My first appointment was to a school with only a brick building and two other kajan thatched ones. It was situated deep into the forest which connected it with the village by only a bus route and a bus which went twice a day;in the morning and the evening. but many a times people find that the bus has broken down and those who want to go to the dispensary, weekly fair or to a government institute to get their work done have to trek that long journey along the dusty road which sent a swirl of dust, each time you raise your foot.
As if to compensate the difficulties and dilemmas you undergo in that God forsaken place, the principal was a very understanding and a kind hearted fellow. He was in his early fifties with thinning hair and short and fat with a dark complexion.
When I went there on the first day he welcomed me happily as he was without an English teacher for some time. I too, on the other hand , was a dreamy eyed teacher, armed with my new knowledge, who was eager to impart all I learned at Pre-Service Training. After handling official documents he introduced me to the rest of the staff. As I could remember, there was only one male teacher and three or four female teachers who were all unmarried.
Then the principal took me to a classroom with some students. but there was no teacher. He explained that the class teacher was on maternity leave and from then onwards I would be their class teacher.It was a grade two. I was somewhat consternated but there was nothing I could do about it. I had come here to teach these students the most important English Language and the principal had given me this. To make matters worse, there was no black board for them. I had to teach them sinhala letters and words without a blackboard. It's like a game where you can't utter the word 'thirsty' when you speak about the water.
The students gathered around me eagerly observing me and my dark purple american Georgette saree. ( I still have it with me now!) There were around thirty five students in the class; malnourished, lethargic and under fed. but their smiles were warm and I felt that they were expecting something special from me .
The students sat on the rough concrete floor and there was only a wooden chair for the teacher. no desk or table.I introduced myself and asked their names. I exactly didn't know what to do. I was trained to teach the English Language but they had not prepared me for a situation like this. My heart was racing and mind was thinking fast. I had to teach them something and the students were eyeing me curiously.O.K.What the heck, I thought.
Then I asked them to bring their exercise books and began writing the word "samanalaya" (butterfly) in each book and asked them to complete the page with the word. After writing in around twenty books my back began to ache as it was an uncomfortable posture without a table to lean on to. I straightened up and looked around . countless number of tiny hands were offering me their books for me to write that sacred word in them. Some were pushing to come to the front and I heard cries of "anei , paganna epa. " ("don't tread on please"!)
They were pushing me too. I felt a nudge and when I turned around, I saw a little boy has crept under chair to come close to me. He was almost sitting on my lap. I stopped my writing and gave them a look. I met their expectant gazes.
I told them as calmly as possible, though I was very tired and uncomfortable, "Now children, I am going to write the word in each of your books. So don't push each other. Go back to where you sit, and come one by one as good children. "
I waited.They didn't budge.I waited more. Reluctantly, one girl went to her place and sat with her book on the lap. She called her friend. Then one by one all the students went back to their space on the concrete floor. I took a deep breath. I just sat there indicating I needed a short break from writing. I was not allowed to wallow in my pleasure, as one brave student came with the book and showing asked me " teacher, mehema livvama haridha" ? Then another one came, and another. Again they were asking me numerous questions with regard to their writing, mostly the questions to which they very well knew the answers. I was getting angry as I was not composed and collected and didn't know what to do with these bunch of kids who expected some magic from this young, new teacher!
The other teachers may have witnessed this incident. One of them came and took charge of my young wards. Another took me to their room. It was a part of the school building. She opened a thermos flask and poured me a cup of tea. I was grateful for her kind act and gratefully accepted it. but as soon as I sipped the tea, my thirst vanished totally. It was unpleasant and an oily layer was floating on the surface of the drink. I swallowed it with much difficulty and finished it quickly. It was the sort of water you drink in those remote areas. You could never think how happy I was to drink a glass of cool, refreshing water at one gulp while little drops were falling along wetting my neck line.
She asked me to take things slowly and not to bother about students so much as there was very little one could do.The majority got absent in the harvesting season and rainy season; former to help their parents and latter due to flooding of the roads.
That was how my first day at school was spent and the bell ran indicating that the school was over. Oh, my, what a relief! Now time to go home. My father took me to school in the morning but I had to take the bus for return journey. Unluckily for me, there was no bus for the return journey and those who travelled in the bus had to walk or find other options to reach their destinations.
Principal was concerned about my going home and asked two senior students to guide me to my home as they both were going in my direction. I was cold with sweat. I had never walked such distance and it was not easy for me to walk at all, as my new high heels were cutting my flesh like hell.
but some things were inevitable and this was one such moment. There was no other alternative. So with a chilling heart, I started the journey.The principal advised the students to take me safely home.They were leading and I followed them. We were walking on the bus road which was dusty as it was not tarred yet. after walking for some time I saw that the bottom edge of my new saree was fully covered with dust. and it had turned totally brown. The students too noticed it and when I stayed to rest for a while they suggested to take a short cut.I was doubtful at first but they were persistent, telling me that ' it was very short' when compared to this dusty gravel road where you tend to falter walking on gravel. I was reluctant at first but again there was no other alternative. My left foot had become reddish and each step was hurting like hell. I wanted to run home and remove this bloody shoes at once.
So, when we came to the fork of the road, my two guides took the left turn which was the short cut, and I went behind them meekly clutching my hand bag, and giving more weight to my right foot. It was only a narrow foot path.No two people could walk abreast. The thorny bushes and shrubs grew at the edges of the path, entangled in my hair, saree and back scratching me and sometimes creating red patches in my hands and nape. The walk was very uncomfortable. I had to twist and avoid the twigs and branches on the path and I couldn't walk straight. It seemed that my two guides were well accustomed to this daily walk and they just held and avoided the branches and twigs with an easy manner.
Then there was a mud hole in the path,and without knowing, I fell into it. A sharp pain spread through my body.involuntarily I sat on the edge of the foot path on the long grass. The pain was unbearable and I was twisting and wreathing with pain. Meanwhile the two boys were watching me helplessly as they couldn't decide what to do.
My ankle was bruised. The two boys were helpless and they stared at their new teacher who was in great pain. Then one of the students picked some leaves, chewed and kept it in the wound and I gave my handkerchief to wrap around it.but it was not enough to go around and I had to tear a strip of cloth from my new underskirt. After bandaging the wound, I just sat there for the pain to subside, then got up and began to walk slowly.But it was impossible to walk as my both feet were hurting a lot.
I declared bitterly that I couldn't walk.The two boys were scared and exchanged fearful glances.As this was a short cut, very few people used to take it and the boys suggested to wait for some time before one of them going to village asking for help. They asked me to remove my shoes and meekly I obeyed them.Then one of them helped me to sit on the grass.
We waited. During that time, I had time to think about my teaching career. I understood with regret, that It was not the beautiful dream I had when I was schooling. It was more deep and humane and you should be a part of it and feel what your students feeling and experiencing in their day-to-day lives.
Even, when my subconscious mind was handling my thoughts, I heard a distant, but approaching sound of creaky pedals. The two students who sat with fallen faces got up and disappeared into the woods and I waited, not knowing what to expect after this upside down events happening to me.
Finally, help arrived but in the disguise of an old bicycle.The villager was running an errand and had thought of taking the short cut to reach his destination quickly. He was aghast when he listened to the halting narrative of two scouts. He offered his humble services to the "iskole nona' and apologised for the condition of his bicycle. On the other hand, I visualised him as a Greek God, who came to the rescue of a young princess. (It was me!) I was thrilled to the core.Apart from the humiliation of pushed by three males, I sat on the rickety bike and was ridden home to the amusement of my sisters and the concerned look of my father.