Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lal Perera's world

He's won respect with a thankless job
Disciplinarians. I’ve been told by very many not to take them for a ride. Being the authority-fearing child I was, I didn’t. Not at school, not anywhere else. This doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t mean that I underestimated their genial, jovial side, but the truth of the matter is that I encountered too many transgressions of “school law” by others and punishments thereafter to be moved into breaking that law myself. Perhaps it’s part of their job description, but I never really came across a jovial disciplinarian until after some time, when I was nearing the end of my school days. Inevitable, perhaps.

And then I met Lal Perera.

Lal flanks the guardroom at St. Peter’s College. He’s been doing that for the past 42 years. That’s a record. He’s gone on. Got on with it. That’s a record too, of a more qualitative nature. He’s spent the greater part of his life doing what most would consider a thankless job. Hasn’t grumbled, hasn’t complained. I know disciplinarians, and I know security officers. The thing about Lal is that he’s managed to bring the two together. Admirably. This is his story. Kind of.

He was born in Borella, but had been forced to shift homes at an early age. So he left for Panadura, where he attended Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya. Apparently he had yearned to join the army at a young age, a sign of the disciplinarian to come perhaps, and decided to so do during his O/Level years. This was in 1969. He left the army three years later. St. Peter’s, meanwhile, was changing hands. Father Claver Perera, who would later become rector, had met up with Lal and immediately hired him for the job he’s been doing ever since.

Now overseeing discipline, especially in a school, isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t done that job at all or hasn’t done it properly. This is true also wherever and whenever generations shift hands and the “old guard” remains behind. Unless he adapts himself to change, much can and will go wrong. Public caning is out, chastisement is out, and pretty much everything considered “good” punishment back in the day is out. That’s inevitable I agree. So does Lal.

“The school demographics were quite different back then,” he tells me, “St. Peter’s was in fact called the ‘lansi iskole’ because we had so many foreign and Burgher students with us. Even Africans!” Everything changed in the 1980s, and the school’s “change of face” to a more vernacular, Sinhala and Tamil backdrop, along with the inevitable change of attitude from one generation to the next, meant that adaptation, especially in terms of discipline, was in order. Still, things don’t change. Not that easily.

Lal tells me here that while rectors shifted, he wasn’t asked even once to alter or abandon his “methods”. The thing is that he doesn’t only oversee discipline. There’s maintenance, security, ground arrangement, and a horde of other responsibilities which make him more than just a disciplinarian. This can get strenuous at times, he admits, but the point is that he’s been here for so long that he’s anyway used to the weight that comes with them all.

He’s been known to enforce discipline rigidly, almost to the point of obsession. I’m sure some resent him. This hasn’t been a problem for him, because, as he tells me, laughing, “Most kids here had their own fathers overseen by me during their time. They know me. So whenever I set their children right, and if ever they complain, their fathers tell me to continue with what I do.” Respect (always a hard to get commodity with a job like this) is something Lal has been blessed with, the way I see it.

He has stayed in school for so long that I feel he’s part of the “family”. He is. He’s been honoured more than once and with more than one rector of course, but being “part of the family” isn’t just this. It’s not easy to get respect when you’ve just been told off loudly. That’s what Lal does or at least is supposed to do every day. Still, he’s won respect. With old boys, he’s quite a figure. Has been these past 42 years.

Lal has chastised quite a number of students. At a time when it was allowed, he has even overseen caning. “People come up-to me and thank me for what I did,” he remembers, “I just tell them that all that was part of my job, and seeing them turn out to be reformed individuals was what I wanted. Now that I’ve done it, there’s really no need for thank me.” I’m sure he’d agree that he has flared up once in a while, and has very nearly lost his temper where it was reasonable of him to so do. “Not once have I been reported for having lost my temper too much,” he says nonetheless.

20 minutes isn’t enough for a full, proper biographical sketch. I suspect that Lal Perera is a book waiting to be authored by someone, especially from St. Peter’s. It hasn’t, I know. Still, there are enough and more people who would be happy to take up the task. People who’ve been “reformed” by him, including my father (whom, he tells me, grinning, he once slapped).

Yes, Lal Perera is part of the Peterite family. Being part of the family doesn’t mean medals and honours only, as I mentioned above. He continues his work, slowly and efficiently, to the point. Being a discipline officer isn’t easy. There’s a whole world between enforcing order and losing your temper while punishing a transgressor. Happily for the Peterites, he hasn’t mistaken the one for the other. Not yet. Never will.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 7 2014