Plus - Appreciation

A queen among ladies, she taught us to keep our heads up and our shoulders back

Gwen Opie

Actually, there were two Miss Opies at Ladies’ College, but nobody ever had difficulty identifying who THE Miss Opie was. The other, her younger sister who smiled more easily, was known as Miss Rita, and irreverent schoolgirls called them, behind their backs, “Big O” and “Little O”.

Not too many “Opie” girls are above ground today, but the few of us who are still around would, given a chance, celebrate the life of a great missionary educationist who lives on vividly in our minds.

It does not seem like 65 years since Miss Opie passed away, at the age of 57, while still at the helm of the school she served so well for the better part of her adult life. Her birth anniversary falls on December 9, a fitting time to recall the remarkable woman who, to a great extent, moulded us.

When she arrived in Ceylon (as it then was) in 1915, Gwen Opie (born December 9, 1887) had the letters MA, MSc to her name, a rare distinction for a woman well over half a century ago. She earned these degrees at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, and after graduation she had her teacher training at the North Canterbury Training College.

She then taught in secondary schools in New Zealand and finally, when she felt she was called to the mission field, she underwent training as a missionary. It was our great good fortune that when our founder principal, Miss Lilian Nixon, left the island, Miss Opie came as a worthy successor.

A very shy and private person, she had the courage to leave behind all that was dear and familiar to her in her native land and travel on a troopship to a distant country to spend the rest of her life among an alien people and culture, eventually coming to love them as much as they in turn loved her.

In 1916, she was formally named principal. There may be, as some aver, “unfortunate legacies of British education” extant in independent Sri Lanka, but well over and above that there still lingers strongly the powerful influence of the many great and good women and men who gave devoted and selfless service to the cause of education in this country.

When we “Old Girls” gather at the school for any special occasion, in the minds of many of us who are over 80, there looms the unseen but felt presence of one whose impact on our lives in our formative and impressionable years, still resonates strongly.

While Miss Opie unremittingly encouraged academic excellence, she was equally focused on character-building, on turning out truly educated girls of high principle and purpose. Who among us can forget the emphasis with which she drummed into us the value of absolute honesty at all times and particularly at examination time, be it only our end-of-term tests? Cheating was something she taught us to abhor as a vile practice.

She expected the best from her girls in every compartment of living. Courtesy was another virtue she constantly upheld. We learnt a little song that said:

“Of courtesy, it is much less
Than courage of heart or faithfulness;
Yet in my walks it seems to me
That the grace of God is in courtesy.”

Today it might be considered quaint that she should have introduced a grade for Courtesy, along with Conduct, at the bottom of our school reports, but it showed how much importance she attached to it. Our carriage – how we held ourselves – was another matter on which she held forth frequently.

“Shoulders back, girls, and heads up,” she would call out, wanting to see us march smartly when we walked from assembly to our classrooms. She discouraged us from folding our hands over our stomachs because it resulted in a slouch – but if hands were folded behind our backs, she said it pulled our shoulders back and improved our posture. So it was not surprising that “carriage marks” were awarded every week by our teachers to those who carried themselves erect and sat up straight in class. A silver “Carriage Cup” was awarded at the annual prize-giving.

I know that I am but one of innumerable “Opie girls” who, to this day, cannot bear to see a scrap of paper lying on the ground. My husband used to be amused by my compulsion to pick up litter. This was another of the bees in Miss Opie’s bonnet and her frequent lectures on it had to rub off on us.She loved grass and plants. We were encouraged to plant flowerbeds outside our classrooms, and even to bring pot plants into the room, just as much we were forbidden to walk on the grass on the front lawn. When World War II broke out, the flowering plants gave way to vegetables, but we weren’t too successful at that.

Another clear memory I have of Miss Opie is of her holding up a rather sad-looking little Sinhala book and telling us that we should take pride in our mother tongue and make it our business, when we grew up, to produce better quality books in Sinhala and Tamil that would compare favourably with the attractive, well-illustrated English books to which we were irresistibly drawn.

She also urged us to describe familiar, indigenous scenes and experiences in our English compositions, rather than writing about summer and winter and snow and apples and such.
Miss Opie had an almost pathological dislike of noise.

“In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” and “empty vessels sound the loudest” were oft-quoted texts. We were surprised when she implored us to avoid using the words “yell”, “howl” and “shriek” in our compositions. Her reasoning seemed to be that ladies simply did not descend to that level in using their voices, so why employ such ugly words when writing”.

She never kept much to her office on school days, and her beloved dog Judy would trot ahead and give us warning that Miss Opie was on her way.

Of her talks at assembly, a few have stayed in my mind. One was built around Christ’s saying, “To whom much is given, from him is much required.” She urged us to be ever mindful of the many who did not enjoy the advantages and privileges we did.

Had she lived longer, she would have smiled, with that rare smile that would light up her normally stern features, to see the number of former students who were serving the community in volunteer organisations such as the Lanka Mahila Samithi, the Girl Guides, the YWCA, the CNAPT, and the Ceylon Association for the Mentally Retarded.

She had many dreams for the school, but the one nearest her heart was a chapel of our own that would be the inspiration for all the values the school tried to inculcate.

The gem of a chapel, which she named the Chapel of the Hope of the World, became a reality in 1933. On January 31, 1944, we walked reverently into this same chapel to pay our last respects to her as her mortal remains lay there.

Miss Opie’s impact on us was so strong and enduring because she lived the kind of Christian life she preached.

Dear Miss Opie, even if we are not the pillars of perfection you would have had us become, we who were privileged to be your pupils during that blessed era, salute you with gratitude and with love for pointing us to the highest through your teaching and the example of your life.

Anne Abayasekara

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