Late that night, my phone started ringing with WhatsApp notifications. It was from the group we had formed with all school friends. I am sure everyone has a group for their school and batch these days. I could see a conversation thread going on mentioning a school reunion. First thought was something like yeah as if that would happen in a million years. Talking about a reunion is easy, but the execution is always the tough part. With everyone scattered across the globe with different work schedule, everybody’s availability was a key concern. Also, how many of us do even care about those days?
I had a reputation amongst my friends for being busy all the time and making silly excuses to escape any sort of get together . So some of them made sure that they personally remind me every week to make it to the event. I wasn’t very sure it would happen as normally the energy of the team usually goes down with time. Eventually, the event ends up never happening at all. Can’t blame anyone, we are all stuck with our daily routine of busy life and round the clock work, trying to keep up with the necessities of life and family. It is not abnormal to lose track and be out of touch.
But when this idea came up, I was really hoping it would happen as there were too many sweet memories and it would be great to re-live them. The time when greatest of your problems were writing exams, finishing homework, forgotten leave letters and incomplete lab records as opposed to all the hell you face in present day life. The time when Backstreet Boys, a young Shah Rukh and Enrique were your heroes and you had no clue about politics. You were proud of Pokhran Atomic tests but had no idea why and knew Monica Lewinsky case was something you weren’t allowed to discuss when parents are around .
I wanted to go back. Walk down the same old school corridor where a thousand words were spoken and promises broken, where we kneeled down as punishment feeling much embarrassed when your juniors or your crush walked by giggling.
I have many fond memories from my childhood, almost all of them are from my school days. I had spent a majority of my schooling at Santa Maria Academy, a CBSE school on top of a lovely hill, away from the hustle and bustle of town. I joined in the year ‘94 and I still vividly remember that day. My father had just quit his central government job to settle back in Kerala to do business. I was eight years old at the time and wasn’t very happy about leaving New Delhi, which was my birthplace and my home. Kerala was good enough for an occasional visit and wasn’t excited about staying for long. So when we landed in Thrissur with all our stuff, I knew it was going to be different. The only question was how much.
I could speak Malayalam since that was the medium of communication at home. But I had zero reading or writing skills. So when I was taken for an interview in one of the Malayalam medium schools, I struggled to answer questions. Written exam was a disaster. But in spite of all the screw-up, I still got admission as it was the same school where my dad had completed his education and the principal was once his teacher. But I wasn’t amused with the idea of going to a school where I did not know the language to write or read.
On the day before my joining date, my mum spoke to a lady from our neighbourhood. Her son was studying in Santa Maria and she gave a very good opinion about the school. Additionally, the school was affiliated to CBSE syllabus, which would make it easier for me to follow as I came from a CBSE background. Instead of joining the school, my dad and his uncle took me to Santa Maria for admission.
It was a very rainy day and we took an autorickshaw to the school. As we reached the bottom of the hill, I could see water flowing down on the side of the path up to the top of the hill. Classes had already started a week back and I was already late for admission. We climbed up the hill, I was holding the umbrella that I got a few days back as a part of my preparation for school in Kerala where somehow the monsoon coincides with the reopening of the schools. Walking up the hill, I was very worried about more interview questions and stuff. My little mind was trying to imagine how the school might be. But I thought it would be fun to study at a school where you had to trek up a hill every day.
Since the Principal was out at the moment, we were ushered into the office of trustee Mr Joy Thayyil. He spoke to my dad for a long time and asked me few questions. At the end of all this, I got admission and I was to attend from the next day. I started going to school from the next day and that was just the beginning of my ten years at one of the best places on the earth. The start wasn’t easy. It took some time to settle in as I was a new student. But once I did, it was smooth sailing from there. Years of studies, laughter, fun, games and sports, fights etc. followed.
Out in the world
Standing on the dais, I wasn’t sure what to speak. I have been here for 10 years now. There are so many memories flashing before my eyes. In a few days, I have to leave this place… forever. With difficulty, I finished my farewell speech. Looking at the teachers who took care of us as much as our parents did, my eyes filled up. Leaving is going to be hard, very hard.
