Prompt: Identify key figures in your community and create “pen portraits” of them. This is different from interviews because it is telling their story in your words, rather than theirs.
Response: The people who stand out for me have always been great teachers: they have generously shared their expertise, patiently helped me work through my fears, challenged me to revisit my assumptions, and never told me what to think. Learning was an adventure, a journey of self-discovery. I aspire to embody these characteristics in my own work. Here are some of the stand-outs, in no particular order.
Larry Vale (Professor in Urban Planning, MIT): I read Professor Vale’s book, Architecture, Power, and National Identity in my final year of undergrad while writing my thesis. The book included a section on the Sri Lankan parliament, and is one of the first texts (along with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities) that made me really sit up and think about the politics of design. Later, after I’d graduated, I sent him a long email detailing my aspirations and my anxieties about how to get to a place that I wasn’t even quite sure how to define. He responded with an equally long and incredibly thoughtful response, which gave me the courage to keep sending him horrendously long emails asking questions about architecture, academia, and activism. When I eventually got to MIT, I took the class that inspired his book, and continue to turn to him for guidance on creating socially meaningful work in academic spaces.
Christine Boyer (Professor in Architecture, Princeton): I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic senior thesis advisor — weekly meetings with her were a treat, even if I was agitated about the direction of my unwieldy academic document. She would probe, give me a few suggestions on potential directions, and often recommend a single book to peruse. It was always just the one I needed. I had also taken her classes on 21st century urban issues a couple of years prior, which introduced me to themes and concepts central to my thesis. She taught me a great deal about what it means to be a supportive educator, guiding rather than dictating, and taking genuine delight in students’ adventures and trajectories.
John McPhee (Professor, Princeton): If Professor McPhee ever caught on that I applied to take his class on creative non-fiction without knowing who he was, he never showed it. The title of the class intrigued me, and during the course of the semester I learned to imaginatively craft narratives for events that had taken place not in my head, but in the world. It was a poetic supplement to my academic writing classes that depended on the footnote, the archival document, the primary source; I’ve never stopped thinking about how to meticulously arrange the facts to tell stories more compellingly.
Vaidehi Perera (English teacher, Ladies’ College): We had a horrible little abridged version of Oliver Twist assigned for English class, and Miss V brought in the original and read us the first few lines to show us the beauty of Dickens’ writing. We spent a good fifteen minutes of our reading of Julius Caesar talking about Shakespeare’s (almost throwaway) punning on awl/all. She read us poems (‘Montezuma met a puma’ stands out). I loved these details, this attention to the quirky, this relish of the craft of writing. Learning should be savoured, not quickly swallowed.
Sounderam Kanapathipillai (English teacher, Ladies’ College): I wouldn’t have listed Miss K while I was actually in her class. While the English class next door read ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ one day, we were learning how commas could also function in some cases as parentheses. I think she once told me that ‘humongous’ was slang. She taught me to understand the convoluted mechanics of writing in English, and to write with extreme precision. She’s the reason I aced my SATs. Also, and this certainly wasn’t her intention, I learned that rule-breaking is all the more powerful when you fully understand the rules you flout.
Sriyanie Miththapala (Principal, Ladies’ College): She had only been principal for a year when she stopped me – only a 7th-grader – outside her office to commend me on an English prize paper I’d just completed. I’d written a bizarre little essay, enthusiastically responding to a prompt to write a story about a picture attached to the paper by pretending I was a Russian boy who didn’t know much English (the irony was happily lost on me until I handed in the essay). I was dumbfounded by the fact that she took the time to tell me she liked my work. Over the next four years, she continued to do just that: point out my strengths with eagle-eyed insight, and unmercifully call me out when I was sloppy or irresponsible. I’m not sure anyone else has challenged me as much as she has, in words and in deeds, to be unafraid to be unconventional.
Other teachers include my first teacher at Ladies’ College, Prathiva Ekanayake, who both held my hand and gave me a gentle shove forward when necessary, my sixth grade class teacher Swarna Goonetilleke, who nurtured my love of science while also nudging me to get out of my head and interact more with my peers, and most of my English teachers.
My family has also taught me some of my most treasured lessons about learning. My father taught me multiplication tables when I was barely six by turning the whole thing into a fun game. We started with twos and fives and tens, then nines and elevens – we hopped around finding patterns and marvelling at what numbers could do. My mother shaped my library, and sent me straight to the encyclopaedia to search out my own answers to questions…at age five. My grandfather’s long and unhurried morning walks were a time to ponder on poetry, to identify local flora and fauna, and to take the time to say hello to people who didn’t always get many visitors besides my grandfather.
The LC magazine committee, whoever they were, when I was in the fourth and fifth grades. They came around to solicit creative writing for the magazine, and I suddenly knew with absolute clarity that I wanted to do that too one day. I loved that LC was a K-12 school that let you see what you might be in five or six years, and pick your aspirations. I can’t imagine just going to an elementary school, or a high school, that didn’t let you constantly see where you were coming from and where you were going. They were mentors without knowing it.
My friends, who constantly teach me lessons about being a good friend and a good human. Two of my school friends in particular, Nilangi Kulasinghe and Shilpa Samaratunge, constantly surprise me with how committed they are to being supportive and enabling of their friends even as they pursue their own dreams. My Building Bridges partner Irfadha Muzammil is an untiring idealist who unfailingly Gets Things Done. My partner, Jon Goh, has taught me too many things to count: patience, good humour, optimism, and the virtue of spending time on the right things (i.e. working smart, not hard). As a lifelong perfectionist constantly getting lost in the details, I’ve learned so much from him on organising the work day in a way that leaves time to play.