. A month is so short, and I’m not sure if I could do this again. It doesn’t seem fair to anybody, especially the children.

Second: it’s on this trip that I’ve grown acutely aware of “the observer effect” that vexes anthropologists and ethnographers worldwide. It’s when things change because there’s an observer around.

I had a very long talk with Lakmal today while we were waiting out the afternoon rains. The last few times I’ve seen him, he has brought with a group of friends which would include Amila, Naushan, Munsif, and/or Sishan. Those are the same men with whom Ginette and I enjoyed our ocmpany immensely our last two months in Sri Lanka, and I left the country feeling good that Lakmal had made some friends. He didn’t seem to have that many, other than Amila, when I first arrived.

Lakmal and I were recalling the free coffee give-away that the deaf association had set up for the second night of Wesak, and how fun it was to talk with so many deaf people assembled in one place. A thought came to me, and I asked him if he hung out with those men when I wasn’t there.

He said not really. I was surprised and told him I thought they were all good friends. I see them together all the time and have raucous chats. His explanation was essentially that my presence–the white deaf American!–brought them together, but that was it. His life was that he worked during the week and on the weekends he would maybe get together with Amila and Naushan, but not really anyone else.

Things change when I visit, and they go back to normal when I leave. I don’t know, but that just feels wrong and I’m observing an alter reality, personalized expressly for me, and that it all vanishes the moment the plane takes off from the runway at Katunayake. Holodeck, end program. What other observer effects exist here that I haven’t noticed yet? It’s disheartening.

Third: there is this impact that I make on others via either my presence or my intentional actions. When you leave for one year and then come back, you’re able to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

I suppose that in America, a child has so many influences, so many models that it’s difficult to separate each one and determine the extent of change affected by each. It seems a lot easier to do this in Sri Lanka, however. There is a before and an after. Before white people, after white people. Although that isn’t really accurate anymore; non-white people like Indrajit, Nadia, or Mala have made their mark. So let’s say before foreigners, after foreigners (besides, the Sri Lankan sign for foreigner is also the sign for light-skinnedness, so I’ve fallen in the trap of equating both concepts!).

I don’t doubt for one moment that what we have all done at Rohana has been nothing short of a miracle. Rohana Special School ranked second in O/L test results among all the deaf schools in Sri Lanka, right before St. Joseph’s School in Ragama. It remains the only school to have any alumnus currently in university, and it has two. The teachers continue to grow ever more interested in sign language, and have been vocal about their desire for individual copies of the official national dictionary. Deep issues continue to exist with the hostels, but in contrast to last year, these issues now feel resolvable.

I like to think that there are three types of impacts you make. The impacts you try to effect, and succeed. The impacts you try to make, but don’t happen. And the impacts you didn’t intend to effect in the first place. Let me offer examples of each.

The first is Amila. David plucked him out of his 2005 graduating class and quickly determined that he would become Sri Lanka’s first deaf computer instructor. And now, less than three years later, he is just exactly that. He works harder than anybody I know to support his family and achieve his dreams, and I’m grateful we’ve been able to give him so much support on the way.

The second is one boy, Priyankara. Easily one of the favorites of every volunteer at Rohana, he’s an independent and outgoing but sensitive boy with great artistic talent, good study skills, and a mean bowling hand. Yet, he kept saying to me he wanted to leave school early and go work somewhere, earn a living. I always told him he should stay through Grade 11 and take the O/Ls. Look at Rohana, I cried, isn’t it such a great place to be in now? Great hostels and classes and foreigners here all the time.

Despite all my imploring, he did leave school two years early and now works at a bike factory in Panadura. I’m sad he didn’t listen to me, and i hope he’s okay and happy–I thought about visiting him but I don’t really have the time.

As for the third type, let’s go back to Lakmal. Really, I could write a whole website on that guy. He’s one of my best buddies here, and he has made great friends with just about every volunteer that comes through this part of the world.

After he took the O/Ls in December 2006 and left the school along with six others, it was time for him to get started on adulthood and find a job. The problem was, somehow he had gotten this idea that we foreigners would find a job for him, probably as an advertising model. And so he waited, spurning the deaf association’s offers of help, saying that Mr. David would give him a job.