I have seen the school grow in leaps and bounds that by the time we left, we had hosted Sahodaya inter-school youth festival, became runner-up champions in the Kho-Kho championship in nail-biting finals with Guruvayur Devasom school. There was growth in all aspects - education, sports, infrastructure etc. I was proud to be where I am as a student.
Being in school felt safe. Once you leave, you are no longer within the safety net of your teachers. You are out there in the world. No longer considered innocent.
Back to reality
On 20/11/2016, we arrived at around 1:45pm as the program was scheduled to start at 2pm. As I drove up the hill, I remembered the days when I used to climb up every day. The road felt much narrower, probably with all the vegetation growing on either side and lack of maintenance. As we neared the gate, I felt the excitement grow in my heart. As I moved past the parked cars, Merc, Audis and BMWs, I could see that few of my friends have already arrived. The place looked very different and our assembly playground had very tall grasses growing all around. This looked nothing like the Santa Maria I knew.
The entire place looked eerie. I had heard that the school was going through some tough times, but did not know to what extent it had an effect. A glimpse around told me that things are a bit different. It was not being maintained and flora had grown all around the main building. The area where we walked around and played hand cricket using ice-cream balls are all gone, covered with wild plants. The empty space near the washroom where we played kabaddi in 8th standard was all gone.
This is how the place looks now:
Not a very pleasant sight. It was the same with the classrooms. It was all deserted with some junk stuff lying around. The dates on few of the black boards went as far back as 2014 telling a grim story of how the place has been deserted ever since. This is not the memory I wanted to carry back with me. Whenever I thought about my school, it was always bustling with the energy. Morning assembly was strictly followed and you had to be in full uniform - including the blazer, which wasn’t too suited for the climate but anyway was a part of the uniform.
Once the classes start, usually it was the wait for the lunch hour. We all had good metabolism those days and by lunch hour, we were all pretty much exhausted with hunger, or at least I was. In between, there were some hours where a teacher would’ve planned a question answer session. Now that was dreadful. Normally they’ll walk in with a cane. Yes, we used to get beaten up those days and trust me it shows in our personality (that whole upbringing thing you see ).
Till about a couple of weeks from the event, I was thinking it is just going to be all of us meeting and spending time together and then dispersing. But thanks to careful planning by my friends, there was much more than that. We had a formal gathering with our dear Ma’am Mrs Molly Thayyil and few of our beloved teachers. Before we started, we had informal chit chats and I also got to explore our school more.
Remembering the days
It was a mixed feeling. Looking down the corridor where I have traced countless steps over the ten years I have been. Sometimes in happiness, sometimes in anxiety. Sometimes with expectation, sometimes feeling dejected. There are too many memories to list here, but the truth is that I could relate every single location within the building with specific events in my school life. My first classroom when I joined 3rd standard, the same old window through which I used to look out at the forest behind the barbed wire. As the wind blew, the bamboo shoots made a scary creaking noise and the steel sheet roof lifted up and down with the steel bolts straining to keep them down against the power of wind.
There was the hostel mess next to the classroom where all the hostellers had lunch while we ate in our classes. We had homemade food and were satisfied, but I am yet to find a hosteller who praised the mess food. I wonder why we did not have a good cook. This classroom block was right next to the big basketball court where many times we have played, enjoyed, got injured, fought over games. The court had a grey sand floor and if you fall, it wouldn’t feel pleasant. This was also the venue for conducting Founder’s Day events where students danced, sang etc. Sadly we lost the basketball court as an administrative building was built here which included admin office, computer lab, principal’s office and madam’s residence on the top.
