Saturday, 9 June 2007

My Alma Mater

Quarrels were infrequent in school and if a fight threatened to break out, it was usually settled by boxing gloves. The two hot heads were brought to the back of the school where the industrial arts building stood. In the large open space, the teacher (I had forgotten his name) would hand out the heavy boxing gloves and give instructions on putting up a clean fight; no punching below the belt, no kicking when the opponent was down, and no biting, much like the referee of a professional boxing match. At the end of the fight, they shook hands. It was an effective way of dissipating the anger of both the students. The fighters were tired out more from throwing punches and missing them than actually connecting them. At the end of the day no one was hurt. And everybody had a hell of a time hooting for their favourite!

If all else failed, the quarrel would be settled in the headmaster’s office where the students were given a choice of the cane they wanted the HM to use. Penalty for fighting? Three strokes of the cane. There were three canes to choose from. Those in the know would always choose the thickest.

There were two students in my class: Mun Kin and Kit Fong. They were frequently hauled up by the discipline master for not wearing their metal school badges. At one assembly, which was held at the main padang, the discipline master called out the names of these students to come forward to the front, convinced that they would be caught for not wearing their badges. Out came the two, wearing huge badges the size larger than their shirt pockets, made from styrofoam and painted beautifully in the school’s bright yellow and green. The discipline master was speechless. After the assembly, both were called to the office and commended by the HM for their patriotic spirit, but were reminded not to embarrass the discipline master again in the future.

Mr. Mathai cut a majestic figure. A tall, huge man, with sparse white hair, he was a gentle man who carried himself with dignity. There was an aura of calmness about him. In his presence, I could only sense his imposing height, his large horn rimmed glasses and his flashing white teeth.

Once, I was hauled up together with another student to his office for not going for their physical education class. We had stayed back in class to rest. A prefect making his round found us and accompanied us to the HM’s office. The rule was strict: nobody was supposed to be in class during the Physical Education period. He questioned us in his strong calm voice as to why we were in class. We replied tearfully that we were not feeling well. “That is not a good reason. Inform the teacher and ask for permission to rest in class. Did you do that?” he told them smilingly. It was not a smile of malice, not of sadistic pleasure at the prospect of inflicting pain. It was sadness. He was a man who loved his students like his own children. As usual, we were given the freedom to choose the cane we wanted. I had never been caned before, so I chose the thinnest. And how I suffered for my naivety! I offered a silent prayer of gratitude to Mr. Mathai.

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