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I think, therefore I am

Why Little Smile builds another school at the distant east coast of Sri Lanka

Dressed in bright white they make their way in almost endless caravans along the sunny morning roads. The girl’s carrying hair ribbons in the color of their respective schools which hold together the neatly braided plaits, the little boys in blue shorts and the older ones from the 10th grade onward proudly wearing long trousers, they are also dressed completely in white.
Pouring out of completely overcrowded buses, you find them gathering in densely packed crowds on every street corner, decently separated by gender. Policemen block the roads when flows of children like white ants stream into numerous schools every morning everywhere in the country. Like scenes from a picture book, simply suitable for this “precious and brilliant” tourist paradise.

It is still dark when Mercy, Priyadarshani and Wathsala set out for school. The three ten year-old girls don’t have time to play and enjoy the day, no chance to be a child at least occasionally, because if you reach class 5 in Sri Lanka you’ll see only teachers and schoolbooks. At the end of the year, a centralized examination not only decides if the child gets a scholarship and the chance to change to a better school. It is also about the school’s reputation, about funds, posts and the career of the director. The test is difficult, very difficult indeed. Most children lack the basic skills like reading or writing, not to mention calculating. Four school years have been almost entirely wasted, a sports event here, a religious ceremony there – this year alone, there are 150 events taking place on the Singhalese school, which have not the slightest connection with teaching. In the Tamil school, it is even worse: many school subjects have not been taught, because the teacher was on pregnancy leave or because there were simply no teachers for all the subjects. I know, there is always someone else to blame – parents and of course the children themselves.

Somehow – I have no idea why – Sri Lanka has the reputation of providing good education and since foreign funds also depend on this assessment there is an increasing pressure from politics. The Department of Education, famous for constantly prescribing new schoolbooks and teaching concepts, is now forcing teachers on a huge scale to give afternoon sessions. This applies to the 5th and the final class. From morning to evening without a break for the weekend, for public holidays or holidays in general, nothing but school is the magic formula, but without students who dare to ask questions or really participate. Obedient copying, memorizing, completing hundreds of old examination forms, which the parents have to buy, but no questioning – otherwise you’re in trouble.

Ironically, kindergartens and pre-schools here are named “Montessori”, after the Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori who judged the then existing teaching methods very critically and revolutionized education. “School is the exile in which the adult keeps the child so long until he/she is able to live in the adult world without disturbing the adults.” This quote from Maria Montessori is still valid in Sri Lanka it seems, and so the students have no choice but to bow their heads and keep on copying. The large expense in time is the only real effort the school makes. Already at 6.30 lessons start for the kids of the 5th and 11th class and continue with only very short breaks until 16 hrs. And the lessons always follow the same scheme: reporting, writing on the blackboard and the children have to copy – if they can write. They hardly ever understand the subject matter.

Tired and hungry they return in the evening loaded with lots of homework in a much too heavy schoolbag.

Our kids can count themselves lucky compared to others, they could do their school way even walking, it is 4 km for the Tamil kids and only 500 meters for the Singhalese kids. How all the other children from the widely scattered Tamil tea villages get home, how safe it is for them to walk home in the dark and the fact that many of them haven’t eaten for 12 hours, these are things the decision makers in the Department of Education don’t care about. 10 years ago, I officially complained about these conditions for the first time. I pointed out that every child should have the right to eat at reasonable times and get enough sleep even some free time. The reaction was quite surprising: I was told that children in Sri Lanka get along well with only 3 hours sleep as long as you give them a creamy sweet tea in the middle of the night. I really didn’t know what to say, that reaction silenced me. And since then the situation has worsened further, the pressure under which the school children and their parents are suffering is immense. Lunch at 5 pm, a bath when it is already dark and after that back to the schoolbooks, and all this only to find out at the end of a long and hard year that you are light years away from the magic score – just like almost all the other fifth-graders. The years that follow are once again boring and many classes are cancelled until you reach grade 11 when the stress starts again and you have to spend days and nights with insoluble tasks to be able to pass the O-level, the first final examination. Since it is not necessary for the O-level to pass the math’s test and possible to repeat the subjects you failed, almost all students do another three long years thus trying to get the A-level. But only few students pass the A-level exams and of those who pass them hardly anybody will be good enough to be able to go to the university, provided that their parents could afford it. However, little can be concluded from the school marks alone. There are so many A-level students, who have good marks in English, and when they come to us for an interview, they can hardly say more than “good morning, sir”.

So there is definitely something going wrong with education in Sri Lanka, but nobody wants to hear all the pending questions nor answer them. Why are there so many children who cannot read or write well after many years at school? Why do student often only have to complete questionnaires instead of getting proper instructions? Why are children at school separated according to race, why are there Tamil schools and Singhalese schools? Why are the Tamil schools in any respect equipped worse? Why can people become a teacher only through personal connections? Why can the teachers hit their students without facing consequences? Why is a participation of the students in the classes not wanted? Why do student only proceed with private and thus expensive extra classes? Why do teachers not really care for their students? Only copying, memorizing and reproducing, no questioning not to mention thinking and reflecting. Opportunism, conforming, hypocrisy instead of individuality or human and political courage. How many conflicts have I already solved, how often have I forbidden teachers to hit children sometimes even by threaten them with a beating. I talked myself hoarse, explained and presented insights of the field of education! In the end, I have made many enemies and not one of those who are paid for teaching has understood what Albert Camus formulated as follows: To create a culture it is not enough to hit fingers with a ruler.

Today basically the following applies:

The right to education is only affordable for the rich in the paradise Sri Lanka but even money does not guarantee good teachers.

Everywhere in the country parents are asked to pay huge amounts of money, private schools are shooting up like mushrooms. The monthly school fee lies far beyond the average salary of a worker. Only the wealthy who have enough money for the admission fee get access to the few good schools. But even there it is rather unusual to challenge and promote the young people. Only points matter.
I sadly watch our three fifth graders how they are walking into another long and senseless working day at school. I will also start in a few minutes and drive to the eastern coast. Today – the 15th of March 2017 – I am going to open another school building in the Maria Theresia College. We built that second school complex because we always want to look ahead and do something instead of complain and lament or being sad and angry, and because I experienced over many years that the Carmel sisters take education very seriously.

Almost exactly five years have passed since I opened the Maria Theresia Collage named after my mother. At that point “Carpe Diem – seize the day” was my motto. Today the motto I would like to say to the future generations that will go to school here, is:

”Live as if you were to die tomorrow!

Learn as if you were to live forever!"

And here in the mountain jungle of Koslanda the hope remains that someday I’ll somehow find good teachers and bring them to the province. Until then we have to endure somehow the public schools or rather strengthen our children so that they are able to endure the school system and use the time to learn and grow up. Here in the children’s village every day anew we will try to provide a good example and to serve as role models for the right values just like a long time ago Augustinus Aurelius already recommended: “The life of the parents is the book in which the children read”. Well and that works even if you do not know all letters yet.