Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

My Teachers: Miss Agnes Bay

“Mr. J.L.B.Maketoni’s handwriting was angular and careful – the script of one who had been taught penmanship, as he had been at school all those years ago – a skill he had never forgotten”

 -Alexander McCall Smith: The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)

Meeting an old friend from my schooldays recently got me reflecting about the various teachers who used to teach us in primary school at S. Thomas’.

Memory is a good filter, because we usually tend to remember the times that were good – and we conveniently do not recall the days that were not so good (like the day our whole class got caned by the headmaster!). But on the whole, most of us, whatever school we attended, would like to remember that our schooldays, as Kandy’s Trinity College anthem says, were “great days and happy days in the best school of all”.

Among the teachers I distinctly remember were the two form teachers in the first class into which I went. Those were the days when we had 25 to 30 boys in a class, and one’s school life began in the Second Standard – or what was known then as Form I. It was a big transition moving from the mixed primary school at Ladies’ College Colombo, where I was one of six or seven boys in the senior class, to a boys’ school where we were the smallest of the small fry in a school of over a thousand boys. The two teachers, Mrs Karunaratne and Mrs Jacob, were gentle souls who looked after us and helped us through these teething days. They evoked in us the kind of affection and esteem that made us all address them quite inappropriately but most respectfully as ‘Miss’ even when we met them years later after we had left school.

The teacher we had in our second year was a bit different to these two motherly ladies. Our Form II teacher was a formidable English lady called Miss Agnes Bay. She used to live in Mutwal and drive herself several miles each morning to the school in an ancient Austin car. It would be parked under the ‘kottang’ tree near the classroom block – and on the not infrequent occasions that she had trouble starting it, she would commandeer some of the senior boys to push it and provide a “thallu” start. I can still remember her imperiously ordering a few of the burly fellows who were getting ready for first fifteen rugger practice to stop kicking the ball around and come over to push her car.

It was Miss Bay who made us laboriously write and write in our Royal Crown copybooks so that we would improve our handwriting (“penmanship” she would call it). “Thick and thin, thick and thin” she would repeat, reminding us to get the up-strokes of our letters thin and the downstrokes thick – which was a tall order as we had to write with ancient 20th century pens fitted with nibs, dipping them in ink kept in a little inkwell on our desks. Students of today who sit at these very same desks at S. Thomas’, who use ballpoints and felt pens and have probably never seen a “dipping pen”, probably do not realise that the hole at the far right hand corner of the desks at which they sit was meant to hold an inkwell.  Trying to write a complete sentence without spilling ink on the book was difficult enough; producing “thick and thin” variations to the straight lines was a task akin to attempting Chinese calligraphy with a chopstick dipped in soy sauce. Many were the times we were called “Horrid Boys” and occasionally given a spank with the flat end of the ruler!

Perhaps the worst criticism I ever received of my hand writing was the time when Miss Bay pointedly compared it to fowl-scratchings and, with her limited command of Sinhalese dismissed me with “Wijesinha, your writing is just like *Kukul-kakul!”

* chicken legs or drumsticks!

If you liked reading this story, more such stories can be found in my book Tales From my Island – available as an e-book from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble or Bookbaby.com

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One comment on “My Teachers: Miss Agnes Bay

  1. Roger Thiedeman
    September 13, 2020

    Hi Sanjiva, Good to read this story!
    You can imagine my disappointment, after starting at College, to discover that the “Baby Austin lady” I used to see on a daily basis was no longer on the tutorial staff, thus preventing me from inspecting her delightful if ramshackle-looking car at close quarters!

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2020 by in schooldays, Short stories and tagged , , .
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