Finally, in late May, Ginette, Sophie, and I sat him down with the deaf association, and he started on his path to gainful employment. His first placement was as a carpenter or something, and he left it pretty quickly after because of “problems.”

One year later, I come back, and he’s secure in his job as a furniture assembler at the Damro/Evero factory, a position which the deaf association found for him many months ago, and everything is going just fine.

And today, as we were sitting in his living room, I looked at him and wondered, what if we had never come? What if we had all instead gone to help some parochial school in northern Mozambique? What of Lakmal, then? Would he have gotten his job that much sooner without that five-month delay because he had thought we’d give him a job? He is doing exactly what he’d have done anyway without our intervention.

And that’s just one person. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been affected by what we have been doing at the school. It’s an awesome responsibility. What are the changes, the effects we are blind to because we’re foreigners and don’t speak Sinhala and retreat to our private guesthouse world at night and live many worlds and cultures away? I know I’ve made some mistakes, but are there other mistakes that I haven’t even realized? It’s scary and staggering, and it makes me want to stop coming here, both out of sheer fear and out of ethnographic respect for everything Sri Lankan.

And then finally the fourth point. And with apologies to Lakmal, but I will once again use him to illustrate this. The reason why I was over at his house today was because his mother invited me over for lunch. I’m used to this by now; all these free meals in homes all over Sri Lanka because I’m a visitor.

He met me at my guesthouse and we rode to his home, with me sitting on his bicycle frame between the seat and the handles while he pedaled, like so many others do in Sri Lanka. After the hearty meal, we were sitting in the plastic chairs, digesting rice and fish curry when his mother handed him a folded-up piece of paper. He opened it up; it was all in English and he had no idea what it said.

He handed it to me. After just one glance, I knew what it was–a letter for help. I’ve read this before and know the format by heart now. I looked at the bottom and saw his name on the signature line, Asanka Lakmal.

“Do you realize your name is on this letter?” I asked him. He didn’t have a clue this even existed, and it bothered me that his parents were using him to get to me.

The letter asked for some sort of assistance–what kind, it didn’t say, but very likely financial–so Lakmal could build his house on a plot of land that had been donated to him by the head monk at his temple. That part, I knew; the parents had argued that he shouldn’t live near the sea because he couldn’t hear the next tsunami, whenever that may be, rush in, so the temple gave him some land further inland. And he had told me earlier before the meal that his parents were placing enormous pressure on him to deliver–somehow–so they could get started on construction. He had been asking me minor questions about whether I thought he could work overseas, probably in the Middle East like thousands of other Sri Lankans.

Another angle to this situation which irritated me is that Lakmal has an older brother who’s way more educated, a graduate of Rahula College, the best school in Matara, and knows some English. He could get a job easily and probably make way more money, so why were Lakmal’s parents expecting Lakmal to bring home the bacon instead of his older, more capable brother? Was it because Lakmal had foreigner friends and the parents wished for him to use those connections?

Besides, why now? Building a home takes years and years anyway as the owners save up enough money for one construction phase (say, the floor), pay for it and get it done, then start saving money again for the next (perhaps the roof).

But as always, I couldn’t be upset when I read the letter for help. I can’t be; instead, I always feel impotent. Impotent because I don’t know anything about American work visa rules, Sri Lankan hospitals, or the South Asian charity/aid infrastructure.

I’ve been asked to pay for cochlear implant operations for deaf children and for Samantha, pay for a life-saving chemotherapy treatment for a Rohana pupil’s mother with end-stage breast cancer, or help a married couple get a visit visa to the United States.

And the worst part is, when it involves money, it is usually within my means to pay. The blueprints for Lakmal’s house showed that it would cost about $10,000 altogether to build (a bargain!); the chemotherapy would have cost $6,000. I could perhaps liquidate everything I owned–this laptop, the car, my investments and CDs, and pay for one or the other.

But this, of course, isn’t the right answer. But why isn’t it the right answer? What’s so wrong about giving someone a home or making sure a child gets to keep his mother? There is another answer–raise money! But I simply don’t have the energy for that, not for fundraising. It never has been my thing.

