We felt that we must share some thoughts on two concepts which exist in the Kingswood culture for over a century; but, which are often used out of context in our present time. One is the familiar address by which the Founder Principal was known to address the boys: “Gentlemen of Kingswood”; and the second is the familiar greeting / salutation among the school community: “KFE” (which unfolds as “Kingswood For Ever”).
A fortnight ago, when some of us arrived at Asgiriya Stadium for the Annual Cricket Encounter between Kingswood and Dharmaraja, we saw school boys, Prefects as well as teachers from school wearing a small metal decoration on their clothing. This was a small oblong bearing the school colours, and the inscription “KFE” in its middle. The boys wore this oblong either on the shirt pocket or on caps they were wearing; while female teachers were seen to pin it as a makeshit saree pin, holding the pallu part of the saree to their jackets. Either way, the display was prominant; and a fair number of Kingswoodians on the ground had “KFE” on them.
“KFE”, as outlined above, is a familiar greeting / salutation among the school members. In fact, it is told that in 1951 when the school’s Diamond Jubilee was held, a group of students (in a pre-spray paint age) had written “KFE” on some walls along the street, which — at that point — had baffled commuters and people. When two Kingswoodians would meet after years and — perhaps — in a foreign place, the greeting of “KFE!” was used as a sentimental bonding. Of course, if you are to come to school in the morning every day and greet each of the fellows you meet “KFE!” the meaning of the salutation is lost. The salutation, therefore, would ideally be one of fellowship and felicity. In my time, the first I heard “KFE!” used as a greeting was in a Vote of Thanks at a school Prize Giving. The year should be 2000 or 2001, and the Senior Prefect proposing the Vote of Thanks was Isuru Buddhika Sirinimal. Maybe, there were other Senior Prefects who had used the salutation in immediate previous years, but this is the first collected memory I have of hearing “KFE!” being thrown off from the stage at a Prize Giving.
During World War I, when Kingswood enlisted a group of past and present boys as cadet officers to fight on behalf of the Crown, the son of a family that was close to Kingswood — Brian Leslie De Vos — also left Kandy to be enlisted in England. LE Blaze, in his KFE: The Story of Kingswood, Kandy recalls how B.L De Vos boarded the train at Kandy and was greeted in farewell by a master: “KFE, Leslie”, to which he had replied “Always KFE Sir!”. Incidentally, De Vos never made it to battle, as the ship that was carrying him was torpedoed off France. His parting words, therefore, were the last words Kingswood heard from B.L De Vos.
To wear the salutation “KFE” on your shirt might have its own meaning — but, the cultural value and the historical significance of that greeting is clearly lost when you carve the three letters in a rectangle and sport it as some exotic badge / brooch. Imagine wearing the words “Ayubowan”, “Good Day” or “Nice to Meet You” out in public? Not only would they appear funny and ridiculous, but also utterly meaningless because they are out of context. How many of the boys and teachers wearing the rectangular badge are conscious of the “context” and history of the salutation?
Similar to the case with “KFE”, the term “Gentlemen of Kingswood” is also sometimes mis-handled. Traditionally, the salutation “Gentlemen of Kingswood” is used by the Principal of the school when addressing the boys. This is keeping in line with Blaze’s practice, which was taken up and followed by subsequent Principals. But, now we see where some boys brag and boast, referring to themselves as “Gentlemen”. This is viral on Facebook and social media, where you have funky posts with feel-good slogans and shouts of bravado which, most of the time, only make people laugh. The Principal referring to the boys as “gentlemen” and the boys making a self-reference as “gentlemen” have two meanings. The first reference could even be a way of making the young students responsible, or of making them feel culpable from a young age. But, when you go around saying “I am a gentleman”, it shows downright arrogance and ignorance. It is not only ridiculous-sounding, but it can even be a good joke to enjoy.
“I am a gentleman of Kingswood” —- says a FB post. “Proud to be a Gentleman of Kingswood”, claims another. A third post rebukes the Anthonians for being of “an eagle” and the Trinitan for being of “a lion”, and sums up: “I am a Gentleman”. Ignorance and stupidity can perhaps go no further. Nor is the comparison witty, if indeed there is a shade of doubt that this is the best witticism the age can produce. The Anthonian “eagle” and the Trinity “lion” have an emblematic significance tied with the culture and history of those institutes. To draw a parallel between those iconics references and what derives from Blaze’s salutation of his students requires a very intelligent and original mind.
Kingswood is a humble school that has stood tall in changing times and in the face of many tides it had had to face. Specially, from the 1960s onwards, as a school that was taken over by the government, Kingswood still managed to stand tall, holding onto and making meaning of her traditions and culture which got passed down like a baton through the generations. Today, we are in a historical four-way junction where Kingswood’s future — as the school Blaze foresaw — – is neatly balanced. It is our duty to choose the path our alma mater should be directed along. That path should be carefully and intelligently chosen, not disregarding the past and the traditions; but, more than anything else, being aware and conscious of what 123 years of Kingswood means.