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The Beginning of This Journey

14 Dec

I never explained how I first came to Sri Lanka. My journey started with an e-mail that I blew off for three months.

It was an e-mail from my mom titled “Fwd: Deaf & Blind Orphanage,” a forward from my parents’ good friends Jim and Julie Regan. They had written to their friends about an orphanage they had visited in Sri Lanka. “Jim and I visited the facility and were quite impressed…they are looking for volunteers who understand the deaf and blind.”

My mom asked me and my sister, “Can you think of anyone or an educational agency that would be interested in this project?” I don’t think she ever expected that I’d be that “anyone” who went over there.

But it was March 2006, six months before I hopped onto the plane for Asia, and I was still gainfully employed in my first full-time job as a consultant for a government contracting firm in Washington, D.C. “Consultant” is a rather broad term in D.C.-speak and I got to work on a lot of different projects as well as manage

Back to the e-mail. “Can you think of…an educational agency?” Eh. Yet another e-mail about some poor deaf school in a remote part of the world. Not really my problem, I thought. I’m a little busy right now. And off the edge of my browser window it went, buried under a torrent of more pressing, more current, more local e-mails.

Three months later at the end of June, I found myself on a quiet Sunday morning cleaning out my Gmail inbox. I remember it very clearly: lying on my back on my bed covered with that awesome striped blue and white Nautica comforter. Exposed brick walls all around me in my basement room at 427 16th Street SE. My knees were raised so I could stretch out my lower lumbar. My iBook G4 resting on my waist.

My mom’s e-mail comes up once again, and this time I read it more carefully. It’s actually a forward of a forward; the original composer is Nerissa Martin, a friend of Julie. “Anyone with skills re teaching deaf kids would be fantastic. Maybe the best thing would be to get them to email me.” And then in the middle of the e-mail is Nerissa’s address.

By then I’ve grown disillusioned with my D.C. life. My dreams–travel! see the world! do something outrageous!–were slipping away as I continued to define myself by a job that I no longer loved. I was weary of endless DPHHs and had recently decided that I didn’t want to go to law school anymore. What was ahead of me but yet more questions?

Even now, I’m not sure what drove me to clicking on Nerissa’s e-mail address and composing a new message.

June 25, 2006

Hi Nerissa,

My parents are close friends of Judy and Jim Regan…they passed along your e-mail a few months ago…I’m wondering if you’re still looking for volunteers to participate in the project…I can create a website…write often…supplement learning…enrich their education…I’d like to grab this opportunity to contribute in any way I can.

Thank you,

Adam, you sound great; please come. Uh, Nerissa, I don’t need to do an interview or fill out a form? Adam, nope, just come. Okay, Nerissa, I’ll be there September 19.

Mom and Dad, is it okay if I go to a war-torn island thousands of miles away and teach deaf children for free? Sure, Adam, follow your dreams.

Tonight, two years and seven months later, I’m in my room, having just wrapped up a webcam session with my dear friends Amila and Lakmal. I haven’t talked to them since my second trip there last June, and we catch up on the news. Amila’s now a full-fledged computer teacher and matron at Rohana Special School. I show them my hoodie jacket and a pomegranate fruit, and introduce them to my mom, who promptly asks both of them if they’re married. I wonder if my mom was Sri Lankan in a past life. They tell me that this week nine students are traveling to Tangalle to take the O/L exams.

After saying good-bye and closing the chat window, I consider that I’m in the middle of my first year of graduate school, studying to become a bona fide teacher of the Deaf two years after I taught my first English class. I now have dear friends on the other side of the world, just a phone call away, and a lifetime of photographs and experiences from that special island. Did all that happen with just one e-mail from a friend of my parents?

Earlier today, I watched my parents say good-bye to that friend, Jim Regan. He suddenly departed this world shortly after Thanksgiving, leaving us all behind to ask an anguished “Why?” At the memorial service, set in verdant surroundings that rivaled the Sri Lankan jungles, heartfelt stories were told about a gregarious man who touched countless lives. My father was the emcee; his old law partner Richard delivered the main eulogy.

Last week, I was communicating with Nerissa and David, typing out the details which they needed to know. I ask David if he recalls that the Regans were the reason I found out about them and Sri Lanka in the first place.

He responds, “I do remember that it was through Julie and Jim that we came to know you. It does make one reflect on how a life can leave such positive vibrations behind even if the life itself ends in tragedy.”

Vibrations…through an e-mail. Through a video chat. Through a handshake or a hug. Can entire lives be revealed and resolved through these vibrations?

Thank you, Jim and Julie, for everything–for the journey to Sri Lanka, and for the journey I’m now on.

“Deaf Can!” So Say The Rohana Special School Children!

27 Jun

During one lesson in the Deaf Studies class, I showed them a short video from California School for the Deaf’s Middle School PAH! Day celebration. The children were so inspired that they wanted to make a video themselves. I suggested the “Deaf Can!” theme and they ran with it. About half of the footage were filmed by the children themselves!

Watch the children of Rohana Special School proudly proclaim, “DEAF CAN!”

“Deaf Can!” So Says Rohana Special School! from Adam Stone on Vimeo.

