Much is written about Thomian1 greats and near-greats, but what of the backbenchers? The ‘stir buggers’2 who, habitually, occupied the last two rows in class, the also-rans, who added so much colour to Thomian life during the sixties. Listen to a group of Old Thomians in animated conversation, and you get a ‘feel’ for the vibrant synergies they added to life at STC3 .
At the time, they were near-death experiences, but great laughs today. The memories dwarf life. A few years after leaving STC, a once prominent backbencher spotted the great Canon de Saram, browsing through a book at Cargills in Nuwara Eliya4
.Thrilled to see his Warden5 , he walked up to the great man and asked, “Sir, do you remember me?” The Canon stopped reading, looked up over his half glasses, paused for a moment before replying; “One might forget the roses but never the thorns.”
Backbenchers gravitated to the last two rows in each class, like bees to pollen. They developed an ability to sleep with open eyes. This was repeatedly demonstrated when random questions were directed at them. Their body language told the teacher and the rest of the class that they knew neither, the question nor the answer. Occasionally on a hot, humid, afternoon an enterprising teacher would try to enliven a lesson with a bit of humour. No sooner he revealed his punch line, the boys at the back would break into degrees of hilarity beyond the appropriate. They specialised in the art of stretching a weak joke till it came to a screeching halt in
dry joke territory. This upset the teacher and ate into the 40- minute period. “Those boys at the back are not doing themselves or the class any favours.”
The first reality check for a backbencher was the General Certificate of Education (GCE O/L) examination results. In the sixties, due to the increasing rates of failure, a mezzanine level was mercifully established at STC called the R forms. First and second time failures were given another shy at the GCE O/L examination, from the R forms. Nobody knew what the letter R represented. If one was a speculating type, the phrase ‘RASCALS’ without a cause’ might seem appropriate. The classrooms were located beside the Main Block, behind Warden Davidson’s and subsequently, Mr andthe Post Office at Mount8
, he might have sent a telegram
home to his disbelieving Pater. It was his job to see that the class settled down before Satchi entered class. His reign on a weekly basis was not more than 5 or 6 minutes. In the event the master was absent, it could go for 40 minutes. Voulah’s team was relaxed. Now, that Voulah was in, the normal rules would not apply to them! That was the only reason Batman had been anointed. Politics Sri Lankan style, I scratch your back once, you scratch my back forever. “Do not worry machang, Voulah will look after us.”
All was well and good, except, that Voulah decided to uncharacteristically, walk the moral high ground. Rather
than express his gratitude to his supporters by bending the rules he decided to apply the rule of law, without fear or favour. This was totally unacceptable to his supporters. Something drastic had to be done. Students of Psychology might claim, that since Voulah had been on the receiving end for his entire life, he would have viewed his new status as an opportunity to get back and even the score. To claim that it was a rude shock to his supporters is an understatement. Batman had to be dethroned for his good and the good of his ex-supporters. A request was sent out to the rank and file that a no -confidence motion would have to be moved on the monitor. As Satchi entered class a couple of weeks later, he was surrounded by an unruly mob of unhappy voters. Batman sat sulking at his desk. He knew the lynch mob would probably get their way. The class cried out for a new monitor. Faced with such a passionate level of dissension, Satchi relented, by appointing a new monitor. The wave that brought Voulah in had turned into a tidal wave in the opposite direction. “I say young man, there are
too many complaints about you. You will have to step down.”
Batman was welcomed into the ranks of the ‘lost souls’ like a long lost son. He tore off his cloak of righteousness and happily rejoined the backbenchers in the trenches. Trouble found him like flies find jam. Voulah might have lost a battle, but the war never paused for long. He was soon back to his blinding best issuing warning number hundred to Taxi, “You bugger, don’t let me catch you at the Royal Thomian match.” With blood on his hands, long on hope, short on conviction, looking as innocent as a candle “Me Sir?” “No Sir!” “ Can’t be, you know I never do things like that.”