I talked about this with Nerissa many times last year. She said it is a terrible responsibility, like playing God. Do you pay for one person’s medical treatment or provide a daily breakfast for 500 children? Do you just give a family some money, or instead spend the time and energy to train one of them in a sustainable occupation? I don’t know how she or David does it, and I only hope that one day I’ll have the same energy and courage to do the same wonderful things they’ve done to rebuild the entire village below their estate or rehabilitate Rohana Special School.

But there’s another dimension to this whole dilemma. It’s that my Sri Lankan friends are so hospitable to me. I ride on their bicycles and eat their food. They take the time to make sure I understand, and lead me all around their lives. Just today, if it wasn’t for the rainy day, I’d have been floating on a boat down the river with four other deaf men, felling birds with rocks and slingshots. But we didn’t, much to the birds’ relief, and we chatted about how Muslims eat at special occasions–six of them, and only six, sit around eating off a very large plate. When I told Munsif I really wanted to try that out, he immediately offered me an invitation to his home next Saturday to experience just that, and another gesture of friendship was had.

I get so many of these gestures. Their hospitality is overwhelming, and I feel what whatever I have to offer back is so grossly inadequate in comparison. They open their homes to me and show me all around the country; all I can give back is perhaps a meal at my hostel or a few boxes of biscuits.

And then there’s this gross inequality between our lives. I go back and live in America; they remain in Matara. What do they get in return?

I explained all this and presented that question to Lakmal. He said, “So that when we visit you, you’ll help us like we’ve helped you, of course.”

(Dear readers, by now, I’m talking about my relationships with adult Deaf in Matara; I do recognize that I do contribute to the school so I’m not worried about that. It’s more of who gets out of what in my interactions with my adults friends in Sri Lanka)

I said back, “But honestly, you know there’s almost no chance you guys are going to visit me in America.” And what went unsaid here was, “And I’m not paying for you to visit me.”

But why shouldn’t I? It’s certainly within my means, isn’t it? This brand-new laptop I’m using right now is worth about one and a half roundtrip flights between California and Colombo.

Then Lakmal explained that when he was thinking about working overseas, he asked the deaf association for guidance. They said no; it was their policy to not help deaf people leave Sri Lanka for work, or every deaf person would be asking them for help. It would have to be an individual effort One reasoning behind this was that deaf people from other countries were certainly able to visit Sri Lanka; why couldn’t deaf Sri Lankans do the same on their own?

I shot back that it was a grossly unfair comparison and that we deaf foreigners have way more resources–government assistance and free university education and strong disability and telecommunication legislation–than deaf Sri Lankans. And then I went back to the crucial point in our discussion. Lakmal and his friends were helping me so much; what did I have to offer in return? Food? Should I tip them or slip them a few thousand rupees, as repugnant as it is to place a price on friendship? A promise to help them come to America, however ill-equipped I am to carry it out?

I want to think and hope that our friendships are unconditional, and that they’re not in need of my help. They’re all fine; they all have roofs and jobs. And I go for a few days, believing that we really are just that, friends, and then I get a letter, like that one from Lakmal’s parents, and the illusion falls apart and I’m left unclothed, a white interloper with massive resources but isn’t willing to share any of it.

I can’t handle their hospitality with a clear conscience, and it is this point which, with the other three I have written about above, that leads me to think maybe Sri Lanka is better off without me. It’s difficult to imagine going back year after year, going through the whole eating meals at friends’ home ritual again and have them including me in their lives, only to disappear again without giving much in return other than my presence.

And at moments throughout this thought process, I step out of myself, chuckle, and say, aren’t all these quite bourgeois of you? At least you’re lucky enough to have the time and opportunity to mull these questions, instead of spending every waking minute eking out a living in some far-away cinnamon field in Ratnapura District. You should be thankful for what you have and not worry about any of these. Just enjoy the experience and know they love you and think you’re great. Then I step back and wonder which one is the real cop-out–to think about this, or not to think about this?

