Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.
MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations
An invitation from the Head Prefect to submit an article to the College Magazine is not one that can be refused easily or taken lightly. I last wrote to the magazine in the mid-90’s, before taking over as Editor. That’s before many who will read this were even born. Some of the technologies used in the magazine’s production then would be alien to those in charge of it today. I did the final version of an article on a typewriter, with freshly purchased ribbon so that the ink would be uniform and dark. I then shifted to WordPerfect, a programme and format that’s now entirely defunct. All the drafts were handwritten. The type-setting was done at the printers, which meant we had to meticulously go through proofs and mark on the margins everything that needed to be corrected, edited and adjusted.
The writing of, amongst others, leading public figures, lawyers, entrepreneurs, speakers, businessmen, activists and researchers today can be found in the pages of the College magazine at the time. The topics were diverse, ranging from science, technology, politics, literature and contemporary developments to more subject specific content or those based on personal experience. Satire was encouraged, and no one was spared. Allow me to recall one incident. In an article penned by me under a pseudonym, Coll Cops and even teachers at the time, loved or reviled, were taken apart by reference to Dryden’s poetry and the wider cannon of English literature. No real names were mentioned, but characteristic traits, phrases, mannerisms and behaviour served to identify the victims of an acerbic wit. A day after the magazine was out, the late Neville de Alwis, the Warden at the time, called me to his office. The Warden never once asked to see the final proof of a magazine before it went to print, but was invariably held accountable for its content. Knowing full well why he wanted to see me, I wanted to his office not without some dread. Magazine in hand, he inquired as to why I wrote what I did, because he had entertained complaints from the targets of my satire that they had been made fun of, and that too, in the College magazine, read by parents and old boys. I said it was essential to question those who taught us and were office bearers in school, because to obey authority without question ran against the very ethos of College. And that, I said, is what I thought makes a good Thomian. After a brief pause and another glance at the article, addressing me by my surname, Bakka (as Warden de Alwis was fondly or fearfully called at the time) cautioned me against riling the teachers and senior Prefects any further, but said he would stand by the piece. I never heard anything from him again on the issue, and I never knew what pushback he had to face from teachers and others around the content I had written and published. Even after this incident, he never once asked to see final proofs of the magazine before it went to print. Warden, and College – beyond just the brick and mortar of buildings, but the very spirit of our institution – instilled in us the belief that to truly learn, one needed to question. That one could be brutal with ideas and their contestation, but kind with people and their beliefs. That there was no one, and nothing, above questioning. And though none of us realised it at the time, to be entrusted with great responsibility at a young age was its own lesson – that once asked to be in charge of something, you took the blame and fall, but allowed others and College to take the credit for all that was good and great. Warden’s approach of entrusting students with responsibility, taking their side whenever they were not in the wrong, and non-interference in work, are lessons many of us have internalised and now define how we work.
College was the foundation of what we do, and who we are. And it was this light touch of guidance and freedom, or inspiration and education – beyond and often in spite of boring syllabi – that defined our time at S. Thomas’. This is also why it is so difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t gone to College why it is so fundamentally different to other schools – no less prestigious and staffed by those no less devoted to learning and education. College teaches life lessons without setting out to do so, and most of those lessons are learnt outside the classroom – in what we do, say and write in the fourteen years we spend in school.
I realise though things are different today. When I left College, the Computer Room still had Commodore 64’s, hooked up to individual TV screens. There was no broadband, and the cacophony of connecting to the Internet over dial-up was a dead giveaway that you were going to surf the web. Social media hadn’t been invented. There were no smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo or YouTube. There was no Android or iPhone. No WhatsApp or any other instant messaging service. CellTell sponsored live updates at the Roy-Tho in the mid-90’s, and I was in charge of calling in the scores after every over on Motorola that was the size of a small car battery and about as heavy.
