Back to School Again

NO student would have dared to stroll into school twenty minutes late, but I was not a student anymore. Besides, I had paid my dues, marched the brutal marches, swam victorious races, lugged and thumped on the bass drum, grieved over unbalanced equations, and ached from the ceaseless strivings of life as I knew it then, all four years of it, from 1982 to 1985. My alma mater must have been hurting with me and for me, the way my mother had. Alma mater, bounteous mother, yes, my Raffles Girls’ Secondary School!

Walking up the path along Andersen Road towards the school gates, now all of thirty years older, I visualized the girl I once was. The scene returned: the tall shady trees; the canvas shoes pounding the path at dismissal after the evening assembly (was it 6.00PM or 6.20PM?); the rush of girls racing to the bus-stop, myself included, always one of the first at the top of the Bus 173 line. Everything returned, warmly familiar, ever so haunting, now jarred menacingly by a towering, gleaming black monstrosity nudging so close to the Shangri-La side of the school, that section that once housed our home economics classes.

Gone are the beautiful open skies we once took for granted. And gone too are three girls who had played and learned in our midst, girls whose names had flashed on the screen moments after I had entered the Evelyn Norris Hall, so that the burst of chatter I had launched into with an immediately recognizable face at the registration desk was suddenly snuffed out as we observed a minute’s silence.

They were names I hadn’t recognized, names whose company was short of one—Sharon the artist, Sharon who rocked the jazz-set to life, Sharon with the short, spiky hair, Sharon who was slim and sexy, all guts and pluck. She had left us twelve years ago, felled by an aneurysm. She had left us a memory too—a fine picture of can-do; an unshakable air of go-for-it; and, for me in particular, an unforgettable image of that one night when she climbed up the school gates back into a band camp with me following suit.

Had we snuck out to supper with my parents? Why had Mr. Ho, our stocky, kindly janitor, locked the gates on us? There had been headlights shining at the gates so that both of us wouldn’t hurtle and fall, but were they from my father’s car? This is the part of memory that fails me, a sensation all of us 163 in the cohort who showed up must have felt in the course of the afternoon at our “Back to the Future” homecoming—cheekily and discreetly named to mask our graduating year and hence our age, and to tickle us into flights of fancy where the future could taste only of nothing but our once-upon-a-time years: so young, so good!

And for that entire Saturday afternoon of August 1st, how giddy and happy fools we were! What exuberant delight at seeing this face, and that, and the other, and that one, and oh, this other one, before breaking into bear hugs and uncontrollable squeals: there was the “Yes, I know you!” and the occasional “Wait, don’t tell me your name,” as you searched the eyes, surveyed the face, squeezed each others’ hands as if the very action would jolt the forty-five-, forty-six-year-old brains into an answer that seemed stupidly and stubbornly stuck.

The game of “Remember Me?” would get particularly fun if you willed yourself not to look at the sticky labels on the shirt front or blouse, or the flabbier, meatier bicep, where some had chosen to stick their labels. It forced you to play riddles:

Viv: “You were in the band too? Really?” 

Mystery Face: “Guess what I used to play?” 

And just as I was about to say “clarinet,” some voice in our midst blurted out “bassoon!” The game was spoiled, but it shifted into the next gear: I’d mentally transform that now adult face, the more intricately drawn eyes, the chiseled nose, the almost Japanese-Eurasian features, into the visage of our long-ago bassoonist whose black bassoon strap always hung from her neck on band practice days. Lai Min, of course! Yes, Lai Min! Lai Min with the perfectly long bassoon-friendly arms. Who ever knew her as Steff? Or Steffi?

Such were the ultra-fun quizzes that tickled and teased you into a world where present-day Christian names graced faces that once had only Chinese names. How could anyone have put two and two together: Sylvia with Huishu, Catherine with Huimin, Ellen with Geok Lian, or Jean with Siew Cheng?

That last name may not have stacked up, but why would I have associated her with her Ascot shoes? And why would I have immediately remembered Rathna—when she said hello to me across the buffet table—as the girl whose pinafore was just weird: weird fabric, weird color, weird length, unlike the not-so-long cotton and navy-blue ones all of us wore?

