Father Beech was a bull of a man who, the story goes, could lift, over his head, an average size seventh standard schoolboy, purely with the strength of his mighty right arm. Nobody that I know, had actually seen him do it, but legend has it that he could roll up his sleeve and perform the feat anytime, and none among us whom he taught English Language, English Literature, and Scripture, at St. Mary’s school in Bombay, long, long ago, in the nineteen-forties, ever doubted it.
I enjoyed English Language as a subject, although I’d frequently get into a tangle over grammar. However I had a powerful imagination and a certain facility with words, which managed to see me through examinations. English Literature though, was another matter altogether. It included large amounts of Shakespeare, most of which I found beyond my comprehension and which, at exam time, diluted the marks earned from my answers on the works of other authors. The result being, I seldom passed an examination in that subject. Scripture was optional, but I chose to study it in spite of the boredom it induced in me, since the alternative was Hindi, and one look at the Devanagiri script froze the blood in my veins, although I was quite happy with the language as it was spoken.
On reflection, it is understandable that my sort of student would run foul of a teacher with Fr. Beech’s temperament, and what made life painfully difficult for me, was that the padre with the strong right arm, had absolutely no hesitation in supplementing his teaching skills with frequent use of a malacca cane.
The first time Fr. Beech had cause to discipline me, was in Scripture class when I was asked to narrate one of St. Paul’s journeys in the New Testament. I naively admitted I had forgotten to learn it, whereupon the cleric smilingly told me that, for the next lesson, not only was I to have a fairly good idea of what St. Paul had got up to on his travels, but I was to know the text by heart. Came the day, and I glanced through the chapter in the ten minute recess before the Scripture period. When asked to say my piece, I started off in grand style, and had Fr. Beech nodding approvingly at the part where a mysterious voice speaks to St. Paul, who was also called Saul, saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” After that, I ran out of facts but soldiered on with my version of the narrative, keeping a straight face and using what I thought were genuine biblical phrases and expressions such as “Thou shalt not sin”, “Thus it came to pass”, and ”Forgive us Father for we know not what we do”. Just when I felt I had the situation well under control, Fr. Beech raised both clenched fists above his head, and cried “Enough! Come to my room directly after school.”
At the appointed time, I presented myself, looking sheepish and dejected, as I felt was expected of me.
“Ah, there you are”, the padre greeted me genially. “Come right in”. Smiling, he produced an evil looking switch from a book rack on the wall, and pointing, first at my hands, and then at the seat of my trousers, offered me the choice of where I wished to be thrashed. Without a second thought, I held out my hands. For a lad of my age, my hands were huge. A medical student, after staring at them, once pronounced me ‘acromegalic’. I thought he was being rude until I consulted the dictionary. Then I felt he was probably right.
The switch came whistling down. As it smote my palm, my fingers closed over it, and I tugged gently. My tormentor wasn’t expecting that and, to his surprise, found himself empty-handed, with me pointing the cane at his midriff. Rather like a swordsman disarming his opponent and having him at his mercy. I held the pose long enough to convey the idea, before restoring the switch to its owner. After that display, I felt I had earned the right to make a dignified --- if not triumphant --- exit, with my head held high. I was mistaken. I found myself being seized by the neck and doubled over. There followed six excruciatingly painful strokes of the cane, upon my rump.
In the years following that encounter with the disciplinarian Beech, and leading up to the school leaving examination, I was chastised several times by the padre, and never once was I allowed to take it on my hands. I thought familiarity with the punishment would lead, if not to outright contempt for it, to at least a partial numbing of the nerves under the seat of my pants. Neither happened. I considered myself lucky if I could space out the canings so as to be fully recovered from one painful episode, before running into the next. Through trial and error, I found that the most effective way to achieve this, was to do my homework, and study diligently. It probably also accounted for my passing the final Senior Cambridge examination, albeit by the skin of my teeth, when all around me, expected me to fail. As it happened, I did fail in history and in geography, and since both subjects belonged to a ‘group’, I should, by rights, have failed the entire exam. What wrought the miracle of my getting through, was the fact that I managed to secure five ‘credits’. Three of them came from Fr. Beech’s subjects ; another, by way of a fluke, in mathematics ; and finally one in French, in which I received home tuition from my mother who, like Fr. Beech, was a disciplinarian, and a great believer in strong arm methods.
I remain passionately opposed to the use of violence in disciplining schoolchildren. At the same time, my list of academic achievements is so woefully short, that I treasure my Senior Cambridge certificate which I know I would never have obtained, had I not been painfully coerced into studying. It leaves me undecided whether I am glad or sorry I was made to suffer in school. Under the circumstances, all I am prepared to admit to is : “Sweet are the uses of adversity ”. . . . sometimes.