The advent and ubiquitous availability of technology, many in College and outside it fear, dilutes our values and principles, diverts our attention, divests education to various virtual agents and damages the fabric of school, especially for sentimental old fools – nay, boys – who never fail to note that things were much better in their time. Is that true? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Boys in College who read this know better than their parents the trappings and distractions of social media. They also know how useful it can be, and how community, friendship, camaraderie and Thomian grit have virtual connections as strong, and as real, as the physical bonds in College. The current Warden, on Facebook, is a beacon of our essential values, to all those who follow his updates. The Head Prefect of College, who I’ve followed for a long time on Instagram, doesn’t appear to be in the least bit corrupted or distracted by his use of the photo sharing platform. We tend latch on to every single instance and story about the misuse or abuse of social media, but fail to recognise that these are the exceptions. Whether in a classroom and with books, in Chapel arguing with fellow debaters, in the College Hall during Current Affairs, at the library checking out books, in the playing field, swimming pool, scrum or pitch, at kumite or cricket, as fourth man or Number Eight, as Captain or coxswain, buying sweets from Kāti or playing carom at the Cop Shed, we learnt lessons in behaviour, civility, queuing up, sportsmanship, humility in victory, grace in defeat, respect without genuflection, freedom of thought, the courage to uphold our convictions, a fierce independence of spirit, the importance of meritocracy over anything else and the value of a liberal worldview. We were given space to fail, lose and make mistakes. We were told that the greatest lessons College had to impart was not from the syllabi we had to memorise and regurgitate at exams, but in how we treated one another. And all this both predates social media and is also present in them, by virtue of how the platforms of used by those in College. I wouldn’t worry too much about technology corrupting young minds – you know better!
It is customary for an article of this nature, by an old-Thomian and former Editor to boot to offer words of advice to those in College today. I have absolutely nothing of the sort to offer. I know nothing of your lives, and how you live them. Your choices are your own, and you will reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of what you do, in College, outside it, and when you have left it. Sri Lanka today offers one great lesson – that you can cheat, lie, kill, insult, rape, plot and force your way to positions of wealth and power. The very values held sacred at S. Thomas’ are those jettisoned the first in the pursuit of fame and fortune. You can opt to do the same. You may also opt to do something different. All the Thomians who have remained my close friends are those who have taken the less travelled road. There are gifted lawyers who instead of commercial law, focus on human rights or constitutional reform. There are photographers, who are highly paid for their commercial work, but whose heart is in social activism and the capture of injustice or environmental devastation. There are those who have embraced their sexuality, and knowing they are gay, bisexual or transgender, now help others deal with the incredible cruelty meted out by an intolerant society against those who fail to somehow conform. There are award winning thespians, who help others through acting to discover their full potential. There are those who have braved death threats to stay on Sri Lanka and create institutions that have in turn attracted other Thomians to its fold, to strengthen our democracy.
Arguably, other schools also have illustrious alumni. So, what makes an old boy of College any different? There is an apocryphal story of how a Royalist would walk down a road, thinking he owns it, and how a Thomian would walk down one, not caring who did. The essential irreverence in College, which is its own tradition, is what makes you exceptional, and also, well suited to take on challenges across a myriad of disciplines. More than anything else, what would concern me the most about College would be if the careful mix of irreverence and respect was upset by either by annoying progressives who feel there was little need for tradition, or conversely, by mawkish conservatives who feel there is nothing to be gained by embracing modernity. More than the Warden and teachers, you are responsible for maintaining this careful balance. It’s what you do that defines College – how you present yourself and behave at mall or match, just as much as what you write at an exam. It’s about taking pride in being a Thomian, but not allowing that to gloss over what is wrong in College, and with College. It’s about speaking out and stepping up, no matter who or what age you are. Importantly, it is about how we treat others who aren’t Thomians – including girls and women. How we see, talk to and treat them – friend or foe – defines us. And the worst we can be is to be to those who, for whatever reason, hate us, what they are and seek to do to us.
What more can or should I say? It’s easy to romanticise our time in College, and tellingly, this almost often is articulated in a manner that places us in a superior position to other boys schools. Saying we are better than others doesn’t make it so. What we do matters. How we speak matters. What we believe in matters. How we deal with difference and adversity, matters. How and who we choose to love matters. Me telling you this may not matter. But you understanding the value of it for yourself, does matter. And that’s what, for me, College does. It doesn’t care a toss about who you are or where you came from. It treats with equal contempt and love, everyone. Everyone has a fair go at everything. With over fifty extra-curricular activities, societies and clubs, it’s not just cricket, rugger and exams that define College life. It’s a Christian school, but it’s not a Christian faith that defines it. It’s an exclusive, private school many who rant against it secretly wish they went to, but mindless elitism isn’t what is taught inside it. We grew up fighting with, fiercely loyal to, loving or hating our classmates or teammates not because they were Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, rich or poor. We saw them, and they saw us, only as Thomians.
That’s something rare, which you will only more fully realise when you leave both this magazine and College behind. We see the world differently to others, because College is a wonderful, verdant space – in my time, before my time as well as now – that doesn’t differentiate or treat students based on their identity, faith or last name. What results, for those who imbibe the prodigious opportunities for learning and growth in College, is a rare breed – a cosmopolitan, liberal gentleman.
Be proud you are one of them.
Published in the S. Thomas’ College magazine, Term 1-3, 2017, Vol CXL Nos 1-3