It was the 112th Founder’s Day Service at my “old” high school; the second I have attended since its 77th in 1980. The other journey – of the reunion, itself – is another story.
Clarendon High School for Girls in East London has long been known as one of the more “posh” schools in the Eastern Cape and, it seems, nothing has changed. It has, perhaps, become a bit more prestigious, being a government school that can boast a 100% pass rate for the last 22 years. That and alumni who are famous and successful in their own right. They include Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, Joan Harrison, whose daughter, with Amra-Fay Wright who, as Chicago‘s Velma, has made it on Broadway, were at Clarendon during the same time as I. Then there are the more recent “old” girls like Lisa McLoed, former Managing Editor of the Financial Times, London, now with Media24, and Binx, 23, daughter of one of my contemporaries, who is beginning to hit the bit time in the US.
That’s just skimming the surface and I selected them because they are the “girls” with whom I have some connection – real, vicarious or tangential. Then there are the academics and the notable young people who get mentioned in the Mail & Guardian’s annual feature; quite intimidating.
It is a truism that one can never go back; time inevitably passes and things change and people change. That said, certain things are steadfast, and it is both these apparently paradoxical things that remain with me after my most recent visit.
So, what has changed?
Quite a lot; and not a lot.
I left school 35 years ago, fifteen years before democracy in South Africa. The girls looked very different then – the school uniform has changed from the bottle green (as it was described on the blurb in those days) gymslip and girdle, white shirt (and green striped tie in winter), brown lace-up shoes and compulsory hat, to a check gymslip and no girdle. The also-rans’ blazers remain the same, but those denoting academic and sporting colours have changed, replacing the green and white girdles that were awarded in our day.
It’s not just the appearance of uniform that’s changed, it’s the appearance of the girls in the uniform that has also changed.
The main school buildings remain the same but somehow seem far better maintained than in my day, and the campus has expanded – and needs to expand even more.
The school has outgrown the hall, so big gatherings, like Founders’ Day, take place in a marquee. I recall our filing into the hall for all assemblies, and particularly for events like Founders’ Day, and having a very stern teacher on the stage who was ultra-quick to reprimand any girl who dared to even whisper. Not so, now. Not that the girls were rowdy; rather there was a sense of celebration and quizzical curiosity that focussed on our side of the tent, where the oldest Old Girl, a previous Head Girl and Deputy Headmistress, was 91 years young!
The service is much the same with the “new” school song and the “new” National Anthem, the only changes; as soon as I heard the introductory piano chords, the words of all the hymns were on my lips and in my head. Clarendon always had a good choir, but now it is strong, not just in voice, but in number. Here is a snippet of the girls singing the Lord’s Prayer in isiXhosa, the predominant indigenous language of the region. It had most of us “old” girls tearing up.*
And now, a soupcon of a song, appropriately, about friendship.
Places that seemed to have been hallowed ground, both when I was a pupil and when I went back to do teaching practise, seem no longer to be sacrosanct.
Classrooms are still in mostly in the same place – well, you know what I mean: the labs haven’t moved and the Geography room I remember, is still the Geography room. There, I both learned the subject and spent some six weeks teaching it as a student teacher, mentored by former teacher Ursula van Harmelen, whom we referred to as “Miss Van”, and who subsequently became a lifelong role model, mentor and friend.
The pupil working in the Biology lab when I took this picture was amazed to hear that the specimens are the same even though they’ve been relocated to a different cabinet!
The biggest change, other than the physical changes of the uniform, and, one must say it, the racial composition of the school, is how things seem to have softened. The current English teacher is a legend in her own time, and it’s very easy to see why when one visits her classroom. It is festooned with all sorts of intellectually stimulating bits and bobs, but what struck me even more than John Lennon’s picture and the words from Imagine, is that they, and other quotable and probably not-so-quotable quotes, were written in ink – ON THE WALLS!!!
I mentioned that I had had what I viewed, then, as the dubious honour of returning to do teaching practice at this school. None of the classrooms in which I either taught or learned English looked like this.
I’ve mentioned that I had favourite teachers who had a profound effect on me and decisions I took. That said, until I left school, first going back to do teaching practice and subsequently, I didn’t really have any personal rapport with a teacher, let alone any warmth. The one exception was Patsy, but then, I had great difficulty thinking of her as a teacher: she had been part of my childhood, when she was probably in her last years of school, as a talented gymnast, strutting her stuff in the gym at Rhodes University. This, when I was a podgy seven or eight-year-old in Grahamstown and her father was our much-loved butcher (which love, I acknowledge, partly had something to do with the “red sausages” that were dished out to children…).
Patsy Rose joined the staff of Clarendon before I left and I recall not only that she stayed in the hostel, as did I, but that she also graciously provided lifts for my sister and I, to and from Grahamstown (in her blue VW Beetle). After she moved out of the hostel, she provided a bed and a roof for me I went back to East London to fulfil the final rituals associated with leaving school, and, more importantly, an empathetic ear for quite a bit of my teenage angst, and some of my deepest “stuff”.
Those must have been difficult times for Patsy, too: she was a reluctant teacher of typing when her love was gymnastics and more importantly, history. When I went back to our 30th reunion, I was surprised and delighted to find her still at Clarendon – and Deputy Head. She was quite pleased to see me and insisted that one of the girls take this picture of us, citing the important “Grahamstown” connection.
Now, Patsy is Headmistress. At the reunion dinner I briefly caught up with her: she instantly recognised me (notwithstanding the ubiquitous name tag) and told me that she is a reluctant leader.
Reluctant she may be, but she is doing it with grace and warmth. I was struck by her candour – with me – and her obvious affection for her charges – past and present. Although this was evident during the Founders’ Day service, it was more so during the hockey match between the girls of 2015 and those from 2005, to celebrate the school’s recently completed AstroTurf.
In my day, the Headmistress would probably not have put in an appearance at this type of event let alone egged on the “old” girls, which Patsy did: “Come on girls, you can’t let those youngsters out-sing you!”
The picture, bottom right, in the collage above, are the consequence of that challenge! I don’t know who won, but my contemporaries and I had a whale of a time watching and listening to the most fabulous singing! That singing was spontaneous, lusty, loud and most especially, happy and invigorating.**
This hockey match also demonstrated a few things about Clarendon which have not changed: the camaraderie, spirit and the Clarendon connection, almost as intangible as a spider’s web, and as far-reaching, steadfast and strong.
It’s taken me 35 years to acknowledge that I am a proud, Clarendon Old Girl.
© Fiona’s Favourites 2015