Fathers and Sons
off at a tangent, a schoolteacher fires personal questions at his
students and entertains the class with accounts of his aeronautical
prowess, as recalled by Stephen Prins
What is your Father?
The dreaded question, aimed at Student by Teacher.
The query pops up at least once a week. You never know when it will
strike in your direction. It was one of those classroom things.
The teacher will be in the middle of a dissertation, and suddenly it
is question time. Gazing over his captive audience, he selects a
promising face and calls on that face to answer a technical query. The
student twitches. The face does its best to look ready – ready, round
and convex, like a soldier’s shield out of ancient Sparta or medieval
Polonnaruwa, ready to deal with or deflect the object hurled at it.
The teacher’s expression suddenly softens, changing from strictly
classroom to general and gregarious. The boys relax, the topic of the
hour melts away in the afternoon humidity. The subject now in
non-textbook-related –tame, friendly, domesticated.
“WHAT - IS - YOUR - FATHER?”
The question is repeated because the recipient’s face is hesitant,
expressionless. The mind behind the face is ticking furiously as it
considers two options: the truth or a falsehood. Tell the truth and be
ready to oblige with a favour that may cost you and your family
something; tell a lie and be damned – wait until you are found out and
expect the worst.
The teacher is nicknamed The Pilot. From time to time, he goes off on
his favourite tangent, leaving the lesson on the ground and soaring into
the air in a spin of pleasant reminiscing, telling us how he once flew
planes, in the hiatus between graduating from teacher training school
and becoming a full-time pedagogue.
The audience loves it when The Pilot is airborne. He looks cool, as
they say, in his imaginary flying goggles.
As the Teacher-turned-Pilot recalls his youthful aeronautical feats,
he rises into the clear blue of the unclouded imagination. He is on a
tour of the sky, dipping and flipping and looping the loop before the
bell rings the hour and forces him to land on the tarmac of classroom
reality. These fancy flights out of the past give his spectators the
opportunity to aim questions at The Pilot, like aiming anti-aircraft
fire in a World War II movie and going Rat-a-Tat-Tat. The ground-to-air
volleys of queries and the return fire of answers will happily blast
away the remaining minutes of the lesson.
It was perhaps his proud sense of himself as Teacher-Aviator-Parent
that provoked The Pilot’s great interest in Fathers.
Those whose ‘Patres Familias’ were professionals or wealthy
businessmen were not shy to talk and show off family colours and
affluence. But, as everyone knew, talking about Fathers and Family was
risky. You could be held to account.
*Dayananda Radhasinghe’s father was a Doctor. The physician’s son was
made to understand that Radhasinghe medical intervention would be
welcome in the event of someone in The Pilot’s family falling ill and
being rushed to hospital.
*Dewashri Abeyawansha’s father was a Tea Broker. The Pilot said he
would be honoured to receive a large box or crate of choice
*Rizan Marikar-Mohamed came from a glittering line of gem traders,
his father managing much of the family business. The Pilot said his two
daughters would be getting married soon, and that a generous discount on
jewellery for the weddings would be gratefully accepted.
*Krishantha Goolagasekera’s father was a famous Cricketer. The Pilot,
who loved cricket and had, in his own words, excelled in the game at
school, would be delighted to receive complimentary pavilion tickets at
*Jegan Jegawardene’s father was a Civil Servant and his uncle a
prominent Lawyer. The Pilot was worried about a personal property case,
a piece of litigation that had gone on for years, and he wondered if the
famous legal eagle could provide a consultation, at a “reasonable” rate,
or at no rate at all.
*Mitch McBlair’s father was a Sales Agent for MiniMax Fire
Extinguishers. The Pilot said he and his family would sleep in peace if
there was a MiniMax fire extinguisher in every room, lest a midnight
fire break out. Would McBlair Senior please consider installing
fire-fighting equipment at The Pilot’s residence, and at minimum charge,
if he could?
This writer was spared. When it was our turn to wax on about Father,
we had little to say. Father had for many years been an invalid, which
was the fact, and unable to assist anyone, least of all himself. The
Pilot was sympathetic.
And so it went.
By the end of the year, the Teacher-Aviator had done a complete
reconnaissance of the classroom and knew all he needed to know about the
lay of our lands and our family backgrounds.
As far as we know, none of us was ever pressed to appeal to a parent
about rendering the flying ace personal or professional services.
It turned out that our class, ever eager for creative distractions,
was the one class that inspired The Pilot to take imaginative flight. In
all other classes, before and after our daredevil Class of ’63, the
ex-Aviator was firmly and sadly grounded.
-Excerpted from the forthcoming book ‘Under The Tamarind Tree – A
School Memoir of the Sixties’