It would be easier if it was just the school that I had to work with–that, at least, is clear; children are supposed to grow up and leave and new children come in. There’s always something to which I can contribute. But that’s not the best way to experience Sri Lanka. More than anything else, it is the friendships I’ve developed with adult deaf people in Matara that turned my nine months in Sri Lanka into a truly cultural, high-definition experience. Any future trip without acknowledging that part would be incomplete.

I like to romantically think that perhaps this trip will be what I needed to finally let go of Sri Lanka, that country which has so wholly bitten my soul, and move on with my life. But that’ll never be true, and I don’t want to say a final farewell to Ceylon.

So, what of these issues? The observer effects? The inevitably short stay? The unknown and unseen impacts of my actions? The pleas for assistance? I have no answers right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever find them.

Deaf Studies Programme, Week One

1 Jun

Monday, 26 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Do the trust fall activity outside; first, in pairs and on the ground; second, with groups catching pupils falling backwards off tables. Introduce Deaf Studies. First activity: Pupils pick a playing card, read its number, then tell that many unique things about himself to the class. Second activity: each pupil has a Post-It, and votes with it by placing it on the appropriate space on the whiteboard in response to a closed-ended question, e.g. Were you born deaf? Is being deaf good or bad? Then discuss. Third activity: With paper and markers, draw a world where everybody is deaf.
Outcome: Three girls ran away during the table fall; they were too terrified to attempt the fall. No one was dropped and the boys clearly enjoyed this much more than the girls. Self-introductions were disappointing; pupils mainly copied each other and followed the same sequence of name, family, age, etc; many struggled past five things. The vote was interesting. Everyone voted that being deaf was good, not bad! Many seemed to confuse themselves with their parents when asked if they had deaf parents (e.g. Teacher: Are your parents deaf? Pupil: I’m deaf! T: No, your parents? Hearing or deaf? P: No, I’m deaf!). They were able to, via the Post-Its on the whiteboard, visually appreciate that most deaf people are born to hearing families. Many completely missed point of drawing a Deaf-World, choosing to instead draw themselves or their families. I am feeling unsure if this class will work; they’re in Years 6-9 classes but they respond more as if they’re actually in Years 2-4. A far more interactive approach is needed.

Tuesday, 27 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Human knot. Pupils stand in a circle and grab hands in center at random, then must untangle themselves without letting go of hands to recreate a circle. Discussion of activity. First activity: Discuss what languages we learn at Rohana, and the building blocks (letters) of each language. Second activity: Introduce handshapes as the “letters” of sign language. Identify handshapes in Sri Lankan Sign Language. Third: Assign a handshape to each pupil. Trace handshapes on papers and complete the drawings.
Outcome: Children enjoyed human knot activity although a couple girls kept cheating and grabbing different hands. They did not seem to get the point that they could not communicate in sign language; many said they felt they were signing even though they could not use their hands! They were very interested in acknowledging that they learned three different languages: Sinhala, English, and sign language. They thoroughly enjoyed identifying handshapes and signs for each, although still dependent on name signs instead of real vocabulary. Fifteen were identified, and thirteen were assigned. They were quick to trace and draw their handshapes on paper using markers. Ended on a high note; they were engaged and interested in how handshapes build sign language.

Wednesday, 28 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Animal Circle game. Pupils sit in a circle and each pick their own animal. After learning each other’s animals, and following a clapping rhythm, one pupil must say their own animal, then a different animal, “handing it off” to the pupil who has that different animal, then repeat the process. First activity: Review handshapes from yesterday. Second activity: Show “No Talking Allowed,” a tame romantic movie with all Deaf actors and all dialogue in sign. Discuss. Third activity: Show “PAH!” movie by CSD Middle School from 2007 CSD Annual Storytelling Festival DVD. Discuss.
Outcome: It was difficult for pupils to follow the clapping rhythm; many have not learned about keeping beats. Did Animal Circle without clapping. It was very important for some of the pupils to learn that they had to keep their eyes on whoever was signing or be sent out. One girl kept looking away but later in the game she learned to focus after she kept getting sent out of the game. Review of handshapes went well; a couple boys were confused and displayed the handshape that went with their name sign instead; it was good to reinforce this. Assigned handshapes to two new pupils. Many were surprised that an entire movie could be produced in sign language, and appeared to enjoy the “No Talking Allowed” movie. They loved seeing their middle school counterparts in the PAH video. Paused during part with CSD MS Principal Clark Brooke to illustrate that deaf people can even be school principals. One boy cried that he wanted Clark to be his principal now! They are enthusiastic about my idea of producing a “We Can!” video for Rohana modeled on PAH movie.

