S. Thomas’ was an extraordinary business, a bit like a roller-coaster ride. Everything went astonishingly well at first. It was astonishing, because it was all so simple. The school basically needed discipline, and it proved surprisingly easy to enforce this. The masters whom I remembered fondly as dedicated teachers were pleased, because their work was rewarded, and they did not have to put up with a few of their peers endlessly missing classes and destroying the routine of class and the primacy of work.
More importantly too the boys were generally happy. I did worry sometimes about whether I was being too hard, but I was reassured on this point by one of my old friends from the Drama Society, whom I met on one of the few occasions I permitted myself to go to the Art Centre Club. He told me that the boys felt that at last they had someone who cared.
This was Keith Modder, whom I met years later on a plane, hardly recognizable because, though extremely short as I remembered him, he exuded the authority of someone who always travelled Business Class (I had kindly been given a complimentary ticket by Sri Lankan Airlines, to participate in a South Asian Literature Festival in London, but it was Economy Class and to be upgraded only if there was room – fortunately there was). I remembered him playing Hamlet when Richard had finally been asked to train S. Thomas’ for the Shakespeare Competition, the Ponniahs having gone away I think, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when they lost, after a 7 year unbroken record. He was a very vulnerable Hamlet, but the traditionalist judges could not understand this and were ruthlessly critical, so that Richard and I were extremely sympathetic and arranged another performance through the English Association to give the concept greater exposure, and also to give poor Keith another chance to make an impression. It is strange to think now of the emotions that generated, when the world of schoolboys has moved on so much.
Lyn Illangakoon had told me, when we first met, that teachers could not be prevented from taking leave, since they were entitled to 21 days of vacation leave and 21 days of sick leave. This struck me as ridiculous, so I looked up the regulations, which he had failed to do, and found that they could take only 7 days of vacation leave at will. That too had to be approved in advance, and for the remaining 14 they had to adduce one of a number of limited reasons. Sadly I don’t think anyone has studied these regulations, which make it clear that teachers, who enjoy vacations unlike other workers, cannot also have the same leave entitlement, though in case of bereavement or other similar emergencies they can have time off.
With regard to sick leave, Illangakoon thought that medical certificates were essential only if three days leave were taken consecutively. This too was not the case. The provision was that, in the case of three days continuous absence, the certificate had to be sent in on the third day. Any sick leave had to be supported by a certificate, though it could be brought in on the next day if the absence were for just one or two days.
It was appalling to see the havoc caused by the very few teachers who abused the system. Most of my old teachers had taken hardly any leave, the best being Russel Bartholomeusz, who had joined the staff as a young old boy when I was in the Lower School, and who had taught English to a special set of boys whose names began with the last few letters of the alphabet. He used to march us off to the pavilion, where we had the most beautiful view over the sea, while enjoying marvelous readers with names like ‘Happy Hours’ and ‘Golden Tales’.
Russel, who had been organist and assistant to Rev L G B Fernando, who trained the choir, had by now moved to the Middle School, and looked after the choir by himself. I was horrified to find that he was the lowest paid member of staff, since he had no qualifications. We made him a Section Head, for the Upper Fourth, and he was of course extremely conscientious about his responsibilities, and fully deserved the admittedly very small extra allowance he received.
LGB on the contrary had perhaps the worst record of attendance. He was rarely in College or in class, and I put him on unpaid leave, which led to a memorable visit in which he told me how sad he was, after he had done so much for my maths. This was not strictly true, because I had done Maths while doing Arts, which meant I could not follow a regular timetable, and instead I had learnt much more from Mr Jayasinghe, a shambling character who was called Paan Kaaraya, but was one of the few lively intellects in the school, far too imaginative for schoolmastering in the dull sixties. We used to do riders together, for just one period each week, bursting with excitement as we came closer to solutions to elusive puzzles. This delighted the others in the Arts class since they were left to their own devices, but I carry the memory still of us sitting head to head in the tin sheds to which Arts students were exiled, while the rest made a lot of noise that barely penetrated Paan’s consciousness.
He too was still around, and he too became a Section Head. LGB on the other hand decided the game was up, and retired, after I had told him that the only reason I had to be so hard on him was that I wanted the new generation to benefit as I had done. I went to his farewell service, and he evidently bore me no grudge, for he had said that I treated him very well, quite unlike the Warden.
He hated Illangakoon with a passion, which I put down to his bitterness at not being Warden himself. He had I believe come back to College to teach for Canon de Saram on the understanding that he would in time succeed him as Warden, but that was not to be, and in time, when his hopes were dashed for the second and then the third time, and he was not made Chaplain either, he just dropped out of College, while still drawing his salary as a teacher, and concentrated on private tuition. I could quite understand why he had never been promoted, but I could not help feeling sorry for him, the more so when he died shortly afterwards.
By then I had seen something more of the way Illangakoon operated, and I realized that LGB had a reason for his anger. Illangakoon complained about him angrily to anyone and everyone, but did not take any measures at all to correct him. The technique was brilliant, to draw attention to the faults of everyone else, using the prestige of his family and his position to avoid the perception that ultimately he was responsible for the whole institution.