School reunions bring joy and dread in equal measure
In the cold months of December and January, the city of Calcutta beckons all its children to come home. And they do turn up for a while — faithfully, like the migratory birds which come to the city every winter. Like some of these birds, our human visitors, too, can be categorized as W (regular winter visitor), R (regular visitor), r (sparse resident) and so on. The regulars come to see their families, ageing parents or sometimes just to meet up with old friends at their school reunion. In some years, they have landmark reunions of their class or ‘batch’, the latter being the preferred term for the class which passed out of school in a given year. These reunions are planned one whole year in advance and it is a big achievement on the part of the organizers when they succeed in getting almost all the students of their batch to attend the special reunion. It gets increasingly tough to amass a full gathering as the years roll by. However, today it is far easier to make contact with people, thanks to electronic communication. Images, up-to-date information and confirmation of your attendance at the event can be conveyed in a fraction of a second.
In recent years, the popularity of five-yearly class reunions has grown enormously. At this stage of my life, I am invited as an old teacher who is a kind of museum piece to be exhibited and viewed with gushing expressions of awe: ‘she’ is still alive and functioning too! I realize with some shock that I have students who are now retired as well as students who are grandmothers. This year I was invited to a 50th year reunion, although I had not taught the batch. Naturally, they could not gather enough students to make a ‘party’ of it so they decided to include the 49th batch. As it turned out, the Classes of 1968 and 1969 got together and were able to get six of their teachers as well — still active and healthy!
The joy that students find in these reunions is tangible. I have seen old men transformed into boisterous young schoolboys while visiting their classrooms and games fields. They love sporting their school tie and are all prim and proper when they attend a special assembly, but revert to their boyish selves thereafter, teasing their pals and affectionately using rude, ingenious nicknames. I have heard them bragging about the caning they had received from their beloved masters, how they sometimes took the caning for someone else and then extracted gratitude from the ‘saved’ one for the rest of his school life.
In the context of formal reunions, I remember the introduction to the chapter on ‘Personality’ in Robert A. Baron’s popular psychology book for high school students. It was a description of his 30th class reunion in 1990. (He must be looking forward to his 60th year reunion in 2020.) He concluded that no matter how outward appearances changed, “in the private corner of their inner being — many still seemed very much the same.” In other words, personality could be changed by time and experiences but “underneath, in subtle ways, it remained essentially unchanged”.
I have often reflected on this. So many of my fellow teachers remark how radically some of their students had changed. That rowdy girl had become a successful business consultant and the shy, timid boy was now a motivational speaker. But I feel sure that this ‘transformation’ had less to do with change of personality than with ‘late blossoming’. Unfortunately, the opposite happens too. The ‘good conduct’ prize-winning teacher’s pet has turned out to be a bitter person, always cribbing and criticizing others. But if you study these people for a while, you will recognize the young students you had taught.
When students see their old teachers, their favourite exclamation is, “You look exactly the same!” Now, I know fully well that a withered woman with a lined face and grey hair could not possibly look “exactly the same” as she did 25 or 30 years ago. Apart from being affectionate, they do see something of their formidable, yet beloved, teacher in her present, ageing form. My colleagues tell me that they are cruelly reminded of their age when middle-aged and elderly men and women delightedly approach them to pay their respects. I remember an incident in which the aged but glamorous wife of an eminent professor grumbled loudly about “decrepit, old men” touching her husband’s feet claiming to be his former students. I must confess that unlike the professor’s wife, I feel really good when this happens to me. It is a great feeling to be reminded that one has taught so many generations of students and also to discover that one is remembered with so much affection. The only problem is that I have a sneaking suspicion that their stories about us get more and more exaggerated with time. When they say, “Remember what you did or said in class that year?”, I am never prepared for what follows.
Some older students say that they have mixed feelings about reunions. It is a heady feeling to ‘go down memory lane’, but when they see their contemporaries, they are either envious of how well-preserved some of them are, or depressed about their own advancing age. Even Facebook does not quite prepare one for real-life meetings. Recently, I chanced upon a cartoon in which a woman expressed surprise at how everybody had changed so much that they could not recognize her. Thankfully, mirrors do lie at times.