Names may have changed for some, faces may have hardened or softened through Time’s unpredictable whimsy, hair thinned a little perhaps and streaked with some grey here and there, but once you caught the glitter in the eyes, that inflection in the voice, the quirky tilt of the head, the inimitable mannerisms, the distinct laughter, your heart couldn’t help leaping with joy: “Oh, my goodness, Doris! It’s you! What happened to all that baby fat?”

This was not just “an afternoon of coffee, tea & WE!” as one of my friends Huey had proclaimed in her Facebook page, it was the ultimate day of glee, giddy with remembrances, sips and snatches of conversations, too many words, too little time. It was also a foto fest filled with fun-shots, girly looks, and goofy poses.

Where some classes were less populated with faces, others like mine, the class of 4/4, got so squeezy that a handful of us had an eye covered, half a cheek shielded, or our faces, nose down, hidden from view. We made an executive decision, collectively, to glue ourselves together, instead of splitting the group in two, a suggestion our friendly foto booth hostess had made, only to be retorted with a loud, longdrawn “No!” And as she urged us to cuddle up even closer and our eyes surveyed the selfie-like prep shot on the foto booth ahead, we shuffled, moved, got cheek-to-cheek, and smiled for eternity and posterity—all three shots of them—before someone uttered with dismay, when all was said and done: “Oh, we forgot Nadine!”

If there had been a competition for top attendance, our class could have won the champion prize: 22 out of 40 of us showed up to sing our ode to High Olympus, the “magic fire” and “youth’s elixir,” and that unifying Ya-Ya Sisterhood refrain that roused us all to be “sisters in learning and sisters at heart”—a tune that, sung thirty years later through a wiser voice, struck me as exquisitely poetic and lyrically composed. There was a newness about it as I had never known before, something I can only articulate today through a wiser pen: the bold imperatives (“Rise, sisters, rise” and “Fear not to grasp what fortune sends”), the metaphorical leanings of Shakespeare (“fortune”), the mythical echoes of High Olympus, and that wholesome, bright-eyed invocation of “luck to the start.”

As our voices moved hesitatingly forward, not always in tandem with the muffled music, those goosebumps came, tingling my arms, now much fairer than before, as someone had pointed out, I forget who. And then there was that other observation too, of the swimmer girl, the always tanned Tarbet swim captain, who couldn’t bear having her hair coming down past the ears—which was exactly how I looked back then: boyish, sporty, with an indestructible sense of possibility. Only how I wished I had more of it now, though I’d be quick to put this down to a newfound humility and the sense of reality that comes with getting older—the aches in the neck, the back, the not-so-strong knees, the not-as-flexible body.

But who ever cares and who should?

It’s grande dame Life as she is, la vie, la vida! Life may be equal to getting old and annoyingly ache-y, but it’s just as much about remembering friends and reconnecting, sharing those same-same stories of bringing up children (not my scene though), or whining about the state of English in Singapore (which is more me).

That’s why we, chatter girls and banter birds, prattled on like there was no tomorrow, twitching disobediently and talking under the voice of Mun See, our one-time school-mate, now Madame Principal. I half-listened to her April Fool’s stories, the vague bits about stink bombs, and her gentle pleas to the generous, more prosperous pockets to fund some museum initiative and our new school in Bishan come 2018. Some other details came in snatches: our $5 million target, the $4.5 million we’ve hit so far, good grief, did I hear them all right? Then, as she proudly gave us a glimpse of some of our high-flying who’s who, I recalled our principal doing the same decades ago—announcing those standout students, athletic superstars, songbirds, artists, and award-winners.

Later that evening, at the Island Creamery, Evy, my dear friend since I was ten, slipped into a silly, pensive mood as we remarked how time has moved so mercilessly. “What have I achieved?” she asked herself as she scooped her last spoonful of mud pie. “Nothing!” she laughed. “I’ve achieved nothing, but I’ve made her,” pointing at her teenage daughter, Tasha.

I laughed too, except I didn’t have a son or daughter to point to, or some CEO-sounding title to shout about. My eyes glazed over with a pensive nothing, and I said nothing. Oh, Evy! I’ve achieved nothing too, but I’ve written this essay. That, I like to think, is good enough—for now, at least.


Related: Back to School

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