I had joined College in October 1981, though I moved in only a few weeks later. Illangakoon had failed, characteristically as I later realized, to do anything about redoing the quarters I had been allocated. The previous Sub-Warden, Orville Abeynaike, still occupied the residence that was supposed to be the Sub-Warden’s, the flat over the office called ‘Thalassa’, Greek for the Sea it overlooked. I had of course not wanted him moved, and had agreed to have a small set of rooms in the middle of the Main Quadrangle, which indeed a Sub-Warden of an earlier era had occupied. However I had asked that a toilet and shower be included, since I did not think the Sub-Warden should use common amenities, and in any case I would not have had anything like the panache with which Quentin Israel, when he was Upper School Headmaster, used to stride to the showers in a towel.
After about a month the adjustments were made, which was just as well since I used to work enormously long hours, getting in virtually at dawn and leaving at dusk. Illangakoon passed on practically everything to me, academic matters, discipline, staff relations, the Boarding, but I did not mind, for it was enormously satisfying to see the difference so soon. Within a couple of months we had a day in which no members of staff at all were absent, something that had not happened in years.
The one area I did not have to worry about at all was the Lower School, which was run with efficiency as well as enormous kindness by Mr Jayasekera, whom I remembered as the senior Sinhala master when I was in College myself. He had always struck me as severe, perhaps in comparison with scholars of the Hela School who then dominated Sinhala at the school, Arisen Ahubudu and Mr Jinadasa and Mr Coperahewa, who were fantastic entertainers. Jayasekera had always worn a suit, and he still looked impeccable, but he was full of energy and thoughtfulness.
Early on he came to see me and said, apologetically, that he did not want to worry me, but he had one master who was a problem. This was a chap called Brodie, who had also taught me, but it seemed that, unlike anyone else in the Lower School, he regularly missed class. It was not difficult however to deal with him, for he had simply been caught up in the infection that had been spreading and, after a few formal warnings, he settled down. The rest of the Lower School, many of the young teachers we had loved, now older and more worn, continued to do a fantastic job.
While doing everything else, I assumed Illangakoon was busy with formal administration, including the finances, though I soon realized that, when I went to see him, he was usually reading ‘Time’ magazine or doing something similarly leisurely. He did however pass by my office on his way to lunch, in the new Bungalow he had had built, and expressed sympathy at finding me overwhelmed, often not having gone for lunch even when he was on his way back. His way of dealing with this was to offer me a peon to sit in my office, which was an irritation since the man had nothing to do most of the time, and was very slow when I did need to send him somewhere with a message. I was wondering whether Illangakoon had any idea of the work that was actually needed, but my father assured me that he was being kind in his fashion, for he belonged to a world in which Aarachchis attended on all senior officials, dressed grandly and adding to their importance by their simple presence.
I did however get an assistant at the end of the year. I had been totally impressed with the Head Prefect, a large very earnest youth who obviously felt strongly about the problems that beset the College, and clearly appreciated what I tried to do. He was a pillar of strength in ensuring that boys stayed in their classes during the day, and within a few weeks we had got the campus empty during class hours, instead of the frenetic rushing about that I had noticed before. He was also head of the Boarding, so he lived in, and helped too with ensuring proper supervision of Prep.
I was pleased to find that he had no plans for the following year, when having become 20 he would have to leave school, though he wanted to take his Advanced Levels again, having failed the first time. I asked therefore if he could stay on as my Assistant, and this was granted, though Illangakoon went to the Board with the request. Unfortunately I also asked for another Boarder to stay on, to help with games. This was a mistake as he proved irresponsible, and indeed vicious, but the former Head Prefect was extraordinarily useful. He remains for ever characterized in my mind as the person who, after we had made a lot of changes and I was waiting to see how things would turn out, said to me one morning, ‘And what are we going to reform this week, Sir?’
In short, if I thought I had done a lot in a few months, he was determined to do more. By then we had gone back to double session, which I have always thought much better for children, not only so that their brains can rest, but also so they can play and enjoy themselves in the intervals. I believe all educationists agree that this is better, but the teachers who enjoy their leisure, and in particular those of them who have lucrative tuition classes, will agitate against any change. What is needed is freedom to change for those who wish to, when I believe the best principals in the country, backed by parents – who now sometimes send children to tuition right through the afternoon not only because work is not done in schools, but also because that seems the best way of passing time gainfully – will revert to the system under which education was much more effective, with not only better academic results but also more extra-curricular activity.
Certainly, watching the children playing, not only in the lunch interval, but early morning in some cases, I felt that this was how school should be remembered, as a complete experience, not just a place you came to for an extended morning, choosing whether or not you wanted to stay on longer. Unfortunately, with my dismissal, S. Thomas’ reverted to single session – to the great joy of the principal tuition master in the school, who had been on the verge of resigning like LGB, I was told, but then began to present Illangakoon with orchids when he realized there was a chance I could be got rid of. Illangakoon, who had put Siri Edirisinghe in the same breath as LGB when we first met, had graciously accepted the orchids.