“Get out of my class, stand outside” a poor exasperated teacher would bellow having reached the end of his ability to tolerate the intolerable. That was not unusual. It happened quite often. The problem about standing outside a class was that if the Warden or the Headmaster passed by, they were doomed. ‘Outstanding’, students were marched to their office for 3 of the best. Backbenchers did not take long to come up with a counter strategy. One always went
out with a few books. Then, as the teacher got busy with the lesson, one went walk about. This was no aimless walk in the park. When walking, one walked, with a sense of purpose. The art of adopting a gait of purpose, fuelled by a sense of bravado on hot air, was enhanced with more risky features. Often, the culprit, by doing so, gave an oncoming teacher the impression that he was on an errand for his class teacher! If challenged, he would not think twice about trying a ‘fast one’ by replying that he was on an errand. A backbencher trying to avoid more punishment would have no qualms about adding more risk to an already risky situation. The motto being, “If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.”
Backbenchers started their year with all four Grandparents intact. They were alive and well. If they happened to have passed away, that was not an issue. As far as the class master was aware, they were ‘alive.’ To have it this way was a necessity, it was the most effective way to engineer a few unscheduled holidays during term. They did not cringe to have them ‘pass-away’ only to be ‘reborn’ the next year for another ‘passing-away.’ Seldom did they get the same form master two years in a row, the Grandparent excuse, was too tempting to be ignored. When that was not practical, the old goodie ‘unavoidable circumstances’ was a particular favourite. One wonders whether ‘unavoidable circumstances’ would cut the mustard today? Usually, Mother dearest signed the letters that were drafted by Sonny boy. On the rare occasion when Father dearest signed the letters, they were letters that were never seen by Father. Not wanting to bother a busy Dad, Sonny boy would take care of the draft as well as his signature. If that was a challenge, a pseudo-Dad could quite easily be found in the backbench. “Machang can you do an excuse letter for me?”
A necessary inconvenience was the end of term examinations. Try as they did to avoid them, they seldom met with any degree of success. Mrs Morrell guarded the gates to the sickroom and she was particularly vigilant during examination time. All the traditional aches -stomach, head and tooth – that generally worked well during term never passed muster at examination time. With the forces stacked so heavily against them, other measures were adopted, to make the best out of a hopeless situation. Examinations called for creative thinking. For the studious, it was within the square. For the backbenchers, it was outside the square. The examinations were closed book examinations. This rule seeded the first opportunity. S.S.D Silva’s History and Geography books were methodically torn up as part of their preparatory work. The loose pages were stuffed into pockets of all descriptions. File papers were more user friendly, but if they were not backed with a good filing system (they never were) it was a nightmare. The entire human body was used in the quest for secure hiding places. Vests, underpants, armpits, pockets, socks & shoes
were all evaluated for suitability. Once the body beautiful was exhausted, the desks and chairs were looked at with varying degrees of ingenuity. Cracks and crevices were discovered in the furniture that would have surprised the designers. One wonders what might have happened if mobile phones and text messages were around? Finally, examination day dawned. It was time for the nerds to test their learning skills; it was time for the rest to test their security and risk management skills. “When crunch time came, they did not hesitate to fly on a wing and a prayer.” Classes, were supervised by a staff member, who paced up and down, like a caged lion, for three hours. It was a boring task. There was nothing enlightening or empowering about it. There would be breaks for the Supervisors, one being teatime. Teatime gave the Supervisor an opportunity to briefly step outside for a smoke as well. No sooner this happened, the energy level in the class reached a new high. Books, printed matter and notes suddenly appeared, as nervous eyes read at lightning speed, to try to make some sense of the question. Faces that had been blank, suddenly exhibited powers of concentration that would make an Einstein look ordinary. Just as they were settling down into a rhythm, the Supervisor would begin to walk towards the class. Immediately, signals would go out and seamlessly, material would be stashed away, while the faces took on an
air of bored innocence. The make up artists in Hollywoodcould not have done a more convincing job. The only telltale signs were handkerchiefs that emerged to wipe sweating brows. The Supervisor who brought a copy of theCeylon Daily News was more giving. The moment he got interested in the editorial, the troops had varying degrees of opportunity. It depended on the angle between where one sat and the Supervisors line of vision. Notes were scanned at speed with a sense of nervous excitement. Meeting the demands of the main task while keeping a third eye open, was not for the faint hearted. Invariably, one was alerted to approaching danger, by an innocent dry cough. A series of coughs meant close the hatches and dive deep for cover.
