My last day of teaching in Sri Lanka has come and gone. I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past week, thinking about my time teaching here and what my students hopefully gained by being exposed to various kinds of literature they hadn’t studied before. In the final weeks, though, I focused more on discussing the opportunities that these students have/will continue to have that so many other young people on this island do not have. We discussed the value – or “the absolute necessity,” as one student put it – of a university degree in Sri Lanka, all the pressures my students faced to get to this point, all that’s riding on their exam scores and academic performance over the next three to four years. Some of my students feel like they can’t follow their dreams or their passions because their parents and society expect different things from them; others tell me they feel very fortunate to be at university studying what they love despite what their parents want for them. I realized for the millionth time just how fortunate I feel to have had the higher-level education experience that I did in the U.S. How we do college in the States is very different from how the rest of the world does it, and the more I am exposed to education systems in different countries, the more I realize that a university degree means vastly different things depending on what part of the world you live in. That’s an easy enough concept to grasp, but I really saw that come to light in my classroom over the past nine months.
And so I tried to emphasize to my students what, besides test scores, matters in the classroom: communication skills; having confidence to present your work; the ability to form and share your opinions; working as a group; creative problem solving. A true liberal arts woman, these are the skills I think every student needs to be encouraged to cultivate. And I am proud to say that my students made great strides in improving these skills, in giving their first-ever academic presentations, in having the courage to raise their hands and share their thoughts on a poem or a paragraph or a piece of fiction, in feeling safe to respectfully disagree with their peers and even with me, their teacher (this is a very big “no-no” in most Sri Lankan classrooms). In their feedback forms, many mentioned that they were very glad to have had the opportunity to learn and practice these skills and – this really made me happy – that they see the importance of such skills on a larger life scale. They wrote that they appreciated being asked to share their opinions; that even though “MLA format is sometimes annoying” they were glad to have been taught it; that they feel much more confident in their English skills after being in my class; and that they appreciated my organization and dedication (though one student did write “I respect your punctuality though sometimes it makes us uncomfortable”). My favorite was one student remarking that, “While I see the value in the works you assigned, I feel that I would have learned more if we had read A Game of Thrones.” Can’t win ‘em all.
On my final day of teaching, my colleagues threw me a fun tea party in the department, and a few students surprised me with a couple of lovely presents. We all took pictures, shook hands, and wished one another well. Everyone saw me off in the same warm way that they welcomed me, in true Sri Lankan spirit.
I’m really going to miss this job.
On the first day of this second semester, I asked each of my students to write me a letter for homework explaining why they enjoy literature and why they are studying English at the university level. Their letters were overall very touching, and I’ll leave you with some of their comments, which range from poignant to hilarious to just plain true.
“Literature is not merely a subject; it’s what happens when you have a talk with your soul.”
“Literature has the power to change the attitudes of society.”
“I get so engrossed in books sometimes that I don’t hear the doorbell or the phone ring, or most dangerously, the calling of my mother or father.”
“There upon the vicissitudes of life which affect our daily existence are thrown into oblivion for the sake of immense pleasure derived from savoring a great literary piece.”
“…this is how literature becomes the best friend of our lives.”
“I have no precise idea of what to do with my English skills in the future. Sometimes I might stick into the teaching profession. But most probably I will go abroad with my lover after the marriage.”
“Dear Ms. Natalie, how are you? Well, I am not very well. I have a fever. But I have to write you this letter anyway so here I am.”
From a young woman who had never completed a novel in English before taking my class: “After I started this course, I felt compelled to read and finish books. Thank you for making me feel better.”
“We can peep into other cultures using our English knowledge!”
“I hope to contribute to the progress of my country. I come from a rural village and I want to take Sri Lanka’s rural children to the position where I am today and to give them the opportunities I’ve enjoyed.”
“I love to enchant people with magical words.”
“Do you know, mam, Shakespeare kills me every night through his bitter ideas. I am glad he is not alive so I will never have to meet him.”
“These days, Shakespeare has become my best friend.”
“I fell in love with English when I was in grade school and our teacher would have our English lessons under the huge tamarind tree behind our classroom. Those were lovely days.”
“After reading Harry Potter, I cannot stop reading in English, and now I feel I am allergic to reading in Sinhala.”
“I love English because I love handling those 26 letters. They’re so easy to manage.”
And my personal favorite:
“Literature and knowledge are the only things that will stay with us forever. No one can take it away from us.”