Goolbai Gunasekara recalls that all-important day in school

High school graduation is an American custom, which I adopted so that my school was the first to hold such a ceremony in Colombo. Technically, Overseas School of Colombo was the first ‘international school’ that held a graduation ceremony before we did.

Nowadays, many international schools have such a ceremony as their A-Level students leave school. The final year class gets a send-off that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Parents come together as a mutually congratulatory group as their offspring end their days of schooling and can technically be classed as adults.

Principals don’t always share this fond parental opinion at the time of graduation! But I’m more than happy to see that time has proven them right. Almost all our graduates – and of course, those from the many good international schools – have alumni who have uniformly done well, thereby justifying the alleged high fees!

Universities in the US don’t understand the ‘prefect system’ since high schools in America are far less likely to afford students the sort of power we give our prefects. Their educational systems vary from state to state. But the British system of education is still followed in many of its former colonies.

From exclusive and very expensive private schools stateside, students go on to Ivy League colleges, which may understand the British prefect system in our schools. These universities may give preference to applicants from outside America who have been prefects and even head prefects of schools beyond the country. But to most of the over 3,000 or so universities in the US, such titles mean nothing.

What does mean something is the class valedictorian.

Let me explain the term to the uninitiated. A class valedictorian is usually the brightest child in the class. It’s the student who has achieved and contributed the most in every way during his or her final year. At my school, a class valedictorian (not necessarily the head prefect) is always chosen to speak at the graduation ceremony. Since most international schools are coeducational, two outstanding students are selected to deliver that all important valedictory address.

Throughout my career as principal and subsequently as a director of an international school, I have heard some superb speeches from our students. They are encouraged to be humorous, witty, nostalgic and grateful. They manage all this in their final address, often leaving their parents and teachers extremely teary-eyed.

Usually, the chief guest is a person of substance in the community – like an ambassador or a well-known educationist. Students are told to dress for the occasion and they do this in style. Girls blossom out in beautiful saris, rivalling fashion models. Boys dress likewise in suits or national dress (which is encouraged).

Once students start walking into the hall in their graduate procession, there’s very little that can be done if they’re inappropriately dressed. This could happen and principals can only fume impotently when it does. It’s no use thinking darkly of punishment since the young person is happily aware that he or she is out of our jurisdiction forever.

Boys have sported tinted curls à la Lasith Malinga and girls have worn daring hipsters. But generally, the whole group has been admirably represented at that final ceremony.

Fortunately, most of our chief guests have had a sense of humour. I recall one occasion when the US Ambassador was our chief guest. One of our students was a well-known eccentric; a charming boy who had managed to avoid the usual ticking off due to his genuine talent in the subjects he was offering.

On graduation day, I told him: “Now Rimu (not his real name), make sure you come dressed appropriately.”

“Sure, Miss,” he replied cheerfully.

Naturally, I was somewhat distrustful.

“You know what I mean, Rimu. Clean clothes, well ironed and a neat haircut – the works.”

‘No problem!” He was at his insouciant best.

Came the graduates parade and Rimu lived up to his reputation for eccentricity. He was neat. His clothes were clean. They were well ironed but he wore jeans and a top with Nike sports shoes. I gave a gasp of dismay.

The chief guest simply laughed.

“A rebel, I see,” he said consolingly.

Rimu’s mother was appalled and couldn’t apologise enough. She hadn’t seen him before the ceremony as he’d wisely dodged parental inspection by arriving on his own. He saw nothing amiss and was only being himself.

“Was I okay, Mrs. G?” he asked me guilelessly. I contemplated his bright face and pondered. Rimu would always be true to himself and surely, that was a rare quality. Dissimulation was foreign to his nature.

“Yes, you were fine,” I told him – and I meant it most sincerely.

Today, Rimu is a successful architect.