Nihal De Silva (AGN)
STC or S.Thomas’ College’s motto is Esto Perpetua – Be thou forever. This motto in Latin, decided on by Bishop James Chapman, is not unique to STC, which itself was founded in 1851 AD. According to my Google search there are 21 comments on this motto including one from an old Thomian. References go back well before our founding. It is also the motto of a girl’s school in Virginia, USA, the motto of the State of Idaho, USA, and also of various civic organizations. This of course does not in any way reduce the reverence we should have for our ‘Alma Mater’ – again a Latin phrase – variously translated as ‘nourishing mother’, ‘nursing mother’, or ‘fostering mother’, suggesting that a school should provide intellectual nourishment to its students”.
I was introduced to Latin at the Upper Fourth level in 1957 by Warden R.S. De Saram, from a text book written by him. It was quite an eye and mind opening experience as I realized that the English vocabulary was largely of Latin/Greek extraction, and what the English did was just make the grammar less crazy. I remember the ditty ‘Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be, it killed those ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me’. This was also the time I first understood the phrase Alma Mater although I sang it as part of the college song. Why not Alma Pater? I thought, but dared not ask the Warden – a fierce but gentle disciplinarian. I, yet ask, why not Alma Pater?
Over the years I became an Obstetrician, and then subspecialized in Fetal Medicine and Surgery. Yes, there is such a specialty. I realized that ‘mater’ had a deeper, more primeval biologic value than ‘pater’. Probably, the nourishing, nursing and fostering attributes are what males are deficient in biologically – not only in the human world but also in the animal world. This is not to denigrate the fact that most Thomians ultimately become ‘paters’. Ironically though, many awe-inspiring monuments and catastrophes (like buildings, bridges, ships, mountains, storms, earthquakes etc.) are also yet referred to in the feminine form. Why? There seems to be an aura of enduring power (gentle or harsh) behind the ‘mater’. Even nature is referred to as ‘mother’.
So, what about our Alma Mater? She is now 170 ‘not out’ according to Don Carolis. She has seen and heard (of boys) more than any one of us can ever see in our lifetime. Surviving two world wars, being bombed during the second, displaced of domicile, surviving ethnic strife, transiting from imperial rule to independence, defying political interference in education, weathering changing political climes, cheerfully accommodating multi-religious traditions, producing fine and clean statesmen, politicians, academicians, professionals, sportsmen, businessmen, clergy, artists and performers of local and international repute, keeping abreast with technology, are some of her achievements. This is the stuff of tradition. It does not come quick and easy. The Royal-Thomian cricket encounter and the Christmas Carol Service are now on par with national events. Go, STC.
Despite all this, she does not seem to have shown tiredness. Age, yes. Tiredness, no. Esto Perpetua. The English translation given to us boys was ‘Be thou forever’. ‘Thou’ was the biblical equivalent of ‘you’ and conveyed the notion of a person – in this case, a Thomian, a beacon, a stalwart, a role model, a pathfinder, a positive example over time – as it were. With ‘maturity’ it dawned on me that all Thomians could not be all of the above all the time, and it further dawned on me that ‘thou’ can stand for the institution rather than an individual. The other modern translation of Esto Perpetua is ‘Let it be perpetual’ which is more applicable to an object rather than a being. This expanded and enhanced meaning makes great sense to me now.
‘Perpetua’ is a long time – a much longer time than 170 years. In comparison, the Centenary Group (CG) is 69. The Sri Lankan males’ life expectancy is now about 77 years but those from Bishop’s College is about 83, proving that the sea air is not doing us much good compared to the Beira air. We do have a few CG members close to becoming centenarians and many are in their 80s. At any rate, we in the CG are a select group who have voluntarily decided to help perpetuate our Alma Mater. We who have successfully survived this modern-day rat-race, dog eat dog world, have taken the trouble to look back, reflect, be grateful for the memories (and beyond) and are supporting a young at heart but aged mother.
The CG was formed soon after our hundredth anniversary (1951), obviously by those who believed that the school had made a lasting impression on them. Initial membership was open to all who were registered in school in the year1951. Theoretically, the CG would have had to close shop and go extinct by about 2020. But it has not, as you observed at our last AGM. Along the way, we have expanded the definition for membership, and it is now open to Thomians who reach age 65. If not for this rule modification I could not be your President/Chairman! Thanks for this opportunity to serve. We are now strong and even have a large expatriate membership. We also have ideas as to how not to go extinct.
So, in a way, the baton is being handed over to a younger and newer generation. Having been an athlete I know the importance of a smooth baton change for victory. Again, go STC. Show your Thomian grit. What is this stuff called grit we are famous for? According to Meriam- Webster it is a 170-year combination of ‘backbone, constancy, fiber, fortitude, grittiness, guts, intestinal fortitude, pluck and spunk’, all mixed together in different amounts to suit the situation. Note that the composition of grit has attributes usually assigned to males, who ultimately become ‘paters’. All CG members I know are ‘paters’ – and good ones at that.
Now let’s give the word ‘pater’ some respect – or even a lot of it. Pater gives rise to the word Patriotism. What is the stuff of Patriotism? Here is my take. It is a powerful force linked to love of country. A similar force directed towards institutions is called loyalty, although the distinction is often very subtle or even non-existent at times. All CG members are equally ‘loyal patriots’.
