14 April, 2024


School Of Hard Knocks

By Christopher Rezel

Christopher Rezel

It has become customary to recall one’s schooldays with pride and nostalgia. The many Old Boys’ and Old Girls’ associations around the world of various Sri Lanka schools bear testimony to such sentiments. 

The associations have sprouted like a rash throughout towns and states in Australia, Canada, the UK and USA.

Most embark on collecting funds for developments in the old school and host social events, including dances, where the old girls and boys get together with friends and associates to shake a leg and have a grand time. 

At such functions, mellowed by alcohol, schooldays are recalled in glowing terms. Recounted excitedly are affiliations, adored teachers, daring escapades or big match derring-do. No one dare talk disparagingly of the old days. Only romanticism is allowed. 

Nostalgia gets heightened with distance and time and Sri Lankan expatriates who are unaware of prevailing real-life conditions tend to lovingly recall youth and homeland and the much-decorated good times. Once-experienced difficulties are submerged

So carefully avoided are mention of sadistic and perverted schoolteacher who assaulted students with canes, open palms, even fists. Mention is never made of being forced to kneel outside class for minor infringements such as not having paid school fees on time. 

Nor is there reference of having to front up on stage at the weekly school assembly for a caning by the school head himself, after which you joined in singing the college anthem along with everyone else.

In the 50s and 60s I attended a “Catholic boys’ school” on the banks of a famous Colombo canal, an era when corporal punishment was de rigueur. To put that in plain language, physical abuse was the allowed custom and school teachers of all caste, creed and race – robed or not – took joy in handing it out.

Having been thus punished, you dared not return home and complain to your parents. That could earn you another caning under the assumption you had broken school rules.

Most tutor priests at my school were a benign lot, but among them were those who may have hated the robes imprisoning them. So their frustrations were taken out on students with great enthusiasm. 

To put this in context, this was a time when it was customary for Catholic parents to dedicate a son or daughter to the priesthood or nunnery. The child in question had no choice in the matter. So after years of internship, he or she would emerge as a young adult with all other avenues of life shut out to them. Some who dared left. Others, reluctant and tormented souls, endured. They wore their frustrations on their sleeves and were ever eager to hit out, verbally or physically, or to inflict torment by compelling students to stand or kneel outside class, sometimes in the afternoon sun. 

With time and practise some of the teachers and priests at my school excelled in meeting out punishments. This could mean a vigorous caning on clothed buttocks or the bare skin of legs, or the open-palm clout on face.

There was then also the “pol toku”. That involved repeated knocks on the head with fisted knuckles that left you with a day-long headache.

The teachers and priests had a wide-range of targets to direct their frustrations at. My guess would be there were over 2000 students in school, beginning with kindergarten and going up to advance level. Most were quiet mice. But a few should have been behind bars.

For reasons I have still not fully understood, I seem to have become the target for attack by cane or clout more often than fellow classmates. 

Was I “disobedient”? Or was there something in the way I looked that brought on such punishments? 

One priest who made me a persistent target of his attacks was the school principle himself, the Rector. He was a boxer in his youth and this showed when he energetically used his open palms in left-right combinations. But more on him later.

First caning

My first caning was for winning the Lime & Spoon race at around age six. I was boarded with an aunt at Pamankade who found the time to take me for the school sports meet but couldn’t wait for the prize-giving. So on Monday I was called into the junior-school principal’s office – a debonair young priest who rode a Vespa and was popular with the ladies of a nearby girl’s school. My prize was a half-sized football that I was awarded after I had bent over with hands outstretched for support on the principal’s desk while his cane came down forcefully on my backside six times.

Schoolboy pranks went with the territory and I did fall for one. A senior boy turned up at my class one afternoon to say that the scholarly priest, who also headed the music department, had asked for me to come to his office. The priest in question was one who subsequently achieved a certain prominence, even reverence, among classical Sinhalese music fans. 

I approached his first-floor office full of apprehension: had he heard about my talents as a tenor and intended including me in his latest musical production? I remember tapping for a length of time on his door, louder and louder as I failed to draw response. Finally it opened and without further ado, the priest struck out with a thunderous open-palm blow, catching me equally on cheek and ear. He then banged the door shut. For the rest of that afternoon and into the night there was a ringing in my ear which was perhaps akin to the annoying ailment of tinnitus.

Every teacher had a nickname. But out of kindness I refrain from revealing the moniker of the then school rector who was my nemesis for it will easily identify him. Let’s just say he was named in Sinhala after an evil spiritual presence, a ghoul. He earned his name for the habit of walking silently down long school corridors with a cane and striking out viciously at any boy caught doing something prohibited. But in actual fact no one found out what law had been transgressed. All you knew was that suddenly you were victim of a fierce cane attack from the rear. Then you had to guess whether it was because you had been leaning against a wall, had a heel up on a pillar base, or had sneezed too loudly. 

The rector rarely taught classes but did occasionally fill in for a sick and absent teacher who taught catechism, as oral religious instructions are called. One day the ghoul turned up for our catechism classes and I had the misfortune of failing to answer one of five questions he shot at me. That earned me six of his best on my backside and his everlasting hatred because I failed to flinch. After that, if he ever caught me out on a corridor, and if I failed to provide a proper answer as to what I was doing, his rapier would lash out on my legs and backside. 

