Claire Murray - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Sri Lanka
I’d like to teach the world to sing…one Sri Lankan child at a time
2009 was a year of change for me, leaving a great post-graduation job to embark on a new career as a teacher. I chose to take a break between the corporate world I was used to before becoming a student again. What better way to do that than have an adventure. Sri Lanka – why not?!
So with the decision made (based purely on the fact that I’d never been, my cousin had enjoyed a trip there once, the colors and scenery looked amazing and I liked spicy food, sunshine, and a challenge) I touched down in Colombo on the 11th of July. 5 weeks of teaching English and seeing a new country were ahead of me. I was excited and anxious all at the same time – was this going to be the best decision I’d ever made?
After a couple of nights resting up in Colombo, where I met Gishan and Koreen from the office, along with some other volunteers, I was met by Charley who was going to drive me to my placement. Having been an avid reader of every single newsletter Gishan had sent and from trawling through the Projects Abroad website, I had heard that Charley was the loveliest man ever. I was excited to meet him! He certainly lived up to and surpassed my expectations AND (lucky me) with a bit of luck on my side I actually ended up with him for my host-dad due to some last minute changes of my placement.
I lived in Wadduwa, between Panadura and Kalutara. The Perera family home was lovely. Comfortable, spacious and clean, and with the best cook in the country as the host I quickly realized I was in for a treat! Indrani, Charley’s wife, became my most favorite person in Sri Lanka. If asked to describe my time in Sri Lanka in one word I would say “Indrani”. Her cooking was fabulous – varied, delicious and plentiful. Charley enjoyed teasing us with his trademark “eat more, eat more” comments when I was clearly fit to bursting with roti, dahl, hoppers, potato curry….the list is endless.
Eating with my hand was liberating and easy – a must try! But not only that, Indrani was sweet and extremely generous. Ice cream, homemade juices and the best fruit you could buy, were daily events in our home. I was fascinated watching her washing huge pots, or scrubbing her son’s white uniform (surely the best dressed boy), cooking on her open fire and praying. A dedicated woman who lived to help those who were not so fortunate and a tremendous host. Saying goodbye was difficult.
My placement was in a small government school in Mawala, just a 10 minute walk from the house. Marie and I regularly met cows, dodged cars and jumped in to ditches to avoid buses on our way to school each day. We were local celebrities. The schoolchildren ran around and shouted “good morning teacher” when we arrived. The little ones were busy eating breakfast still, or running around in their bare feet, all waiting for us to “come, come” to THEIR classroom that day. We spent a lot of time with the younger children singing songs, drawing pictures and trying to teach English as best we could. With no knowledge of Sinhala we could only communicate with corresponding head wobbles every now and again!
Working with the older children was equally a challenge. Their enthusiasm was infectious but there was only so much we could cover in a short space of time, especially when our placement landed during an exam period. Nevertheless all the students, male and female enjoyed speaking to us, getting their photo taken and learning our songs. Although our days at the school were sometimes haphazard, dotting between different classes at the whim of the principal, we always enjoyed a cup of very sugary tea in the school office – treated like royalty getting to use the ‘best’ china at all times.
We came to know the English teacher quite well. Harsha took us under her wing and helped us out by suggesting what we should do with the students or by communicating with the principal. We were lucky enough to visit her home one evening for dinner. Her 7 year old daughter, who attends an English medium school, was a ray of sunshine. She is a beautiful girl who thoroughly enjoyed strange white English speaking girls visiting her home. Not only did she have her best ‘frock’ on but she was very keen to show us all her school books and sing to us. It was wonderful to be welcomed in to their home.
Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country. The contrast between coast and hill country are immense. For such a small country it is packed full of things to see. Fortunately I was able to attend two Projects Abroad organized weekends during my trip, and spent the others on the beach. I saw Kandy, Pinnewala Elephant Orphange, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Minneriya National Park, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa. The rest will have to wait for my next trip! My numerous photos tell a hundred stories of things I saw and people I met.
Volunteering with Projects Abroad in Sri Lanka was a great decision, a perfect adventure which filled my summer. Working with the children, experiencing heavily crowded buses, being an independent traveler and a local celebrity, being immersed in the culture, dressing up in a sari, eating wonderful food and now knowing some people who I would be happy to call family – these are all things that I will remember for the rest of my life. Most of all, I found a true friend in my co-volunteer/fellow Perera sister – Marie! A friend for life I hope.
As I sit here now, some four months on since returning I have had time to reflect on the experience. I could write so much more as I’ve covered so very little. I’d like to end with one of my fondest memories:
It soon became apparent upon arriving at the school that the Principal teacher wished us to prepare the school for an ‘English Day’ – an event to be held on the last week of term. As such Marie and I set out preparing a short program. 4 weeks of practice followed, leaving us hoarse and sweaty. Nursery rhymes and famous songs echoed in our heads all day long, often well after the school bell at 1.30pm.
But nothing quite made me as happy as when Grade 9 and 10 mastered one of my all time favorites: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”. This song was the soundtrack of my summer. The pupils cheered when I explained what I thought it was really about: the end of war; everyone as friends; all religions and skin colors and cultures mixing; no animosity; no grief. I didn’t get very far in improving the conversational English skills of those pupils but I did have every pupil standing hand in hand, singing in perfect harmony, wishing for peace throughout their land.
I might never teach the world to sing, but I made a good start in Sri Lanka.