Founder's Day

Christina Engela's picture

On Friday I attended a Founder's Day ceremony at my old high school. It was quite something to be there again. The school was celebrating its 85th year in existence, and I will be attending my 20 years reunion in May.

I'm a bit of a sentimental fool sometimes, and even though I was not very happy during high school, I still have fond memories of my time there. Many of my old friends of those days vowed never to return, and as far as I know, have kept to it. I was so looking forward to my 10 year reunion back in 2001, but it never happened. This year it will be different.

I didn't struggle to find parking, and walked up to the same entrance, through the same gardens that were there so long ago, and even though it felt like just the other day, the same shrubs and trees were there - only so much bigger than before. The old mesh fence had been replaced by a tall green steel security fence. There were two new side entrances I hadn't seen before.

Everywhere there were young students wearing the same uniforms I remember, and flashing bright shiny smiles at the returnees filtering in at the front door. I arrived at the reception table beneath a bronze plaque that read "A child's mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled". It made me smile. I wrote my name on the tag handed to me, and the year I finished - 1991.

"Oh are you Christina?" the lady at the table asked, and called a graying gentleman in a suit over. The current principal greeted me warmly, having heard about me via the secretary of the old scholars association, and warmly shook my hand.

Feeling very welcome, I went on to the old school hall, passing old folks examining pictures and plaques on display along the way. Everywhere there were new features, and still everywhere there were things I remembered from the old days.

The hall had changed too, it now resembled an auditorium, and the wooden panel above the entrance now had almost twice as many names and achievements displayed on it since I left. I found a seat among a big mix of people who varied between 30 and 90, joking around and chatting loudly before it all started. There was a big band up front, resembling an orchestra, and a choir on the right hand side. On one side, high up, there were three smartly fashioned coats of arms, each bearing a name of one of the school houses, each being the name of noted past principals. I couldn't help thinking that they reminded me of the houses in Hogwarts, but in a good way of course - and I wondered if that wasn't something the current students said too.

There were folks present from every decade since the founding of the school - except the 1920's (time marches on after all) - and I was one of only about ten who had matriculated in the 1990's and 2000's. Still, aside from the odd teacher (and there were some odd ones as I remember hehe - in particular the biology teacher whose secret to being everywhere at once was a bicycle.) I didn't see any old students I remembered, and nobody from the class of '91.

The ceremony was pleasant, the music entertaining and the talent demonstrated impressive - and it certainly made me envious to think of all the opportunities the students at my old school had now that I missed out on when I was sitting in their place.

The school was even more diverse than when I was there. There were boys and girls, English and Afrikaans speaking - but there were also black and brown faces among the white - far more than in my time. And everyone looked so friendly and happy. I thought back to how grumpy and bored most of us were when we were there, and it felt like a dream to me.

The guest speaker was a man who had also been a student there, become a teacher himself, traveled to the UK, met someone, and was now married and had children. He was class of 2001, just ten years ago - and sitting there, surrounded by scholars who hadn't even been born when I left school - it made me think about my own life, having been outside in the big, bad world twice as long as he. It felt like comparing apples and oranges. I realized that each of us is a product of our own time.

After school, a mere month after final exams, I was drafted into the army for a time in my life I would prefer to forget - and yet there was the realization that everything in life that affects us, changes us and makes us grow - and adds to our flavor. Oh, if I had only known then the things I know now! Oh yes, this was a day to be sentimental.

At the end of the ceremony, I was surprised to notice that once they started playing the school song, I still remembered every word, and sang them for the first time in 20 years, and for the first time proudly - reflecting on their meaning for the first time as an adult.

The reception and tea afterwards in the tennis club behind the hall was a nice touch too. For one thing, on the way, I had to pass the brand new Olympic swimming pool where there had been only a dry empty patch of grass in my time. The old shooting range from my army cadet days was gone now, and on the other side of the netball courts I saw builders putting the finishing touches to the brand new art department.

I spoke to some of my old teachers while there, some of whom didn't quite recognize me until I explained who I was. You see, when I left here in 1991, I had been a strapping young man - and am now a moderately attractive and graceful (I hope!) slightly less-young lady.

