Monday, March 27, 2017

Lal Perera: The sentinel of St Peter's College

Those who studied at Ananda College from 1968 to 1991, and even those who had not, would know Bandula Galappaththi. He studied, taught, and became Vice Principal there. Those who studied at Lyceum International, Nugegoda from 1995 to 2015, and even those who had not, would know him too. He taught and became Deputy Principal there.

Galappaththi was, at both schools, feared. He was respected. Appreciated. Sometimes emulated. Never resented. He taught his students enough and more about maintaining decorum (even in the face of trouble) and didn’t mince words when punishing those who, for the lack of a better way of putting it, couldn’t toe the line.

I knew Galappaththi (or “Gala” as we fondly called him), but realised how much of the man I’d missed when I sat down about a year ago, during his last two weeks at Lyceum, for the purposes of a biographical sketch. He had stories to tell, deserving of more than a cursory glance and which, if told by anyone other than himself, would lose the anecdotal qualities he breathed into them. To keep on safer ground, hence, I opted to focus on his career. I fired away my questions, recorded his answers, and submitted what I thought was a decent sketch of the man. It was published the day after he officially vacated his post, and retired for life.

Since then I have thought back on all those encounters I had with him and have come to realise that for all their superficial calm, they too led lives that we, as students and even as adults, tended to miss. Gala was no stranger to tragedy, no stranger to those afflictions that visit such men, but despite all that he kept the peace like no other disciplinarian, or guardsman, could. After all, schools are like offices. People come and go. They bring their personal lives and make them part of whatever capacity they are in.

No, this is not a tribute to Bandula Galappaththi. This is a tribute to another such keeper of the peace, at another school.

Lal Perera flanks the guardroom at St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. He’s been doing that for the past 44 years. That’s a record. He’s gone on. Got on with it. That’s a record too, of a more qualitative nature. Sure, guardsmen aren’t necessarily looked up to at a school, any school, but Lal has acquired the kind of respect few men in his profession can. I know disciplinarians and I know security officers. I know enough of both to know that the two are clean different. Lal, however, managed to bring the two together in a way which has made him probably the most feared, respected, and quietly emulated man in the College premises.

Like all such men, he has a story to tell. He was born in Borella but had been forced to shift homes at an early age. So he and his family left for Panadura, where he attended Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya. It was probably owing to the disciplinarian in the man, but his first ambition had been to join the Army. During his O/Level years, that is what he ventured to do, leaving it three years later in 1972.

I put to him that while I certainly have not seen his reputable and provocative side (I hope I never do, but that’s another story), his stints at the Armed Forces would have opened him up to the tricks of the trade when it came to enforcing discipline. He agrees, with a smile. In the meantime, St Peter’s College was changing hands. Father Claver Perera, who would later become the Rector, met up with the man and hired him to flank the guardroom. He’s been there ever since.

Before I get to his methods (which really, come to think of it, deserve another article), I ask him as to how the school environment changed over the years. “Well, for starters the demographics were quite different back then. St Peter’s was called the ‘lansi iskole’ because we had so many foreign and Burgher students with us. Even Africans!”

With the school’s “change of face” to a more vernacular backdrop in the seventies and eighties, along with the inevitable change of attitude from one generation to the next, an adaptation, especially in terms of discipline, was in order. Still, things don’t change. Not that easily.

I am, of course, a virulent critic of corporal punishment, which is why I am relieved to know that Lal doesn’t resort to it anymore. “Times change and with them schools too. Children have become more restless, and with urbanisation and the tendency to get hooked on to the television, the computer, and the phone, they also have shorter attention spans. Still, we live in a different world now, where the cane isn’t as tolerated as it was.” Not that this makes him less uncompromising: “I do what I can to ensure that those within my purview toe the line.”

He tells me moreover 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 he’s been here for so long that he’s anyway used to the weight that comes with them all.

The man has 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 hence something Lal has been blessed with.

Lal has also chastised quite a number of students. His reputation for this hasn’t gone unacknowledged. “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. Given my fear of crossing off such men, I am secretly glad that I am a visitor (I interviewed him at the College Library) and not student. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s gained notoriety: “I haven’t been reported for having lost my temper too much. Not once.”

I suspect that he’s been part of St Peter’s so much that he’s part of the family. Given that the school boasts of a history of 96 years, we’re talking about spending half that history overseeing, enforcing, and sustaining discipline. It’s really no cause for surprise, then, that he’s been honoured more than once and with more than one Rector. With Old Boys in particular (even those like my father, who he didn’t hesitate to slap or harshly chastise), he’s cut out a respectable figure. Small wonder.

Last year, the Old Boys Union of St Peter’s (at their Annual Honours Night) dished out a special award to him, as the oldest living serviceman at school. I am sure the man, whose sense of humility is evident for all to glean, refuses to see himself higher than he is even with these tokens, but we would be ungrateful if we do not acknowledge the full worth of what he's done. Being a member of the Peterite family, I am willing to bet, remains his biggest and most deserving honour. As it should be.

Lal Perera continues his work. The Peterites continue to watch him work. Just like my friends and I did with Bandula Galappaththi, once upon a happier time.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, March 26 2017