He finally took his full revenge when an allegation was made that I had threatened to strike a teacher (that’s a long story so I’ll desist its narration here). Consequently, as a 15 year old, I was hauled before the rector and without inquiries being made, was ordered to go out into the afternoon sun and kneel in the quadrangle to the giggles of passing boys and a teacher who took the opportunity to snipe, “Damn shame Rezel”. I endured the torment believing the kneeling would stop me being dismissed. But that was not the case. At the end of the school day I was told never to come back. It took my mother’s arrival the next day to sort out the matter and ensure I was back in class. 

Attempted rape

I was next sacked, along with seven other classmates, for the “attempted rape” of two young women in the school toilet block. We may have been 16 at the time.

This is how it happened. On rare occasions our school halls were let out for public exams which brought in a variety of male and female students from outside institutions. 

The school toilets were large airy halls with urinal walls and cubicles with doors mean for the “big job”. For us boys, going to the toilets in the intervals was mostly a communal affair. One day a group of us on such a visit came across two female students who took fright at our noisy entrance and shut the door behind themselves in a “big job” cubicle. 

That had us shouting louder and one among us, who possessed a box of three darts, brought out a piece of chalk and drew a circular target on the door in question with the intention perhaps of commencing a game of darts. The two frightened girls, dressed in slippers, skirts and blouses as was the village after-school style, opened the door and darted out. That had us yelling triumphantly and following them out of the toilet block, but appearing like we were chasing after them. The drama was witnessed by a school watchman who reported it to the rector. (Fortunately the ghoul had moved on by then.) And so the charge of attempted rape came about. 

It took one of our “pater boys” as we called our dads, to convince the more amenable rector that we boys were just being boys, loud and noisy, without criminal designs. 

The senior school toilet block was the location where “bombs” were set off, a prank that once had drastic results on a bespectacled and studious A’ Level science scholar. 

The bomb – a large cracker with most gunpowder scrubbed off the wick so it didn’t fizzle straightaway – would explode 10 minutes later during class hours and cause great confusion throughout the entire school. The delay to explode gave the bomber time to be back in class, seated innocently when it went off. The explosion was signal for most boys to run out of classes yelling in mock terror, as if the Japanese Zeros were in the skies once again.  

During a month of intermittent bombings the entire teaching staff had been primed to catch the culprit. And that was how our A’ Level scholar ended up in the arms of the lawless. He was in one of the toilet big-job cubicles when the bomb went off. But being the conscientious student he was, took time to finish and saunter out. That was when a teacher-priests rushed up and began assaulting him. 

The word assault is used with deliberation for our batch of boys had run out of class in the direction of the toilet block to look for aftereffects. We watched the priest in question, five foot tall, himself bespectacled, and who we called the gunslinger for his quick-fire open palm blows. He kept jumping up and up, landing clout after clout on the poor student’s head, face and chest. The student’s broken glasses were on the ground, his face a clobbered mess, his shirt ripped up. More teaching staff came up and the student was triumphantly escorted to the rector’s office. From there it was the school gates and expulsion. 

An hour later the student returned on the pillion of his father’s Vespa and the duo went into the rector’s office. The student then returned to his classroom. We learned later that the father had violently thumped a terrified rector’s desk many times and threatened to go to the police and even sue the college for all it was worth. However the rector had succeeded in using his pious charms to placate the rightfully enraged dad, and dissuade him from pursuing legal action.

As is currently trending, I have often been asked if my batch was aware of priestly sexual abuse during our schooldays. If there was, I am not aware of it. My immediate group of students were physically bigger than average and Alpha males, into cricket, rugger, basketball and other hardy sports. As one master would taunt us: “Big body won’t do. You must study also.” So attempting anything improper with any one of us would have brought about grievous results. 

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Gosh dear Rezel! You must suffering from PTSD? Are you quite sure that sexual abuse from these nasty villains evaded you? SPC was famous for this. I have read that such punishments can also result in the victim having a later affinity for S&M behavior..

  • 3

    Interesting article. Thanks to the author for a no-holds-barred account of the goings-on at his school. Sadly, these happenings were common in the schools of that era, but as Christopher says, they are not remembered at PPA parties. I believe a new custom is for past pupils of advanced age to go back to their classrooms for a few hours, dressed in school uniform with backpacks.

  • 3

    I, too, attended a catholic school, run by “brothers” of a certain order. A number of frustrated men in robes, one known to slap students for any excuse.

    In the boarding, one was openly keeping a good looking student for sex. But most brothers, including a couple of foreigners, were exemplary teachers.

  • 1

    Thanks, Christopher, for this superb article. When I got to the part where you say you attended a “Catholic boys’ school” on the bank of a Colombo canal, there was no way I wasn’t going to read the rest of it, for I, too, am one its alumni.
    I can identify with much of what you write, though corporal punishment was not so rampant in my days (late 60s and 70s) as it seems to have been in yours.
    I am curious as to the identity of the musician-priest who slapped you. Was it by any chance a priest bearing the intials MJ (with the last name literally translating to Sinhala as “victory flags”)? If so, I would be shocked, because my experience with him was that of a kind, mild-mannered person. Perhaps he had mellowed over time?

    • 0

      Sorry, in my earlier comment I should have written “literally translating to English,” not “Sinhala.”

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