Leonard de Alwis’s decision to publish his memoirs was made as a result of the suggestions of his friends and family. In the Afterword, his son Chamika tells us that ‘This is a book about a man who has dedicated half a century of his life to the cause of education in Sri Lanka… the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The inner qualities of a person are the most inspiring


Leonard de Alwis’s decision to publish his memoirs was made as a result of the suggestions of his friends and family. In the Afterword, his son Chamika tells us that ‘This is a book about a man who has dedicated half a century of his life to the cause of education in Sri Lanka… the book gradually evolved from a mere collection of anecdotes, into one mapping the vagaries of the education system in Sri Lanka, and his experiences in the UK and in Pakistan, as a source for others in education’. Leonard de Alwis was a long serving Principal of Trinity College, Kandy, and also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army.

Autobiographical memoirs are written in the first person, and many memoirists choose to write the whole account of their lives in their own voice. These memoirs are constructed in the form of third person anecdotes, skilfully interspersed with narrative, and the voice of the subject is heard as reported speech, as recounted to the writer Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe.

In the contemporary world, in which politicians and public figures are introduced to us through ‘tell-all’ tabloids and grand narratives, all usually written in first person voice, Leonard de Alwis’ dignified choice, to speak of his professional and vocational achievements and to focus on service rather than self, is both refreshing and revelatory. The anecdotal sections in the central section of the book are written by friends, colleagues and students of Leonard de Alwis, each adding a different facet to our impression of his overall life. The key themes that I perceived in the life of the character that emerges are continuity, commitment to service, and a sense of duty, moral, intellectual and spiritual, to create and develop a life which derives its central meaning from the conscious dedication of an individual to the development of his society.

He himself introduces the motif of continuity: ‘The de Alwis family has had connections to Trinity College that go back a long way. My father’s family had been associated with Trinity from the 19th century… we have had an unbroken link to the College…we can count 4 generations at Trinity; there are only a handful of families that can claim such a long link to the school from around the time of the school’s inception…When I was appointed principal of the school, to me, it was the culmination of my family’s devotion to both God and to Trinity College.’

In a fragmenting world, ties and links like this described above simultaneously anchor an individual, through a strong sense of personal identity, and strengthen the society he lives in. While reading the accounts of Mr. de Alwis, from former pupils such as Channa Daswatte and Kumar Sangakkara, I received the sense of a person who, essentially too private to discuss his personal feelings and opinions, drew strong encouragement and motivation from his sense of being part of a tradition, and who was concerned to contribute and extend that tradition, and ensure that the links remained unbroken.

This commitment to continuity was particularly necessary in the years of civil unrest and disorder, and the tensions that have troubled Sri Lankan society during the past few decades. An incident in 1989, which took place during the JVP insurgency, showed the quality of leadership that was required of a Principal in such a context, that ensured that long-term stability was possible, amidst situations of great stress, when decisions had to be taken which would have long-term effects on all those involved. A leading attorney in Colombo is quoted as saying that, ‘at a time when all the schools in Kandy had been forced by the JVP to close down…a student who had links to high-ranking members of the JVP insurgents of the ‘70s was working with a small group to have the school closed down…De Alwis handled the whole situation with such maturity that I will never forget the incident. With the help of two other teachers, he managed to contact the boy’s mother and navigate the school out of the crisis. No one knew about it, no one was expelled or penalized, and the student concerned was able to continue his studies at Trinity. He is now a successful employee in the private sector. Trinity was the only school in Kandy that never closed down during the JVP crisis. I think de Alwis’ greatest achievement was his management of the school during this time. People don’t usually value the man who averts a crisis.’

Book facts: When Life touches Life – the memoirs of Leonard de Alwis
Reviewed by Devika Brendon

In fact, we see all around us, throughout the world today, crises of every kind, and individuals in various ways benefitting from them, both directly and indirectly. The low-key intervention and restrained management style described above shows the opposite of this, with its focus on the personal rather than the bureaucratic process, principled concern and understanding for the individual and his future life, and the ability to guide and mentor students from a non-judgmental perspective.

The remarkable generosity of spirit invoked here is further showcased when we are told that Mr. de Alwis also acted as an advocate to welcome students to Trinity in ways which sought to diversify the intake of pupils: ‘I always advocated that Trinity should not be an exclusive school for only those in the hill country, but that it should open its doors to children from distant towns in the island. I wanted them to gain from the opportunities that an education at Trinity could offer them’.

In these ways, he enriched the tradition he was a part of, and extended it to others. The key phrase I associate with him is ‘Education for life; education for living; education which teaches the true values of life’. He is eloquent about the country’s need for teachers with integrity, and proven dedication to their calling, and the need to support them as educators with commensurate pay and administrative and situational support, and the provision of opportunities for their professional development, particularly in an era where, he says, ‘much is said of the deteriorating standards of the noble profession in our country…If this country is to maintain ethical standards and produce good citizens, we teachers have to recognize the great responsibility placed on us to mould a child’s personality with a well-disciplined mind.Today, the profession needs individuals who are genuinely committed to the task of teaching’.

It is profoundly reassuring to read of Leonard de Alwis’ belief in the ‘sense of wonder’ that teachers can impart to students, in an educational culture world-wide where standardisation, impersonal management of students en masse, and emphasis on processing students to fill quotas and gain funding, results in teachers who tell students who ask questions in class to stop wasting the class’s time, or insensitive educators who disrespect, humiliate or even mock the students whose education they are undertaking.

There are lists rendered in point form and embedded in the narrative sections which clarify the many contributions Leonard de Alwis made to Trinity College; a section in the chapter ‘A Sojourn In Pakistan’, which lists the curriculum of a private school in Pakistan and the learning points observed by Mr. de Alwis that school administrators in Sri Lanka can benefit from; and of the educational reforms made to the school system after 1972. I found Mr. de Alwis’ outline of the shortcomings of the education system, and his clearcut recommendations for change, one of the highlights of the book, especially as his long experience in education encompasses several forms of teaching, including, in his later life, teaching in Springfield and Greenhill International Schools.

Here again, we see his expansive wish to benefit the greatest number through education: ‘As an educationist, my desire was to take English education to many areas in Sri Lanka,…and impart quality education to a larger section of people’. The equation of English education with ‘quality’ education, which we can observe in this comment, shows his concern that the education received in Sri Lanka by current and future generations of students be of an international standard, so that students educated in Sri Lanka will encounter no barrier or limitation to their professional deveopment and fulfilment, as they compete, and are expected to collaborate professionally in their workplaces, with students educated in the English medium from all over the world.

Leonard de Alwis’ use of the word ‘quality’ to describe education shows his understanding that education is, in today’s pragmatic world, a business, as well as a vocation, and that it can be conducted as a business in a manner which is not limited to business principles but with a focus on the humanity and individuality of both students and teachers.

Ultimately, is not only a list of achievements on a resume that inspires us, however impressive that list is; nor the notable people who inspired or were inspired by him. As the title of the book shows, it is the inner qualities of a person which are most inspiring, and which are shown consistently throughout the course of their life, and the values they impart, embody and live by: ‘It is life alone that can touch life, and it is only a dedicated teacher who can vitalize a classroom situation into an adventure in learning’, according to Leonard de Alwis. ‘A teacher who has professional training and vocational devotion plays a vital role as mediator of knowledge, a disciplinarian, confidante, and surrogate of morality.’

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