The above-mentioned area is completely inaccessible now with shrubs and plants growing all around. It was gloomy around. So was the main courtyard where we had crossbars and parallel bars to hang. All the classrooms were deserted. The same classrooms which once echoed with our laughter, our fights, our screams and our cries. As I moved through the corridor, I could hear the foregone conversations, the classes being taught, the whooshing sound as the cane came down to hit the palms of the students being punished. I swear if you could listen intently, you could hear it as well.
The ever dreaded staff room, which was a nightmare, especially if your notebook comes back after correction with a “meet me” above the teacher’s signature. You are done. That means you need to be in the staffroom and you are going to be humiliated in front of other teachers and as an insult to injury, also in front of your juniors who for some godforsaken reason happen to come into the staff room at the same time. As one teacher starts, the other pitches in with their points and before you know it, all your wrongdoings from past five years are being discussed, scrutinised and added to the case before the final verdict.
Final verdict. This was the moment you never wanna face. There are various degrees of punishment:
- Level 1: Level one was the least painful. You usually get away with just a warning along with the humiliation. The only problem with this one is that it seldom happens.
- Level 2: Level two is level one with added punishments which aren’t physical. Like impositions, re-test etc. This is still okay as all you need to do is sacrifice your play time and write the impositions
- Level 3: This is where things get painful (literally). All the above levels are added with a round of caning. Now caning can be at different places depending on the age group. If you are below 6th standard, you would end up getting caned on the back of your legs since you would be wearing shorts. If you are wearing long pants, then your palms are gone. The number of times you get beaten up depends on how pissed off the teacher is. Usually, it is one one each hand.
- Level 4: Now this is ultimate horror. Along with all the above, there comes a command to bring a parent or a letter from the parent or a signature on a diary entry by the teacher. This is a double screw up. In addition to the abuse in the staff room, you are gonna get beaten up at home as well. The worst part is breaking the news to the parents. You wish you don’t reach home. Unexplainable terror rises from within trying to imagine the moment when you reveal the bad news at home. The next day, the humiliation is even more as your parents get to hear all your stories with all the masala added by the teachers.
That same old staff room beneath the main stairs is abandoned and empty. While crossing the corridor, everyone acts decently while passing in front of that place, thinking that teachers are watching them. Now, the entire place is empty. Given a chance, I would take a thousand more “meet me” on my notebook. I so wanted to re-live those moments. The walls were invisible with all the weeds and shrubs growing over them. The entire school looked completely different, like an abandoned city. It hurt me to see my school all silent and abandoned.
There have been several issues with management which led to this slow demise, but all hope is not lost yet. We had some sessions with teachers and students speaking. I sang a song (I’m yours by Jason Mraz) with my brother (who’s also an ex-student) playing the guitar. It went on till evening with some snacks and stuff and lot of photographs.
The real reason we all came together was to remember our dear friend Antony, who left us 9 years ago. Every time we friends get together, he is always missed. We had invited his parents to be a part of the reunion as well. My memories of him are mainly from tenth standard onwards, especially eleventh and twelfth. We used to sit on the same bench and we were in a group of very close friends. He was a very genuine guy. What is inside is what you see in him. A soft-spoken guy, he generally kept out of all troubles and was good in academics as well.
A few days back I was looking through some of my old stuff and happened to stumble upon my school autograph book. As I turned the page, I found the note you scribbled down almost 13 years ago. I am sharing it here for our friends to see:
Ur one of the kewlest, best friends I had and will always have, I hope. Do remember me, Atleast in your thoughts.
Yes my dear friend, we always remember you. Always. Never in the past 9 years have any of not spoken about you when we met. If what they say is true and you are watching us from somewhere, I hope you saw us last weekend. I hope you saw us talking about you and how much we missed you. I am sure we cannot replace you in your parent’s world, but we want you to know that we are going to be there for them always.
You are that fallen star from our little sky who turned into a beautiful and bright supernova and shines brightly in our lives covering us in your light. We always remember you, dear friend. Always. Whenever we meet, we know that you are right there with us.
