First I had the 50th reunion and then the 40th.
On my 67th birthday the “girls” I had spent five years with, locked in intimate captivity in our Victorian-style boarding school in Potchefstroom, organised a celebration of the fact that we left school 50 years ago. I was one of those unearthed on Facebook through the “fossil-finding” skills of Norma, the red-head. When I turned 17 we were cramming for our final matric exams; now I was recovering from reverse culture shock after 10 years in Korea, and from a violent burglary.
The reunion was in Johannesburg, so I just flew up from Cape Town and participated: others had done the work, astonishing work as it turned out, with the small contribution we each made. When I walked into Pam’s garden and saw the elegant setting for the day, it seemed like make-believe. The sunshine spilled onto the lawns dotted with canopies – tea and crumpets here, cosy circles of chairs there. A banner above one table read, “Hail, school of happy memories, Hail days of song and sun,” from our school song, of course. The porch was the setting for the luncheon; one table ran the length of the stoep, decorated in our blue and white school colours, with a gift at every setting. A whole sheep was on a spit around the corner. Pam’s husband, George, and Felicity’s husband, Len, were the barmen, and managed to make fifteen women each – there were 30 of us – all feel like a million dollars.
The experience was almost surreal. People were using words I’d forgotten: “beaks,” our old word for prefects, and “hags,” the nickname Boys’ High gave us. I would go to talk to someone, knowing that she was thinking what I was thinking, “I don’t know this old woman.” Then she would say her name, and as I listened to her voice and watched, a younger face would come swimming up into her expression, and I would know her very well. It felt good to make brand new old friends, and how we chatted! All these “girls” who shared that part of my childhood are still around and we were automatically interested in one another. It was a great gift. Val Moore and Penny Heggie came from Australia, Anne Hunter and Vera Smit from the UK, and others from all over South Africa. But four could not come. It was a cold shock to hear that Bertrid, Verna, Penny Pretorius and Joyce had passed away. Our head girl, Erica Smit, still an immaculate leader in every way, called for a minute’s silence to remember them. Their names also appeared in the flower arrangement that was the centrepiece of the table, along with four white doves. I remember each one of them alive and fully, better than I remember many of my newer acquaintances. How strange that they could not be there…
We dined as we never did in the austere walls of Girls’ High, on the succulent meat, gourmet salads and gorgeous dessert of chocolate mousse, strawberries and home-made ice cream and meringues.
We stood together to sing our old school song, more than half-forgotten by me, so the sensation of an old familiarity being given back as I sang was very moving. Oh, and how quaint the words were – about following the girl in shining armour (St Joan) – as if that kind of rebelliousness would have been tolerated! We all felt the new and old stirrings in our hearts. As we left we each got a disc of photos of the day, a glass decanter and a fruit cake decorated with a girl in our summer uniform, including the long white lapels. The snood in her hair would have given Miss Moore, our headmistress, the horrors – it wasn’t keeping all the hair off her face at all.
Looking back after two years, I recognise again the pleasant warmth of the occasion. As some of us noted, we were not always happy at “hags”. No school would dare to try to restrict teenagers in that way today. We swapped stories of resentments and unjust punishments, but we also reminded ourselves of details that each of us remembered: little incidents about one another, the prize-givings, the silly Saturday evening dances without any boys, the midnight feasts, the snow in 1962. It all mattered, and remembering it matters. We were reclaiming a part of our identity, consolidating who we were and how we got there. The moving finger has written, we have aged, and we can never get this half-century back, but it’s all right. There’s healing in it.
To me it was a miraculous day. It seemed to me that the universe rushed along so fast that 50 years went by like a thought, so how astonishing, how sweet it was, that time could pause one day, and turn around, and kiss you on the cheek.
Only one of all my new old acquaintances has been restored to me as a friend. We sometimes remark on how easy it is to meet for a walk or lunch and talk as though there were not a fifty-year gap in our friendship. We got to know each other deeply in those five years when we were twelve to seventeen years old, and now we can just enjoy the bond as we grow old together.
Then came the Mother of All Reunions, organised by my ex-students to celebrate the 40th year of their matriculation. I was a young teacher at Athlone High School when they were students. The apartheid we as students were aware of “out there” as something wrong did not impact our lives as it did theirs. On the contrary, it bore us up and privileged us in ways that were largely invisible to us. So my memories of Athlone are much more “political,” under the shadow of those cruel and artificial limits.
The occasion was much bigger and muchless self-indulgent, because they were raising funds for the present students, still struggling under the inherited disadvantages. There was a stage with all-day live music, stalls run by local entrepreneurs selling a range of delights from sour fig preserve to decorated Christmas cakes. There was a memorabilia table and the centre of the hall was reserved for ex-teachers like me to enjoy a lovely lunch.
I love the students I’d kept in touch with, so it was a joy to be there. We remembered how we produced plays and how they visited my house to the delight of my very young children. Warm Nashriena and wonderful Denise and Clive Newman were there, as well as Salthea, Geoff, and Ethni from New Zealand.
Strange to confess, I also felt anger and sorrow, because so many of the teachers who had formed me as a teacher and a person were gone, for example. “Perdjie,” SV Petersen, the principal and a poet, and Mr Blake, the head of the English department. Their widows were there, and so was Gwen Hendricks, with whom I reminisced about the people I missed most of all, Will and Cynthia Janari. Will was always larger than life, exuberant, humorous and powerful. Gwen and I remembered one weekend when she’d invited us all to their seaside cottage for the weekend. Will had his banjo and we were having a sing-along. I told them that my kids were used to being put to bed and told to go to sleep at a certain time, but Will boomed, “No! Children will just fall over fast asleep by themselves after a bit.” (Hulle kap later vanself om.) How wrong he was. This was far too fascinating and at 11 or midnight, they were still wide awake and wide-eyed, having a ball. I remembered the many hikes we all did together, the jokes over a meal with wine flowing, all with a kind of angry undertow against the system that wanted us to share nothing. Perhaps it was the defiant laughter that formed our friendship more than anything.
There was a stir, and people roared a welcome. It was Mr Bekkers, a popular teacher of Will’s generation. I greeted him and felt that the old wariness of my whiteness was still there. It was perfectly understandable, but it made me feel again how Will and Cynthia had left all that behind, allowing me to do it too. I was surprised to feel my indignation. What cruel decree decided that Will, with his amazing generosity of spirit, could not be there too? Why was he cut down by a brain tumour that eventually denied him the ability even to recognise Cynthia, while she aged and faded as she struggled to nurse him? She had also passed away; Flo Bailey, a spunky single mom had passed away; Mr Palm was gone and Ferdie Groenewald, fearlessly left-wing and passionate about his subject, Afrikaans, went much too young. I’d heard conflicting reports of what became of my friend, Suzanne van der Merwe, and her student, Michael Myburgh, who became her husband. Since their marriage was a “crime,” they were forced into exile in Ireland and later Zimbabwe. These were not childhood memories; these were memories of my young adulthood, real life, learning to cope with challenges. Will was a prime teacher, helping me to do it right and to have fun while doing it.
So I sat through the celebrations, grateful for the association with Athlone, but in my heart I kept repeating, “I salute you, Will and Cynna.” Nowadays there are ghosts everywhere for me, and although I know that many of the youngsters they are working for now will be as formidable and admirable in their way, I must mourn the uniqueness they have lost in some of the souls departed forever. May we all be worthy.