The man who had been principal during my time at the school was also present, had been retired 5 years already and tried desperately to puzzle out who I was. Without giving too much away, we had a friendly chat, far friendlier than any I ever remembered from those days. It was a surprisingly therapeutic experience, chatting to old teachers - even those I had never had lessons from, who despite all the things that happened in between, still knew who I was, even if I had to explain a little bit first.

Whenever I had to explain to someone who I was, and who I had been while a student here, I got no adverse reactions. There were no embarrassed silences or snarky comments, and no cold shoulders. At every moment I continued to feel welcome - and the questions asked were not invasive or overly personal, just on the order of "where do you work now?" and "are you happy?"

An elderly gentleman, though not too elderly, sauntered up to me and began to chat. He explained humorously that the year he had written on his name tag was in jest and that he was not that old. Looking closer I saw he had written "1862". I wondered if anyone had noticed it.

When I was at that school, I remember there was none of this "ma'm" or "sir" stuff when we addressed visitors or ex-pupils on founder's day - we had too much attitude for that back in those days - and how things had changed. I was greeted, smiled at, directed and made to feel welcome in a way that made me wish I didn't have to leave.

I never thought I would be one of those old students wandering the halls of my high school saying things like "look at that - we didn't have that when I was here!" And yet on this day, I was hard pressed to not do that. This time, that was me. Oh well, life is full of surprises.

I concluded my visit with a solitary tour of the building, starting with my favorite spot - the corridor outside the library, with its wooden benches where I spent most of my break times with friends, most of whom I haven't heard from in years. The old stairwell beside the library where I remember spending a few troubled periods hiding under old desks to avoid unpleasant situations, was still there - only closed up with wood and turned into a store. The top of the same stairwell where friends of mine used to hang out - and one used to perch on the bannister - will forever be "Cedric's Perch" to me.

I found a nicely framed mission statement of the school in the foyer, and it included respect for diversity and tolerance. I wondered if that included sexual orientation and gender identity and how I as a transgender student might be received at this school if I had had the good fortune to have been born 20 years later. If there had been more information around trans issues back in those days, and if there were not such a negative stigma attached to these issues when I was growing up, things might have been much better for me.

I paused outside the old art class, at the spot where I landed with a concussion and two broken eardrums after a boy a head taller than I had a disagreement and he floored me with a swing and a bag full of school books through the face. The old media room where I spotted a friend getting romantic with another boy in the dark during a screening of "Macbeth" had been turned into an English class, but still had the same window blinds and painted glass.

Was it the place I missed and was sentimental about? Or was it the friends I had, the people I missed - or the good times I shared with them? Was it the missed opportunities, or the way things might have been if I had seen life differently? Still pondering this, I bumped into another old teacher from the old days who told me he had been boarded by the department, and the school had kept him on to teach part-time. From him I learned the fates of several other teachers I hadn't seen that day. Redeployments, retrenchments - and then the conversation changed into small-talk. As he left and I turned to continue my tour, it occurred to me that this had been the very first time he and I had ever spoken, and it made me feel rather sad.

I found my old home room, the first classroom I started at in 1986 as a little 12 year old, often bullied and afraid, uncertain of who I was. Gone were the old chalkboards I remember and in their place, bright shiny new white boards, prompting all sorts of analogies about changing times which I resolved to write down later. Gone were the old wood and steel pipe school desks I remembered, and the many I had drawn and doodled on as a teenager. Instead there were brand new looking synthetic tables and chairs, all clean and shiny. Overtaken by a wave of sentiment, I reached out for a white board marker, found an open space, and wrote a message to the students who would no doubt return there the following Monday morning.

"The eyes of the past are watching you," I wrote. "...and they are well pleased."

I smiled, hoping it would mean something to the current students - and while walking to my car, realized that when I was a child, things were different. I was different. I was troubled as a teen, and even as a young adult. I did things and said things I'm not proud of - in a way that most of us look back on and feel uncomfortable with, or a tinge of regret about. It took me years to find myself, and to understand me - and even then, it cost me a lot of effort to make the person I wanted to be a reality. We grow and we learn, and it's something that never ends. Life is a journey - I relish every moment. Every so often it is satisfying to look back for just a moment to see where I came from - and at the end of it all, to realize - I am whole now. And I am happy.


(Posted at Sour Grapes)

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