“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”
All the while as we grew up, our teachers were always with us. Guiding us, moulding us into what we are now. Teaching us the difference between right and wrong. As teachers, they were our second parents. They cared for us unconditionally. Yes, they punished us for wrong deeds. But it is the result of those punishments we are what we are. Our personality has been built on values instigated into us by our beloved teachers.
Being a teacher is one of the most honourable things to do in life. They have an immense commitment towards creating a better generation. There were moments when you might have hated them, felt that they are being cruel. But every step that they have taken is to make you a better person. They had their personal life sacrificed a lot in order to make life easier for you. We never think of this as we grow up. But sincerely, I have immense gratitude to every single teacher.
When we met for the reunion is when we understood this to a greater depth. Our Malayalam teacher Mini miss said that the biggest thing for a teacher is to see the students come back years later and meet them. This just shows how selfless they are. Their expectations are just that the students remember them and the values that were instigated into them. Keep your teachers in your heart, after your parents, they are the ones who have done the most for you.
The only thing that makes me sad is that in spite of being such an important part of the society, teachers seldom get what they deserve. There are blamed, underpaid and rarely recognised for their contributions. In a society where doctors and engineers are given a high standard, we forget the teachers who sculpted these professionals. If anything, they are the ones who deserve all the respect and recognition. I am not just talking about subject teachers, arts and physical education teachers, all included. Because in some way or the other, they have had an influence in our life. Take a moment and remember them, visit them, call them. Do something to make them feel special. Trust me it makes them feel really good. I could see it.
Our principal, Mrs Molly Thayyil or Ma’am as we call her, is genuinely the Iron Lady as Ann mentioned in her welcome speech. She has been the backbone of the instituion since its inception. As the school grew in leaps and bounds, she was always at the helm, driving and steering us carefully all the while. The values and principles she shared with us as a vision for the school are with us even to this day. No amount of gratitude can pay back for what she has done for us.
Why is it special
School day memories are very special to most of us. We do many things for the first time when we are in school. We make friends for the first time, we stay away from our parents for the first time, we start learning, we understand discipline, we learn to make and break bonds (not chemistry bonds ), we have crushes, heartbreaks etc.
As you sit down at your workplace wishing you were a kid again, you are going to miss every single moment that you spent in school. So if you are like one of us, go back and have a reunion. Visit the place again, meet your teachers again, spend some moments together. Because nothing feels better than spending time with people who were once such a big part of your life.
I extend my sincere gratitude to all my friends who made this possible. Just to take few names, thanks to Ann, Manu, Sreerag (for the awesome caricature), Abheesh, Saneesh and everyone who were actively involved in making this happen. Thanks to Nishi for coming up with the concept for the gift for teachers and getting all the gift stuff in place even though she could not be a part of the reunion. If I have missed mentioning someone, it is not intentional. All your efforts are sincerely appreciated.
Overall, it was a surreal experience which I am willing to re-live many many more times. If you are a student who cares about your school, plan a reunion and include your teachers, they will be incredibly grateful for the gesture. I am looking forward to more such reunions in the coming years.
Thanks to all the attendees and their families for making it to the event:
Teachers: Lalitha Miss, Mini Miss, Shylaja Miss, Jessy Miss, Shirley Miss and Siby Sir
Students: Sreerag, Manmohan, Ann, Divya Manmohan, Merin (with family), Abeesh, Sonu, Chackochan(with family), MD John, Manu Hari, Sanju, Punith, Geons, Siddharth, Roopa(with family), Rani(with family), Saneesh, Sushanth(with family), Nigil(with family), Athira(with family), Shabeer Ali(with family) and two of our juniors Neethu and Shankar (both family )
A very heartfelt thanks to Antony’s parents for gracing us with their presence.
For now, I am just gonna stay high in this nostalgia shot that I took over the weekend and let it take me back to my old memories. Memories where I could be a kid again and look at the world in an innocent way as we did… many years back. As someone said:
School may be hard, annoying and irritating. But when it ends, you are going to miss it.
Go and visit your school with all your friends and teachers, you will love it.