What school meant?

In this, the 50th anniversary of our school, I have been asked to write what was it that school gave or meant to me. Abstractly I probably know, however  how does one define it. Giving it a shot and hopefully they will find it good enough to put in the new coffee table book?

I joint Welham Girls school in January 1965. A few weeks after my 7th birthday and passed out in Dec 1973 after giving my isc exams a few weeks before my 16th birthday.

What went into the years and how they shaped me and my life is what I am challenging myself to explore here for the first time.

If I take memory back it throws up incidents and moments. In connecting those or rather remembering them may appear what school meant.

That first cold day, in new grey slacks and overcoat –I was a gray little drab of a person, and I met just such another one. Also holding a parental finger and  completely unaware like me, that this was to be the start of a new chapter in our lives. We were suddenly to be left all alone in a completely alien environment of which we had been completely uninformed.

So Joy, my very first friend and I stood in the back verandah of the ugly – also gray junior school building and watched our parents walk out the gate. Not at all understanding that everything familiar was disappearing from our little lives for what would end up being the majority of our transition from little girls to young women.

I think that was the first and possibly most important learning – alone and a necessity to cope. There were no choices here. You couldn’t even sink you had to swim. Accept the change, cope with what came, survive it. Does that lesson toughen you – yes and how?

This is something I’m figuring now as I write. At that point I wonder if  Joy or I even had a thought in our heads. We were just two very lost little girls who cried themselves to sleep that night in utter confused misery. And spent the next few weeks in what the seniors termed the crying club.

In the dining hall that first morning, I was the last person left, trying to finish my breakfast –till then a bad, slow eater. I was hustled out and told to go stand in my line for assembly. I had no idea what assembly was and even less of an idea  which line I was meant to belong in. I can’t remember how I sorted that, but I must have somehow – so I guess there began survival. After a few more unfinished meals I become a gluttonously fast eater and still am. And after being yelled at for loitering and not being where I was meant to be I also learnt to always know where I should be and how to be there well in time.

One night in number 3 dorm as I hacked into my pillow with the kind of cough only 7 and 8 year olds seem to get, an angel in a white nightgown, with one sleeve pinned up (Mrs. Ayling) appeared with a little glass of warm brandy, honey and lemon and sat with me till I slept.  There was never anything that quite matched the most wonderfully warm, cared for feeling that delightful lady gave one lonely child.

Another night. Possibly a year later and I can’t remember the matron, but I do remember the lesson.  During the afternoon in a spirit of generosity I offered someone the pleasure of sleeping with my favorite doll – Padma.  Padma had become for me my only family, my security blanket and the person that kept the demons away; now all those needs generally emerged at night. So during the day magnanimity reigned. Once it was bedtime and Padma had gone to her new,for the night, home. My poor bed had become the terror house of the world. So I went and tried to get Padma back. However whoever had her did not want to be magnanimous in turn and I became ‘a very bad girt who was not willing to share with her friends.’

Who was to understand what other terrors were manifesting themselves. So Padma stayed away and I coped with a million insecurities, and somehow after that – though Padma was still much loved she ceased to be the person who looked under the bed first before I put my feet down.

Did any of you ever have all of your friends suddenly start treating you like you had bad breath and BO all combined. Yes, sent to Coventry: shunned, turned backs, no one talking to you,  and you don’t know why – so you go –

a)    Who cares, they’re just being bitches, I can be by myself, walk alone, eat alone, read my book, not share any fun or chat or tuck or not even go to the playroom on Saturday night.

b)    Then you decide – ok I’ll ask my best friend, but she is the one who turns most viciously away.

c)    So start thinking back what could I have done? And sure enough you find it or some kind soul takes pity on you and finally tells you.

d)    Then of course you didn’t mean it like that, but hey. That’s how it came across – so now say sorry and understand what you did and how it affects people and eventually yourself.

You know this is what the  HR companies are creating programmes to teach people,

We got it growing up.

I also discovered books make great friends.

And you know that thing called a counselor /  therapist that you pay lots of money to go to when you are down, out, confused?  Ever tried an old school friends’ get together – whether with one or two or twenty. They start with lunch and can end with breakfast the next day and you can get everything off your chest, have twenty opinions, all from full lives lived and experienced. From people who are not going to give you jargon, but who care, lots of support , and someone who will actually work with you to help, help, help, if needed.

I sent both my girls to Welham, mainly to get that, a support system for life, plus the confidence to just be you and a sense of survival, which allows you to have that confidence.

You know, it probably happens to all kids sometime somewhere, but if you are home – I think someone is always there to make things better after any and every hard learned lesson. At school, you just learnt it and dealt with the traumas and plodded on. It leaves you with a cushion to bounce off all your life.

Nothing can take you down, if before you were ten you were able to fight and win. Wow, but you can take on the world today, do anything, and go anywhere, what do you have to fear any longer. It can’t be hurt, it can’t be loss, it can’t be alone.

What a lesson in survival and sense of self!!

It doesn’t end there; Miss. Russel took nature study classes in the hedgerows of Dehra Dun. Who knows about the telegraph wire of a spider? I am still showing it to schoolchildren that come on nature camps with me.

That trees when you sit under them and listen, will talk to you, their leaves murmur their branches creak and a falling leaf on your cheek can be as comforting as a kiss. A stream, or river will talk too – it batters itself loudly against a rock wall, because the rock is hard and unyielding and it murmurs softly onto the next soft sandy bend because the sand is soft, yielding and comfortable.

I am writing this while I sit in my camp on the banks of the Ganga and have used that allegory so many times to so many impressionable, learning minds. How much I hope it stays with them as much as it stayed with me.

Jew Singh making Shakespeare much loved instead of not understood and fearful.

I don’t know how much one can keep remembering and writing about?

Maybe these are all things that are not uniquely learnt only at school. But for me that’s where I was and that’s where they were learnt and they shaped my life.

Today I live for 7 months of the year in a tent on a beach on the banks of the Ganga River above Rishikesh. It is more my home than any other.  My shower hangs off a tree, I cannot express the luxury off hot water pouring out of a branch while you watch a full moon setting on a silvered river, or a brilliant peachy sunrise lifting the mist off mountains.

That a corporate team-building workshop feels like a children’s birthday party comes from those growing years.

That I consciously run as many  nature trips for schools as I can possibly manage (while still retaining my sanity) is because I got lucky enough to learn what I learnt – it definitely needs sharing,

I think school taught us to be able, come whatever.

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