Thursday, 29 May
Plan: All activities outside. First activity: Handshape Dramatic Warm-up. Stand in a circle. Choose a handshape, then perform an action–not a sign–with that handshape. Hand off handshape to next person to do a different action until everyone has had a turn, then change handshape. Second activity: Separate into pairs. In 30 minutes, create a short play or story using just two assigned handshapes. Support them by reviewing their stories often. Third activity: Put on an impromptu performance for younger children.
Outcome: During warm-up, interesting to see many levels of creativity and theatric aptitude among the fifteen pupils. Two boys needed extra support; they would copy the person next to them instead of doing something original. Girls overall were slow (or shy) on uptake but in the end surprised me with their creativity, too. The performance was great, with about twenty younger children in audience. Two teams, all girls, were impeccable in adhering to the handshape rule and created surprising stories. Boys were more inclined to put on entertaining, vaudeville-like performances and lose track of the handshape rule. One boys’ pair fell apart when one snuck away to eat curd left over from lunch. Everyone had a very good and positive time.

Friday, 30 May
Plan: Outside activity: Object Dramatic Warm-up. All pupils stand in a circle. Pass around a found object–a stick, a rock, anything–and each pupil does something interesting with it. First activity: Review videotape of yesterday’s performances. Guide children in identifying errors where handshapes other than what was assigned to the pair were used. Tally up errors to crown first, second, and third places. Second activity: Show ABC, 1-5, and “Hansel & Gretel” stories from 2004 CSD Feast for the Eyes DVD. Discuss. Third activity: Show/Translate Ella Mae Lentz’s poem “The Treasure.” Discuss.
Outcome: Warm-up seemed to go better than yesterday’s warm-up; easier for pupils to innovate with a tangible object than a handshape. Exciting things were done with a ordinary leaf! Pupils thoroughly enjoyed reviewing their own performances and figuring out which one was most error-free. Encouraged that everyone’s performances were great. Took a while for them to understand the idea of an ABC story–they don’t know the ASL alphabet–but they quickly understood the 1-5 or 1-10 story idea. One boy even made up a 1-5 story right away! They want to practice this next Monday. They were able to reflect on the “Hansel & Gretel” story and discussed a similar Sinhalese folk tale. Despite my lousy translation into Sri Lankan Sign of “The Treasure,” they discussed and appreciated Lentz’s point of how sign language can be devalued, and why sign language should be cherished.

Week ended on a high note. Doing outside group activities, watching videos (especially of other deaf people), playing with sign language, putting on performances, and having group discussions are all completely new instructional activities for the 15 pupils, and they have now taken to the lessons with alacrity.

They are looking forward to next week’s classes–plans include showing “The Lives of Deaf Mexicans” to contrast their deaf experience with Mexico’s; using storybooks from library to develop signed stories; number stories; and practicing rhythm with drums. Am considering asking principal if a short storytelling festival could be held next Monday the 9th during the last school period (especially for teachers to observe) but need to ask pupils first. Overall, I am pleased.

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.

Rohana Boys Discover Photo Booth

25 May

This is the third time that I’ve tried to upload this video clip and I’m glad it succeeded this time (but not before heavily compressing it to less than 3 MB!).

It’s Monday morning. School begins again today after the long Wesak holiday. The week feels full of promise, despite the fact that the sign language DVD project is on hold now while we try to discover more information about the ICTA’s work (see comment on previous blog entry). The deaf studies class begins today; I’ve just got lots of new tasks from Anne that Mala and I can follow up on; more ideas are boiling in our heads.

It’ll be great!