89

The number, eighty-nine in a school boarding

was number 89, eighty-nine. I liked it, being marked as a number. I was like a child soldier with a number on my uniform. It was not impersonal. I loved being the number 89.

I became the number 89 when I entered the Christian brothers’ formative boarding school at age 13.

Back then, I did not know that prisoners and soldiers were marked with numbers. For my younger self at that age, being recorded as a number in a commune setting of a school boarding, in a commune setting.

How I was marked with the number 89 is a story worth telling. On my first day of admission, Brother Jerome, the supervising director escorted me and my parents to his office, a wooden cabin next to the chapel. He marked my name, date of birth, address, and parents’ details in row number 589 in a huge register, that was as big as his desk. I was the 589th student ever to enter the institute over its many decades of functioning. To make it convenient for everyone currently enrolled, the first digit was removed, and the last two numbers were used to mark each boy. That’s how 89 became my number, my trade mark. It was my I.D from that day onwards. Every boy among the forty-five boys in the institute had a unique two-digit number, originating from that mega register.

The numbers allocated became handy for the supervisors in managing a gang of forty-five boys. When one borrowed a book from the library, it was marked against the boy’s unique two-digit number. When the laundry man came on each Friday, boys picked up their freshly laundered clothes, mostly white, identifying them by numbers. My pants had 89 marked in their inseams and my shirts and vests had 89 marked in their collars.

The study hall was full of desks, identical in rows. Each boy’s desk was marked with his unique number in black paint. Under the desktop was a massive drawer to store schoolbooks, library books and stationery. I loved my desk, marked 89. It was the lightest desk in the whole study hall.

I never studied during the study hour; I could not stay still for a long time with my short attention span. I had hidden three toy figurines inside my drawer on my desk. A soldier, a Red Indian and a cowboy. Keeping the drawer open, pretending to pick books from inside the drawer, I played with them. Sometimes a game of wild west warfare took place inside my desk 89 while the others were immersed in their studies. My friend Richard was fascinated with my hidden toys and was one to walk up to my desk when the supervisor was not looking. Nobody came to check on me because I had good grades. On my beloved desk, number 89, I was left to my own devices, and frequently visited by Richard, number 97.

In the dormitory upstairs, My bed was marked also with the number 89. My pillows, bedsheets, and sarongs (night gear) were also marked with the number 89. I could not escape my number 89. It was staring at my face, wherever I went, except in the common cafeteria where nothing was marked. Senior boys sat together and the young guns like me were grouped separately.

When monthly boarding fees were paid, it was marked against one’s number in the payment register, that the supervising director controlled.

Being recognised by a number had its advantages. There were three Denzils in the institute. There was one Denzil who was about four years older, the one who wore long pants. Then there was another Denzil, a tall dark boy a year older. Then there was me. Denzil of 89 fame was the one and only. Without a numbering system, three Denzils would be a logistics nightmare in a large institute with many moving parts. Just think of the laundryman, dealing with his weekly laundry run, dealing with three Denzils and mixing up his carefully organised laundered clothes, destined for forty-five students.

I was fluent in English (one caveat, relative to the other boys) during my time. I was voted in as the secretary of the English literacy union. Now, that post came with some responsibilities like overseeing the library. When books were given out, it was my job to mark the borrower’s number in the lending register. So, I ended up recording their numbers, in a mini register of my own, just like the supervisor in charge of the mega register. It was a serious responsibility, something I could not do alone. I was helped by my friend, Dominic, a fellow student and treasurer of the union. His unique number was 93.

89 and 93 were the kingpins who ran the library.

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Denzil Jayasinghe

Lifelong learner, tech enthusiast, photographer, occasional artist, servant leader, avid reader, storyteller and more recently a budding writer