Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sri Lanka Unites’ Future Leaders Conference Season Five - A Teacher’s Perspective

By Stafford D. Oliver

The drive from Kandy to Galle took most of the day. The bus left early in the morning, which may partly explain why the students and fellow teachers I was with from Trinity College were relatively quiet the whole time. Or maybe there was a nervous anticipation of what the next five days would bring, with everyone wondering what would happen.

Those feelings came to an abrupt end as soon as we entered the gates of Sangamitta Balika Vidyalaya. The excited shouts of volunteers could be heard and their colourful signs were quickly spotted. “Colombo Chargers! Colombo Chargers!” “Vavuniya Vikings! Vavuniya Vikings!” “Polonaruwa Pirates! Polonaruwa Pirates!” “Ampara Avengers! Ampara Avengers!” “Jaffna Giants! Jaffna Giants!”“Kandy Knights!” “Gampaha Gators! Gampaha Gators!” The scene became louder as each group shouted its name, beckoning the students as they registered to form into the groups with which they would spend the next five inspiring days.

The first day of FLC 5 happened a month ago, but the scenes are still vivid in my mind. It seems like yesterday because its impact was so great – nearly 700 students and 70 teachers from all of the districts and provinces of Sri Lanka, working together as leaders and friends. From the very first day the students blossomed, going from apprehensively staring at the ground to joyfully shouting their team name wherever they went. What was so special for me was seeing and hearing students genuinely represent districts where they were not from and maybe had never even visited.

The students’ eager energy served as good examples of what would happen for the older group of participants. For connecting with new people and sharing experiences to reach new understandings were not only the tasks of the young people, but were also undertakings of the teachers. At the first teacher’s meeting, it was announced that I was not only a teacher at Trinity College Kandy but that I was also an American in Sri Lanka on a project with the United Nations Association of Scotland. There was an assumption that everything would be completely new for me, which was true in only some ways. No, it was not the first time that I would eat with my hands. Yes, it was the first time that I had stayed at a girls’ Buddhist school. But no, this was not my first time in Galle. With such a diverse group, it would have been appropriate to pose these questions at the start to all of the teachers and students who came from all of the island’s communities. All of us had life changing experiences.

Each subsequent day introduced a full schedule and important themes for the young leaders to consider. Thankfully, some of the same speakers also addressed the teachers with enriching group discussions. We discussed the importance of physical well-being as well as mental and emotional health with a doctor and a social worker. The conversations centred around how teachers and educators have tremendous roles in shaping, guiding and influencing the youth, and thus also the future of the country. Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, in a challenging and inspirational discussion, explored the importance of attitude and awareness of the issues facing young people. We considered the themes of the S.H.O.W. You Care campaign which seeks to end harassment of women, in addition to promoting the kind of environment which will lead to everyone fulfilling their potential.

There was also a thorough, open and frank conversation with Mr. Kushil Gunesekera, the founder of the Foundation of Goodness. He told us his stories about how he left a lucrative career to benefit rural families, challenging the idea that development and peace are about wealth and prosperity. We discussed how important it is to just give others a chance to nurture their talents and abilities, regardless of their income, place of residence, ethnicity, political ideology or religion.

Though there were many serious matters to consider, there was also a nice balance of fun and personal expression. Visits to Galle Fort and Matara offered comfortable getaways to see the diversity of Sri Lanka. The speeches and dramas composed by the 25 groups of students provided a thoughtful platform to explore issues as well as a warm up for the singing and dancing that occurred during the evening musical performances. It’s wonderful to train leaders and cultivate peace, but it’s still rewarding to see kids be kids, jumping up and down and singing arm-in-arm at the top of their lungs, without the worries of religious, ethnic, class, or caste tension.

There may or may not be actual magicians in Matara, rhinos in Ratnapura, mustangs in Mullativu or titans in Trincomalee. But, undoubtedly, there is immense talent and promise amongst the young peoples of Sri Lanka to ensure a better future. The incredible work of Sri Lanka Unites drives me, and probably all of the participants of FLC 5, forward with boundless inspiration and hope. 

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