She taught us many of life’s lessons
" I thank my God upon every remembrance of you"
These words, in St. Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, Ch. 1, verse 3, capture what is in the hearts and minds of many pupils of Ladies’ College who were privileged to have Sirancee Gunawardena as our Principal.
Whenever I think of Sirancee Gunawardena, I am amazed at the enormous impact someone so quiet and so unassuming had on so many. She was Mrs. Gunawardena, Sirancee Gunawardena or Mrs. G to generations of teachers and pupils in the school; Sirancee to her acquaintances and professional colleagues; Siro to her close friends, aunty Siro to her many nieces; and loved and respected by all of us. At her funeral service held a month ago, the present Principal, a former pupil, spoke of her faith, her humility and her life of service. On November 27 her birthday, I pay tribute to her vision, her courage, her enthusiasm and her empathy.
Mrs. Gunawardena was appointed the first Sri Lankan Principal of Ladies’ College in 1968. Under her vision and guidance, during the next three decades, the school succeeded in maintaining unity in diversity and a fine balance between “book learning” and the other important aspects of education, in the deeper sense of the word--a sense of integrity and sound values, a sense of responsibility and discipline, a sense of community and a sense of humour. She enthusiastically embraced diverse interests, and this helped to create a culture in the school of appreciation of different talents, a tolerance of others’ beliefs and weaknesses and a striving for excellence. It was her courage that led the school on that focused, unwavering path, through a period when vast economic and political changes were taking place in the country, and there was relentless pressure on the education system in Sri Lanka. Many of us feel that we owe much of what we are to that courageous vision and life’s lessons that we learnt in our school.
She gave each of her students the space to develop, and encouraged and nurtured their various talents, whether academic, artistic or organizational, with trust and confidence. Whatever the problem, Mrs. Gunawardena’s office was always accessible to any student at any time.
Her empathy with the students was legendary. I remember an incident in my time, when a pupil vandalized the grand piano in the Hall. The teacher who discovered it wanted to give that child 10 black marks, but Mrs. Gunawardena said “No, bring the child to me. She must be disturbed by something, because no one would willingly damage such a beautiful piano”. That was her sensitivity and understanding. Years later, another batch of her students wrote of our school “this was our second home”. The teaching staff too, were given their own space to harness the pool of student talent around them and achieve excellence. In the words of a former teacher, “She believed in all of us, so everyone could achieve something”.
The achievements during her time as Principal were many. Her far sighted vision recognized, well before governments did, the need for vocational skills training and IT education, when she built the DVS in 1981 and established an Information Highway, complete with computer lab, in 1991. It was years later that successive Sri Lankan governments put these plans on their own development agendas. She ensured the safety of all those under her care in a shattering bomb blast, and thereafter, rebuilt the school out of that destruction in 1993, together with the support of old girls, teachers, students and their parents. She enhanced the school buildings and environs, including constructing the swimming pool in 1992 and the Grade 5 block in 1995, which was later named after her on her retirement in 1997.
There were so many achievements by the students, under the able direction of their teachers, in sports, drama, music, art and academia. These were not her achievements alone, but a collective team effort under her guidance and commitment. That was the harmonious, empowering atmosphere she created around her, including where former pupils and teachers were always made to feel so welcome in the school. She battled ill health with fortitude, and harnessed her creative energy with dedication. Her book on Ola manuscripts was published in 1996. It was so fitting that, on its Founder’s Day this year, the school was able to launch her book of children’s stories.
The memories and accolades are many, but finally, it is the individual that we remember, with such love, respect and gratitude - her creativity, her simplicity, her vision, her faith, her courage, and her life of service to our school. Memories of her quiet strength, her soft voice and her radiant smile that crinkled her eyes, will remain with us. We thank her children, Aruni, Ruwanthi and Anil, for the sacrifices they would have made as her nucleus family, that allowed her to devote her energy and her time to her extended family at Ladies’ College. We share in their sorrow.
One of her former pupils referred me to another quotation from St. Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, Ch 4 verse 8 that epitomises the way she lived her life. “Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on those things.” May she rest in peace.