SMILES, blushes, hellos and giddy banter; new faces and familiar ones; brave new girls in a brave new year, all the braver if she sported a brand new look—a makeover as bold as Audrey Hepburn’s in Roman Holiday: goodbye tresses, hello gamine charm!
Outside the school gates, the buzz of traffic; inside, a stray parent here and there doubling the already anxious pulse of the day, bidding fond, reluctant goodbyes to their darlings just minutes before the peal of the first day’s first bell.
First days at school always jolt you back to reality and solid school ground: the morning assembly and flag-raising ceremony, the dutiful mouthing of the national pledge, and for good measure, the school song, and of course, the speech by the principal.
As Madam Principal’s voice drones along, the air thickens with thoughts—a swirl of sunny hopes for more ‘A’s, and internal pep talk (“Work harder!” “Sleep lesser!” “Learn three new words a day!”). Then those buzzing distractions:
When’s she going to be done?
What shall I have for lunch? Rice with a deep fried egg? Soy-sauce pork cutlet?
Netball with Jen and Ai Leng over recess?
It was hard to tell what anyone was thinking, for everyone wore such listening faces, teachers too, especially where I studied at Raffles Girls’ Secondary School.
Such order and precision at the start of the day! Neat rows, two-by-two by the class on the school quadrangle, the oldest students on the far right trickling left towards the younger ones.
What could possibly be running through the teachers’ minds? Heartfelt wishes for an eight- or nine-A1 student from their class, perhaps—which, during my time, was like ringing up the jackpot or scoring a hole-in-one. Maybe even a salary hike, or a promotion to Head of Department, who knows?
The principal’s thoughts were definitely more grandiose: how could she brag to the whole world at the end of the school year that Raffles was still the finest girls’ school in Singapore? From academic to sporting to artistic achievements, everything she spoke of was a vision of superlatives: great teachers, standout students, super scores, athletic superstars, songbirds, artists.
There she was, rambling on with her lofty talk, her schoolmarm voice lanced now and then by an ear-splitting screech or a hollow echo from the microphone that sometimes conspired against her; and here I was, silly student and silly teen, admiring shoes and examining socks.
Canvas Bata shoes didn’t interest me; only those with a swoosh, the signature three stripes, or a bold N, brands in that league caught my eye. On the first day of any new term, I was sure to find new shoes on certain girls. Oh, the envy!
One year, when I did have a new pair of New Balance shoes, I wished for everyone to look at my feet, particularly the two or three prefects I had a terrible crush on.
And then, there were socks and the whole business of how they were folded. These were the days when no-show socks hadn’t even existed, although pom-pom socks were all the rage but banned in school. So sock-folding was de rigueur if you didn’t want to look like Miss Geek with your socks coming up to the calf.
I took great interest in studying not just the fold of the sock, but the number of folds and its length: the longer the fold, the fewer you had to make, and the fewer you made, the lesser chance of the folds bunching up around the ankle like a choker.
Invariably, the cooler and hotter girls had theirs folded so long and low they just skirted the base of the ankles you could barely see them from being nearly tucked in the shoe. The too hot and wild ones had socks completely concealed within the shoe, which felt too naked and vulnerable for me.
That was how I would judge the good sense and taste of my fellow students by applying this socks test. First day of school was somehow a field day for this inane exercise, offering new ideas to refine my own sock-folding style.
If Vanity had been the name of some of us Raffles girls, the same could not have been said about the building that was home to all our learning and our quiet discoveries of womanhood.
One could easily have surmised that our administrators hadn’t been vainpots, but strict guardians of the school’s purse strings for I had never once experienced the thrill of finding a fresh coat of paint on the school walls over a new school year. Neither had there been remodeled classrooms with new desks and chairs.
My Rafflesian days were way before the school got converted into the impressively larger, grander-looking establishment of today—and already, this building is slated to go in three years!
In my time, there was still the Old Block (purportedly haunted), fronting Anderson Road that weaved up to the Shangri-La Hotel; and the New Block, just adjacent to the long-gone torn-down Anderson Secondary School, facing Stevens Road.
So the only new sentiments for me each year were the sense that I had turned older sister to the younger ones and the way the school song resonated more profoundly. Its melodious lilt and poetry had a way of making my voice quiver and the goosebumps visit with a tingle of quiet pride:
Sisters in learning and sisters at heart, life lies before us, here’s luck to the start.
And as this last line was sung, particularly on back-to-school days, I always felt a special something in my heart that urged me to seize the new day, the new term, the new year and whatever the future held for me.
This essay was written in response to an ‘O’ Levels exam question: Describe the sights and sounds as students gather on the first morning of a new school term.
‘O’ Levels 2002, Paper One, Question #1
Related: Back to School Again