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Sunday, 8 February 2015

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 Short story

Gratitude

I have been in the teaching profession for over 50 years. Many are the students I have taught, who are in all walks of life today, and many are the experiences I have had, one of which will always be etched in my memory.

As a young teacher, I got a transfer from a school in Colombo to one in the South, where my husband was posted on a special appointment. To come back to Colombo was not very easy. So, I was appointed to a school in the suburbs of Colombo till a vacancy occurred.

There were not many facilities in this school. There were no separate classrooms, the classes being held in a large hall, partitioned by cupboards, or wooden planks or blackboards. There was a large playground, though. I remember taking my classes under the shade of a big tree, as there was so much noise inside.

Parents

There was a small staff. The students were mostly from families of the area, and of the lower middle-class, though there were a few whose parents owned shops and boutiques. They were all respectful and humble. The principal, impeccably dressed in a white national suit was kind, though he looked stern in appearance.

I was given in charge of Grade 10 a class of about 20. There were no parallel classes like today. The students were keen on learning and obedient. The application forms for Grade 10, year-end Government examination had to be forwarded before a stipulated date.

The principal requested me to remind the students about the application fees, well ahead, as it was so easy task collecting the money on time. All had paid excepting for a particular student who kept on saying she would bring the money the following day, but never did so. She was of a quiet disposition, persevering and intelligent. Days passed and I guessed she was finding it difficult to pay up, so I paid it out of my pocket. It was a mere Rs. 30 then. I was relieved, as the forms were duly completed, signed by all the students, and handed over to the office.

Later one morning, on my arrival in school, there was a female clad in cloth and jacket waiting to meet me. I sensed she was a student's mother. I was taken aback when she started abusing me in no good words for having included her daughter's name in the list of students sitting the Government examination, when she had no money to pay the required fee.

I explained that I had already paid, did not want the money back, and had never asked for it. She went on and on. “I'm a poor betel seller, eking out a living by honest means, and you are dragging me further into debt. What is the use of public examinations for people like us.”

The principal intervened. Neither he nor the staff knew I had paid. He pacified her, explained matters and sent her away. Apparently, the student had asked for the money, to be returned to me.

I remember the principal telling me, “This is what happens when you help people who are not appreciative and don't understand the value of education. Anyway you have done a good deed.”

The examination was over, and the results were released. She had done very well, having obtained the second best results in the school. She was excellent in Mathematics. I was overjoyed.

Transfer

My transfer to a school in Colombo itself, came soon after. For the comparatively short period I served in this school, I was amply satisfied. I had done much for the students, and that they appreciated it.

That was my greatest reward. The students in my class, I got to know, were collecting money to buy me a farewell gift. I spoke to the principal and told him I was totally against the idea, and would not like to even accept a sheaf of betel, but my good wishes and blessings will always be with them. After all, they were not well off, humble children of poor families.

He understood, but being a humorous character, he jokingly said, “Why not accept betel. Those selling betel will have a good sale and you would be doing another good deed?”

It was my last day in the school. There was assembly, with the usual speeches. Back in class, my students worshipped me, with no offering of betel, as requested.

Farewell

The last to bid me farewell was the pupil I had helped with the examination fees. She had a few leaves of betel in her hands with something kept between the folded leaves.

My heart missed a beat. Was she returning the Rs. 30? She went down and kissed my feet. I could feel the moisture of her tears.

I quickly opened the folded betel. Enclosed was a poem, neatly written, composed with gratitude and affection, thanking me and asking for forgiveness on behalf of her mother.

Many years later, I was at a leading financial institution in Colombo, wanting to get a payment expedited. There were many people. I was seated till my turn came.

Looking around I noticed everyone was busy.

There were two smart, well-dressed women seated at their tables, in their glass partitioned spacious rooms. I guessed they were important people here.

Suddenly, one of them came towards me. “Tea-cher, cant you remember me? I'm Mangalika.” I couldn't place her as I had come across many Mangalikas in my teaching career. She knew I was confused.

“Teacher, it was you who paid my examination fees, and got scolded in return.”

I had complete forgotten the incident till then. Her eyes welled with tears.

“What are you here?”
“I'm the second in command, awaiting a promotion.”
“I'm so happy. I knew you will do well.”
“What brought you here teacher. You still look the same.”

I explained. She took my forms, and the matter was attended to. Noticing her wedding ring, I enquired about her husband.

“He too is an accountant, double qualified and holding a managerial post. We studied in the same accounts class,” she said blushing.

“I did a small part-time job in a shop to pay for my fees. Mr. Amarapala too helped me.”

She was silent for a while. I knew what was crossing her mind.

“My mother passed away. She spoke of you many a time. She was very repentant for....” I cut short. “I know she went through a difficult time. But she must have been well compensated for it.”

“Yes, I gave her all the comforts.”
“You will be blessed for it, Mangalika.” “And you too, teacher.”

The peon came into her room with a cup of tea for me. Mangalika quickly rose from her seat and with both hands, she herself offered it to me.

“Your children?” I asked.

“My son and daughter both study in these two leading Government schools. They don't have to undergo any of the difficulties I went through,” she said.

“Yet, I've instilled into them the values of our traditions and culture.

Besides, I even make them travel in the school bus,” she said, smiling, making me feel how down to earth she was. As I got up to leave, she got up too.

“How did you come, teacher?”
“By bus. I've taken short leave.”
“I'll get you dropped. My chauffeur is here.”
“No Mangalika, the bus-stop is just across.
Thank you very much.”

As she stood up after going down on her knees to pay her respects, she almost whispered into my ears - “Teacher, you will be happier to know that from next week, that is, from the first of next month, I will be holding the most senior post here.”

My happiness knew no bounds. I left the place feeling happy, that the favour she had to do for me was only to expedite a delayed payment, and not an undue one which may have made her feel obliged.I think of Mangalika as one of my “Star pupils,” not because she shines now, but because she has risen to these heights by dint of hard work and from very humble beginnings, yet not at all desirious of forgetting her roots, and holding fast on to high moral values.

To her, life seems to be more meaningful, treasuring not only the peaks in her life, but also the difficulties and sorrows she underwent to achieve what she is today. Her humility and gratitude are exemplary.

All names are fictitious.

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