“You have been spotted.”
“That boy at the back, what were you doing?”
“Me Sir?” (With feigned innocence)
‘Yes you, I saw you.”
“No Sir, impossible.” (With a look that questioned the
Supervisor’s sanity and eyesight in one go.)
“Not me Sir.” (Taps his clothes like a magician desperately
hoping to dupe his audience.)
“Next time I catch you, be careful.”
Backbenchers, due to their lifestyle, had no option but to dance around the Hangman’s noose at exam time. No
wonder they had to journey to the Lavos9
for a punt10 at the end of each day. “Machang can you spare a cigarette?” Backbenchers had nothing to look forward to in the academic sense. They were repeatedly told that they had no future in life unless they changed their ways. At the time, no backbencher contemplated a change of life style. They were busy having too much fun. Why spoil a good thing with change? The problem here was what needed to be done, if their best, as often was the case, was just not good enough? Nobody talked about a plan B. So why is it that the streets of Colombo are not littered with backbenchers? What happened that the soothsayers of the times failed to see? “
You will all end up walking the streets as penniless paupers”. The backbench was a centre of learning. They taught themselves how to get on with people. They learned how to become team players. They learned a code of conduct and stuck to that code despite the odds. They learned how to stand by mates through thick and thin and pain. Friends stood by each other, when sprung for crimes that would turn Pater’s hair grey overnight. They learned how to share their time, grub and contacts with each other, often to get them out of a tight spot. They learned how to comfort a friend when life became overbearing. If all this meant having to visit the Chapel gardens after school as an observer or a combatant, they showed up.
When bodies were needed to defend the flag at school functions, they supplied plenty of brawn. They were passionate about the honour and integrity of STC. At school or house matches, they did not hesitate to don a fancy dress to give matches a colourful and interesting atmosphere. The Thomian tent was enriched by their sense of do and dare. The lunchtime parades during Royal Thomian cricket matches had their fair share of Arabs and Priests decked in appropriate garb, in sweltering heat. They added a sense of zest and sparkle to the Thomian spirit. The backbench taught them some of life’s best social and survival skills. It is no wonder that they were able to respond to the challenges
of life much to the surprise of themselves, their Masters and their peers. “Bloody hell machang, how did you end up doing what you are doing?”
The backbenchers, with their varying temperaments, gave their Teachers many challenges. Mercifully, their Teachers worked the great Thomian system for their students with dedication, conviction and passion. As Teachers and students struggled to find common ground, much good was discovered on both sides. The students, grudgingly at first, began to get a sense of appreciation for the selfless work that was being put in by the Teachers, on their behalf. The Teachers saw potential in the raw material and never gave up on their students. The Teachers grappled with their own insecurities and exposed their human side to their students.
There was a sense of forgiveness on the part of both Teacher and student. At some point along the line, by applying the best Christian traditions of STC, they won their student’s hearts and minds. The timing was different for each student, but it did happen. When it did, it created a deep chord of love and mutual respect in their minds. “The Teachers and Staff at STC were simply the best.”So what became of the backbenchers? Well not surprisingly they are all married, with sons and daughters of their own in regular work. The masters at STC had seen it all before.
Consequently, they were always a step ahead of the play. Backbenchers thought they were innovators, but the
masters who knew better, knew them for what they actually were; a bunch of copy cats! No matter how old or young, the generations all seemed to play the same. If you were to be a fly on the wall, you might hear them tell their children what ‘model’ students they were in their day. Call it a selective memory, call it being able to lie without flinching, old habits diehard. They are alive and well. The memories of their times at STC are enshrined in their minds because they were moulded in pain. Acute pain, as they often bent down and held the wall for 3 or 6 of the best. For the amount of risk they took, the returns were abysmally poor, but that did not prevent them from trying.