Remembering those far simpler days
Class reunions are a reminder of an education where we learnt about the world, about how to treat one another and how to write properly.
THE year 2016 seems to be the year of reunions for me. Early this year, I was reunited with my alma mater, the University of Sussex – quite a nostalgic experience, even if the student population has grown five-fold and some old faculty buildings have been pulled down.
Later this month, I will be reunited with some of my small circle of friends in Kobe, Japan, where I lived for more than two years and where my older daughter was born.
Last weekend, though, I had a reunion with some of my oldest friends from the school I was at the longest: St Nicholas Convent in Alor Setar. It had been one year in the planning and we exceeded our aim of getting at least 60 alumni to attend.
A reunion with old friends can be a risky endeavour. You’re likely to meet up with old schoolyard enemies, open up old wounds and be reminded of things you’d rather forget.
I went to one reunion where an old schoolmate made the fateful mistake of reminding me why we never got on, thinking that the old episode was funny rather than hurtful.
This reunion had none of that. Although some of us couldn’t remember some of our old schoolmates, we were still joined by a common love and a shared history with a school that sadly does not exist anymore.
Some people still looked the same, albeit with an expanded waistline, some people had changed their whole look (thus making it difficult for those of us with memories of young schoolgirls) and some already had grandchildren galore.
But we still had fun remembering our old teachers and their idiosyncrasies, the types of innocent naughtiness that schoolgirls could get up to in those far simpler days. We remembered the nuns who were also our teachers and who taught us how to behave well, at least according to them.
I remember silence was considered a great virtue. There were also amusing attempts by the nuns to warn us about boys.
“If a boy asks you to meet him, do not go!” the Irish nun thundered, which raised curiosity about what a boy would want to meet me for!
It’s really odd what tiny details the memory records. I remember my Year One teacher’s bright orange skirt and the wonderful white slingback shoes my Year Six teacher wore.
The friends I had been in kindergarten with even remembered the types of activities we had then. Everyone remembered, with some affection, the very fierce Domestic Science teacher we had.
At our gala dinner, we showed old photographs, sang old songs and simply chatted away about old times. The next day, we had a brunch at the site of our old school (predictably enough, now a mall) and took a group photograph at the old school sign.
And then spontaneously, we were all invited to visit a friend whose home was in the middle of padi fields and who laid out a spread of typical Kedah dishes.
I look back at that weekend as a reminder of what we have lost in the years since then. For one thing, we all speak English very well, having been drilled in its grammar and use by some excellent teachers.
We had a well-rounded primary education where we learnt about the world through General Knowledge, about how to treat one another in Civics and even how to write properly, first in single letters and then in cursive.
We all remembered when we moved from using pencils to the more grown-up pens, and how we constantly smudged our fingers with ink.
Convent schools in those days were not particularly diverse, mostly because Malay parents were uncomfortable about sending their daughters to be taught by nuns.
Malay girls were thus a minority but despite the big cross on the main school building, Christian imagery on the corridor walls and songs at assembly, none of us have ever left our faith.
We never felt oppressed or sidelined. We went to our Ugama classes, while our Catholic friends went to catechism. The rest of the time we moaned collectively about homework, exams and strict teachers.
We ate together, played together, joined the same clubs and participated in the same performances.
When we saw one another again, some after 40 years or so, it was as if time had stood still in our friendships. Hugs were abundant and warm. Sentimental old me couldn’t hold back tears upon seeing my childhood chum’s mother. Their family and ours had spent a lot of time together.
We’re still talking and reminiscing about those times now that we’ve parted again. And we’re well aware that we had something precious which must be preserved.
Will our collective children and grandchildren be able to say the same?
6 October 2016