To Ian Lockwood, teaching what he loves about Sri Lanka’s landscape is a lot like heaven on earth

C OLOMBO Walking down an outside hallway, listening to exotic birds chirp and watching monkeys swing from one branch to another in the courtyard, he unlocks his classroom door and examines an empty room, imagining what it’ll look like the following day as students from all over the world gather at one school.

For American Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist at heart, it’s a perfect place to teach, surrounded by nature and shaded by mammoth banyan trees so ubiquitous in this part of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city by the sea.

After living in several places around Asia, Lockwood, 47, has found home as a teacher at The Overseas School of Colombo, where students represent 40 nationalities and where he is able to share his fascination with this fertile island’s abundant flora and fauna. He doesn’t just preach in the classroom. He takes them to a rain forest loaded with rare plants to see for themselves.

“You can ask my students,” Lockwood says. “The happiest times for them are not inside this classroom, it’s going out into different areas in Sri Lanka, learning about the environment. We go to different ecosystems on the island and that’s where some of the most important learning happens.”

Sri Lanka isn’t new to Lockwood, who arrived in 2005, after the deadly tsunami that claimed 35,000 lives and which his parents, on the beach at the time, “miraculously escaped.”

Even before that, his grandparents were missionaries as early as the 1920s in Jaffna, a provincial capital of 88,000 in the north. As a child, he was captivated by their fascinating tales of this ancient civilization and joined his family for a trip there in 1978 to see where his family had worked.

“We have old family roots here. We have this connection to Sri Lanka and I think that is why I came back here to live … I have always felt very much at home here,” he said.

Born in the U.S., he spent his early childhood in Kansas and Bangladesh, followed by studies in south India and Ohio but he finally gave in to the siren call of Sri Lanka. He quickly found that this was the place he needed to be.

“I got interested in environmental issues as a kid when adults took me hiking. I didn’t realize you could make a career by having so much fun and going outside,” said Lockwood.

With classes of no more than 15 culturally diverse students from all over the world, Lockwood tries to keep lessons interesting by not only covering Sri Lanka but other Asian countries. He teaches human geography and environment systems to 11th- and 12th-graders.

It figures that Lockwood is in charge of the school’s recycling program, encouraging students to reduce solid waste on campus, including the cafeteria, and urging the school not to use disposable items. He hopes his international students can take back what they learn to their own countries and share it.

There is a rich tradition of tolerance, of accepting diversity. The wealth of the country is to accept each other’s religions. Our school and me personally are really involved in that

Ian Lockwood

“In the future, I want them to have a much greater sense of awareness of the best things of the country,” said Lockwood.

About 75 percent of the student body is made up of international students. Some are from next door in India but others have traveled farther for an exclusive education including the rich culture and history of Sri Lanka. Native Sri Lankans make up the other 25 percent.

“I enjoy teaching Sri Lankans,” Lockwood says. “In a sense, I have the privilege of showing them their own country aspects of their country that they may not have been aware of. It is fun for me to be able to do that.”

Despite Sri Lanka’s reputation as a land of ethnic tension, Lockwood says, “There is a rich tradition of tolerance, of accepting diversity. The wealth of the country is to accept each other’s religions. Our school and me personally are really involved in that.”

Lockwood applauds the country and its government for its longstanding dedication to preserving land for wildlife and plant life unique to the island. About 15 percent of Sri Lanka is set aside for wildlife preserves and protected natural areas. He says that compared to other Asian countries, Sri Lanka does a “remarkable” job, especially for being such a small island.

“Sri Lanka is quite unique,” Lockwood says. “The Indian subcontinent is so diverse. There’s a lot on this small island where land is so scarce.”

The one concern that nags at him is garbage. Walking the streets of Colombo and other cities, it is easy to spot garbage bags everywhere. In Colombo’s many narrow alleys, there are garbage bags crammed into small balconies and stuffed in corners. Rats run freely in the streets. The strong smell of weeks-old trash lingers. Lockwood says that the lack of attention to garbage leads to health problems, including dengue fever, which plagued Sri Lanka this summer and fall.

Combatting the spread of dengue and malaria, both mosquito-borne diseases, is as simple as cleaning up cities, efficiently picking up garbage and getting rid of old tires and other places where stale water sits, creating perfect breeding pools for the pesky insects.

“[Government officials] don’t know how to deal with it,” Lockwood says. “It’s a problem that is easily addressed. It’s something I have been dealing with in my own home. The government has to play a role but citizens also have to be aware.”

Lockwood says Sri Lankans are very open and friendly and he wants to grow even closer to the country. For English speakers, that can be hard to do, but he knows that learning the local languages is key so he works on learning Sinhala and Tamil.

“I recognize that the more I can do with that, the more I can experience and the deeper I can go with the country,” he said.

Author Mackenzie Ross

More posts by Mackenzie Ross