Agony and ecstacy

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The quadrangle taught us some of life’s lessons, one of which was staying vigilant.

The quadrangle taught us some of life’s lessons, one of which was staying vigilant.

WHILE classrooms were the centre of learning at St Peter’s, the quadrangle was without a doubt the pulsing, beating heart of the college.
The partly grassed, terraced land, hemmed in by the senior school corridors, certainly has earned a place in Peterite folklore.
The quadrangle was the scene of many events, some humorous, some painful, as Peterites progressed through their senior
years.
There were the hot, open-air assemblies presided over by that strict disciplinarian Fr Mervyn Weerakkody. These assemblies generally meant trouble as they inevitably ended with a public flogging for a schoolboy miscreant or two.
In my mind’s eye, even today, I can see the tall, menacing Naas Polla drawing a long cane and belting the backside of a troublemaker in full view of his peers. I cannot picture the poor victims but today I am thankful I was never put in that position and appreciate the phrase: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Of course, these public beatings were often tempered with awards or citations for the star students so there was an equal balance of joy and pain.
Fr Mervyn, or Cheeseball as he was affectionately known, features quite prominently in my quadrangle anecdotes.
There was the time when he called a general assembly to announce the death of some Middle Eastern dignitary who had strong ties to Ceylon. The assembly was short and ended with Cheeseball proclaiming that it was national day of mourning, school was closing and we were free to go home.
Almost as one, the students broke into a spontaneous cheer and applause in appreciation of an “early cut”. Cheeseball, in
turn, recoiled in horror, with a hand on his heart as if he was suffering a coronary attack. He then managed to choke out the
words: “Boys, boys, don’t clap. This is a solemn moment.”
To us teen-somethings, this unexpected holiday meant so many things: wandering down to the canal banks to catch some
guppies; joining the Rs1.10 queue at the Savoy cinema to watch an action flick (most probably a Bruce Lee epic); crowding into the Canal View for a secretive cigarette, or just strolling down Galle Road without a care in the world.
The quadrangle also was the venue for rough justice of other sorts. The less-humane teachers took great joy in sending
students to sweat out their punishment, kneeling in the sun. It was also very handy for Half-Soda, possibly the shortest
teacher in the history of St Peter’s, to mete out punishment without embarrassing himself.
Half-Soda loved to slap and this was a problem when he faced taller students. It was an extremely funny sight to see
him launch himself into the air so his hand could make contact with the miscreant’s cheek.
The corridors were a good 60cm higher than the quadrangle and Half-Soda soon learnt that if he made the student stand in the quadrangle while he stood in the corridor he could whack the hapless schoolboy without straining himself.
The quadrangle was not all a military parade ground, though. When the lunch bell rang it morphed into a playground and youthful exuberance took on many forms.
There were the skilful games of gudu, with sticks criss-crossing each other
and I am amazed today that no one’s eye was taken out by one. In between this went on the myriad games of marbles where
the winners took all. It was almost like playing the roulette wheel as we plunged all our marbles on that lucky strike. It was a good day when we went back to class with marbles jingling in our pockets and at other times we miserably counted our losses after some “marble shark” cleaned us out.
The quadrangle also taught us some of life’s lessons, one of which was staying vigilant.
When teachers were absent, classrooms descended into chaos and monitors were hard-pressed to keep the racket down. However, the quadrangle was an ally as it offered a clear view in all directions.
We would watch out for Fr Mervyn to emerge from the priests’ quarters after a short siesta (generally around 2.15pm) and make his walk to the office.
Fr Mervyn would stop at our classroom and ask: “Heyn, is everything all right?”
Yes, Father, the quadrangle was perfect.