When I received the SMS about ‘Mrs Jilla’s passing away I had mixed feelings… I was so sad on the one hand yet on the other I was happy and content that I had made it a point to visit her a number of times with my mother. My memory went back to my hostel days and to the first day I started tennis in grade 3! I was so excited and had to wake up early and tip toe around making my bed as everyone else in the dorm was a sleep so early on a Saturday morning. I made it to the courts at 6.30am and met Mrs. Jilla for the first time. She gave me a ball, told me how to stand and showed me how to throw the ball up to the count of three and then see that the ball drops in front of my left foot. I did that for an entire hour! I was disappointed that I didn’t even get to step on to the court but I didn’t dare say anything (She was of course a 10 time winner of the Ceylonese Championships as it was called then) Maybe she saw it in my eyes because she said “slow and steady wins the race darling” I had no clue what that meant but there began a relationship that I will treasure forever. I found myself watching my seniors keenly and learning to perfect my game. I used to be thrilled when Mrs Jilla got onto the court with us in her A-line dress and tennis shoes! Bishop’s College was a dominant force at tennis and from my first inter School tournament I recall us just winning that title over and over again. As I am back in the school scene now I wonder in awe and amazement as to how one lady could have coached 3 top girls schools (BC, Methodist and Visakha), prepared the draw and conducted the all-island tournament at SLTA without a single person questioning anything. To me this is the epitome of an unbiased, God fearing individual with a special calling to share her talent with as many students as she could have. We had tennis on Wednesdays and Saturdays. That’s it. No fitness coaches and mental strategists. Yet we won that interschool shield 17 years in a row, I believe.
She would give us different strategies, “if you don’t win the first three points, switch to plan B”. She would teach us to respect the opponent “ if you are winning 6-0 give them a point and then buy them a cream soda after the match” She taught us that the umpires word is law and if we felt we lost a point unfairly she would say “don’t worry it will come back to you never argue” and most of all she taught us to respect the court and our racquets “never get on the court if it’s wet – you will ruin it forever” “why are you putting the head of your racquet on the ground – is that the way you would carry a baby? Head up always”
What amazes me, when I see how coaches and parents are pushing their kids today, is that I can never recall her coming and shouting at us after a game or even hugging and congratulating us after a victory. There was simply no discussion. If we won, it was like she knew we would win, if we lost it’s as if she knew we would get back on the court and do better next time. She paired Moi Ching and I when we were in grades 4 & 3 and we were doubles partners until we left school winning almost all the titles we could have, and I marvel at how she must have seen the very different strengths we had, and known that we will complement each other. Today kids are paired up on the day of the tournament!
She would always bring me a Kandos chocolate to share with my hostel friends after practice. I learnt many years that she used to be very upset to see me going back to the hostel when all the others were going home with their parents and she used to tell uncle Behram, ‘I wish we could bring her home.’ She was a devoted wife, sister and in-law and used to love telling us all the hilarious stories of her big family.
About a year ago, she had wanted to come and see me in school at my office. She had called the receptionist and said ‘tell the VP her tennis coach is on the line!’ After sitting opposite me and having read the little notes and cards I receive from students, I saw her tearing and she said “I knew you will sit at this desk one day” and she pulled out a discoloured piece of paper on which was a poem titled “Back to the fold.” I told her to autograph it for me and after doing so she said “God has called you back to the fold… don’t EVER take it lightly!” And when she saw me getting emotional as she couldn’t walk out without being assisted – her characteristic humour couldn’t be contained and she said, ‘now stop crying and I will race you to the car!’
Rest in Peace Mrs. Jilla – I know God has called you back to His fold and you must be cracking your jokes with all those in Heaven together with your beloved Behram.
Chemali Goonetileke Herath
1988 Vice Principal