Nostalgia makes me take aim at Shakespeare through Mr. R.A.F. (rifle) Mendis our English Literature master (of the 1950s-60s) who imbibed William and the bottle with equal enthusiasm – one emboldening and complimenting the other. In 1958 he revived the Drama Society and produced “The Merchant of Venice” (G.L.Peiris and I were prompters) whose opening lines went
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; it wearies me; you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, that I have much ado to know myself.”
These words refer to the complex situation we call ‘love’- the stuff that bonds males and females to do crazy things. With apologies to the Bard, I would like to substitute the word ‘loyal/patriotic’ for ‘sad’ in the first line.
“In sooth, I know not why I am so loyal and patriotic; it moves me; you say it moves you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. And such a want-wit(fool) loyalty/patriotism makes of me, that I have much ado to know myself.”
Loyalty to STC is a mixture of deep-seated values, gratitude and nostalgia. Nostalgia is the stuff we treasure from our 10-12 years (at most) at college. This is a miniscule amount of time within ‘perpetua’ and yet we keep coming back. That is how good it was. We, the elders have the responsibility of maintaining this continuity. This is a huge task and is being shared by many other loyal old Thomians even outside of the CG. In 1951 the STC student body was about 1000. Now it is more than 3000. The younger old boys are a plenty and have adopted modern fund raising techniques for their expressions of support. The future of the CG (by present definition) seems assured as the younger one’s ages catch up. The present CG membership is limited and unique, but their fervor is second to none despite our age. We have stood by our Alma Mater very well and in a dignified way.
Traditionally, the CG’s mission is the maintenance of the ‘Senior Block’ and the ‘Dining Hall’ – structures that have sustained the school the longest. The senior founder members of the CG probably felt the effects of age themselves and proposed this mission. Though these buildings’ locations are unchanged, their names and uses have changed somewhat. The senior block now houses middle school classrooms. Although with fewer boarders the dining hall itself is less busy, the adjoining kitchen is in poor shape and expects support from the CG. Although not a conflict, it leads to misunderstandings when newly hired maintenance crews assume we are responsible for the kitchen too. We are not – but we do clarify and help. Our quiet accomplishments have also created some expectations from related school societies or groups, requesting donations. There is healthy division of opinion at the committee level about this but the predominant opinion is that we should prioritize our original mission – and keep cash in hand for emergencies rather than be a convenient source for donations – however deserving. We should however be open (within our means) to very worthy causes like the Corona crisis presently affecting College.
I joined STC in 1952 into Class 2B under the command of a Miss Bay (age 70+) who lived in Mutuwal and drove to work daily in her British Austin of a similar vintage. Women drivers were not known in Ceylon at the time. My first classroom was in the NAAFI building. It was a temporary wooden building put up by the British forces that occupied the college premises during WW11. NAAFI stood for Navy, Army, Airforce Institute – a sort of tri-forces operations office. It stood near where the present canteen is and partially encroached into the Big Club Grounds . It had a cadjan roof with the occasional centipede, millipede and scorpion also attending class. It is my belief that this building was for theater entertainment of the forces as it had a raised stage at one end with wooden tables and benches arranged as in makeshift wartime theaters I have seen in the movies. My parents told me I was going to attend the best school in the country but I was quite disappointed with the cadjan roof as it did not fit my image of “being the best school”. I had come from Girl’s High School (down the road) and it had no cadjan roof. The NAFFI building burnt down in 1952 and my classroom relocated to the original old lower school building, although we continued to use some of the semi burnt desks and benches. Unfortunately, although I lived through this, I do not see this fire recorded in the recent history book of the school.
They say that people respect and study history as they get older. I am certainly one of them. I certainly have great memories of my 12 years at College. I also now realize that living so close to College made me more like a boarder, as college was my immediate neighbor. Her gardens and grounds (big and small), the pool, the chapel, the hall, the fives courts, the scout room, the weights room, the Tarzan tree, the sports events, the club activities were all in my back yard. I now feel sorry for the students who commuted from afar (by bus and car) and missed all what the school had to offer. Thank you STC. You were a good neighbor and mother.
I am yet impressed at the vision of the original landscape architects. The spacing in between buildings, the classical style of the buildings (senior block, the old lab, the hall and the boarding houses), reminiscent of traditional European academic institutions, the location of the Chapel and its watchful perch on the premises, the quadrangle – all on a gentle slope. The detached low-profile dining hall and kitchen, feeding and nourishing the boarders. What a beautiful layout that has graced the area for more than a hundred years. I have taken quite a few high-profile foreign academicians to show them my academic beginnings and they have been very impressed. One said “I can feel the quality of the education in the buildings itself”. Yes, our mother is a wonderful cradle.
However, a few sentences about toilets – or lavatories (or lavos) as they were commonly called. Toilet paper was not in vogue in 1951. Neither were bidet showers. The most frequently used toilet in 1952 was just a bucket behind the swimming pool for just #1. What did we do for #2? The NAAFI toilets behind the raised stage were reserved. For whom? The staff? Although the big toilets next to the Tarzan tree were for the boarders, they resented day scholars using them. Just like at the Versaille Palace (which had no “official” toilets!), I feel this aspect of hygiene was quite neglected, at least for the entry level boys in the early 1950s.
To be continued – Section II