By Algi Wijewickrema
(with a little bit of help from the Peterines and also a Peterite)
Boys attending a girls’ school as pre-school students is commonplace. But girls attending a boys’ school at A Level! That was (and probably still is) sensational!
In 1966, there were three girls from HFC Bambalapitiya (where else but, Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya) who created that rare sensation at St Peter’s College. Frances Nicholas, Jean Ekanayake and Lilani Fernando stepped in through the gates with determination to achieve an objective – to study mathematics at A Level – at a boys’ school.
And after 50 long years of that first foray into the hallowed precincts at the school by the canal, the trio, now called the Peterines, decided to have their own global reunion at that school that gave them much. The girls have still not lost their quaint uniqueness or spirit – the reunion took them to places such as the ancient Angamadilla Anicut (from the Polonnaruwa era), Minneria Elephant Gathering, Ella Nine Arch Bridge, Demodara Loop, and very scenic Idalgashinna and Ohia. The highlight of their reunion though was the visit to St Peter’s!
I was privileged to escort the Peterines round college on September 24th last year and finish at the Lounge where it was the Retro Nite.
Did I know of the time that they attended school? The answer is yes. I was a 12-year-old in shorts in Standard 7 and recall the queen like 16-year-olds in the A Level classes meandering through the corridors. There were the occasional whistles and catcalls, albeit with affection and boyish amusement.
I didn’t have to put too many questions to obtain their thoughts on their time at St Peter’s.
Jean recalled that her aunt Lizzie (Miss. Ekanayake to us) was the boarding mistress and was given charge of the girls in the boys’ school. So lunch was at the boarding and intervals were mostly in the staff room. Aunt Lizzie was truly a guardian angel, albeit in a stolid uniform!
More recollections from Jean as we visited the hall, “I remember playing the grand piano that was there for Gerard Cabraal to sing, but the floor as I recall was flat and not tiered.” She added: “For some reason, some of the boys used to aim stones at us as we walked from the college Section to the primary to have lunch and while away our time during the one-hour lunch interval and Chandu Jethenand who was a prefect then took it upon himself to escort us and after a few days the stone throwing stopped.”
Lilani still muses at the gusto with which the college anthem was sung every Monday at assembly. Her greatest takeaway from college she says were the catechism classes by Father Joe Wickremasinghe. “He taught us to respect human frailty. At that time I did not quite comprehend what he was saying but later in life it helped me to rationalise much,” she said.
Frances, based in Dubai with her husband (himself a Peterite), is the tallest of the three. Anslem (Perera) and Frances are the one and only Peterite couple and that is a record that is unlikely to be broken. Travelling with her husband on his visits to Sri Lanka she has been the one to visit college most times.
Reminiscing about the first time she and Anslem came to college after she had left Sri Lanka, having come on a Sunday that happened to be St Peter’s feast day which coincided with the AGM of the Old Boys’ Union, Frances had told Fr. Wickremasinghe, the Rector at the time, that she would sit outside when the OBU’s AGM took place. But he had insisted that she should attend the meeting as she had a right to be there having studied at St Peter’s. She had then enrolled herself as a member of the OBU and attended the meeting. I also happened to be there at this AGM and recall that the term Peterine was coined there, but I’m open to correction on that.
Frances also had a little problem with the OBU record keeping. In the immediate aftermath of her enrolment when letters were sent to her they had been correctly addressed as Mrs Perera. However, after a few secretaries of the OBU had changed, the form of address had changed to “Mr” and we can safely assume that the secretary who thought that “Mrs” was a typo had changed it to “Mr”. This was brought to the notice of the general secretary two years ago and with the correction done and Frances is now happy that she receives her notices as “Mrs”.
Lilani was the odd one out of the trio because while Jean and Frances were in the English stream Lilani was in the Sinhala stream. She was the only one from the class to be admitted to university that year. Taking St Peter’s in toto that year however, a record number gained entrance to University and she thinks that he girls prompted the boys to work hard so as not be outdone. Lilani graduated from Peradeniya as an engineer.
The greatest achievement of the Peterines was the precipitation of the maths stream at HFC from the next year on. The thought that mathematics was ill placed in the heads of the nice girls at HFC was broken forever.Quite a few engineers, physicists and mathematicians have emerged from that stream since. The Peterines were the pioneers.
Though the writer was hoping that there would be at least one Peterine among the many Peterites participating in the Global Peterite Reunion held in March this year, to add spice to the event, regrettably, the Peterines could not join the Peterites. I’m sure they were there in spirit.
Peterines sound nice for the girls but I can’t see the Old Peterites agreeing to rename the Old Boys’ Union, the Past Pupils’ Union.