The Video Dictionary Non-Project

8 Jun

I made some mention of a video sign language dictionary filming project in partnership with Ruhunu Sumaga Circle of the Deaf. I would like to update everyone and explain that this did not happen after all due to a succession of reasons. But the last reason is the best one of all: the Central Federation of the Deaf (CFD) is making one anyway to be completed in July or August! So I am looking forward to that; some funds will probably need to be raised to supply the school and pupils’ families with as many video dictionaries as possible.

Today is my last day in Sri Lanka but there are still several last-minute things to accomplish. Most notably is the “WE CAN!” celebration of sign language beginning in just two and a half hours. Mala will be filming it so you’ll get to watch a YouTube version soon!

Lunch is at 1:45, and I’ll leave school at 2:30. Then the van departs at 3:00. Mala, Lakmal, Naushan, and possibly a couple others will join for the long ride up (and they get to ride back south!). We’ll stop briefly in Hikkaduwa to get a couple of cool t-shirts with a graphic of a surfboard tied atop a three-wheeler. Sri Lanka, unfortunately, is lacking in cool t-shirts unlike other countries like India or Thailand, so this is quite an important mission for us. Next is a fine dining experience at Pizza Hut in Colombo. Lakmal requested this! Maybe he saw an advertisment somewhere. I’m happy to introduce my friends to the wonders of pizza! Then the airport. Apparently I can take two friends into the ticketing area with me, so I’ll do that and tell them all about what happens inside an airport.

Then the flight to Hong Kong with maybe a three-hour layover in Singapore, and then the world beyond Lanka’s shores.

It’s Not All Bad…

5 Jun

Of course, I don’t want to leave the impression that returning to this country only fills you with deep, unanswerable questions. There’s a lot of joy to be found in every single day in Sri Lanka. In the last seven days, I’ve:

Gone to Mr. Abeygunawardana’s mirith, a house blessing where twelve monks chant all night long into the morning, then are given breakfast. I got to sleep on an unrolled mat on the floor for the first time–this is how a great number of Sri Lankans sleep every night. I slept soundly for the three hours I was allocated (the monk chanting ended at 5:30), but going to sleep at 2:30 in the morning probably helped. And then in the morning I got to watch monks eat! Monks can’t eat after one o’clock in the afternoon, and so giving food to monks in the morning is one of the highest duties one can do in Buddhism.

Monks fingering their oya leaf book.

The attendees pray in accordance with the monks’ chantings.

In the morning, the monks await their breakfast.

In May and June, the afternoon skies are filled with kites that fly dozens of meters in the air for hours, sometimes days. Some of them have strings lined with broken glass as to cut into other kites’ strings, but there is no kite competition as far as I know, unlike Houssein’s The Kite Runner. The boys at Rohana are especially proud of their handmade kites, as I observed last year and now this year, too.

Prasanna with his handmade kite.

Sampath, the new kid, and Dhanushka flying Kumara’s kite

And on a Sunday that turned positively rainy, I got to hold a goat and practice shooting coconuts with a slingshot. We were supposed to go birdhunting with our rubber weapons and cook’n’eat our prey for dinner, but the torrential rains in the afternoon earned the birds a reprieve.

Naushan holding one of Sishan’s goats.

And my turn to hold the goat.

Practicing the slingshot.

Munsif shows off his skill with the slingshot as Naushan looks on.

And then in one of the Deaf Studies class, we made a poster using acrylic paint and our hands.

Supuni, Nadeesha, Chaminda, Kumara, the new kid, Peshila, and Irangika.

On Thursday, Mala and I went to Amila’s older sister’s wedding in Angulugaha. The unfortunate thing about Sri Lankan weddings is, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They’re all quite exactly the same; the first day is the white sari and the ceremony which appears to be more of a photo shoot than a celebration of love; the second day is the red sari and homecoming where it’s more of a lunch affair. It is so bogged down with ritual that there is little room for individuality, unlike Western weddings. Still, the food’s a great reason to go.

The wedding party.

Lakmal, Mala, I, and Susaththa have some fun with my camera.

And afterwards we went to the home of Sanjeewani, one of my favorite students, in Imaduwa. I love her family; out of five children, three are deaf. I was delighted to see that the oldest child, Renuka, had thought of installing a doorbell light! No one gave her the idea; she came up with it all on her own. My only regret is that our visit was too short; someday I’d like to live with them for several days as the family is a delight.

Renuka, Sisi the mother, a neighborhood girl, and Mala in front of the house.

Susaththa, Lakmal, me, Naushan, Amila, and then the women in front: Renuka, Sisi, and Sanjeewani.

And now there’s just a weekend and a Monday left. Then it’s off to Hong Kong for a couple days then back home after.

In other exciting news, Mr. Abeygunawardana has okay’d the “WE CAN!” celebration of sign language, to start at 12:30pm on Monday. I expect it’ll just be 30 or 45 minutes, and it’s pretty hard going with the children in creating sign language stories (both of the single-handshape and the 1-10 varieties) as I haven’t yet figured out what the Sri Lankan sign for “story” is! I’m not sure if it exists, and the children have, of course, been severely underexposed to the idea of stories and folklore, both traditional/oral storytelling and through books.

But we’re figuring it out as we go along. I trust it’ll be a wonderful eye-opener for the teachers and the other students who are about to see just what children can do with sign language!