Last night, I returned to the battleground of my childhood: my former primary school. Unlike most childhood experiences, where a place looms large in your memory but turns out to be really small when you revisit it as an adult, my former school now outsizes everything in the neighbourhood, with sprawling fields and staircases that keep going up, up, up. It made me think of the castle-like Stadium High School, where 10 Things I Hate About You was filmed against a larger-than-life, yet real life backdrop.

In the school itself, the experience turned surreal. Neatly uniformed schoolchildren bobbed their heads in well-orchestrated greetings every time a someone walked by, resulting in a wave-like echo of "Good evening ma'am evening ma'am evening ma'am" wherever I passed. I smiled at the first few, then thought about telling them they didn't have to greet me, then decided that would upset probably upset their teachers' carefully laid plans, and proceeded to ignore them for the rest of the evening. Sorry, kids.

But it was hard ignoring them because they were everywhere --- little white ghosts haunting the spanking new school with their frozen smiles. Was I ever that docile, that automaton-like? I must've been, or I wouldn't've survived seven years in that school (I come from the experimental "pre-primary" generation). The only place that wasn't flanked by the students was the hall, where the school opening ceremonies were to take place; far worse, it was filled with parents, alumni and guests, most of whom looked too old to have primary school-aged children and were decked out in tacky glittery gold or the equivalent. I sat at first in front of a row of alumni: women old enough to be my grandmothers, fluttering over their digital camera as they took turns snapping pictures in front of the stage. Was I supposed to have something in common with them? Then I moved to sit with someone I knew (we were both there for work) who cackled with unmitigated glee when I quietly confessed that I was, in fact, an alumna.

Abruptly, my old Principal made an appearance, looking exactly as she did in 1986 when I saw her last, bouffant hairdo and all. I could say that she's well-preserved, I could say that she really knows how to take care of herself --- but all I did was gape as she greeted old staff and old friends. A couple of other faces looked familiar, but only four really reside in my memory of primary school: two pre-primary teachers (witch-like Chinese teacher who berated me old-school style for often not understanding her, beautiful young English teacher who was our light and shining saviour), my last form teacher (an oddity on his own, an Indian teacher in a Chinese school, and now a school principal elsewhere in his own right) and my Primary Two Chinese teacher, also my choir teacher, Lin laoshi, who was the nicest Chinese teacher I ever had, mostly because he seemed to realise that old-school berating didn't do very much good to kids who just didn't have a flair for Chinese.

The pre-ceremony announcements began, delivered by students whose formal school jackets hung loosely on their diminutive frames as they nailed their smiles from ear to ear. The shrill Mandarin brought me right back to announcements at school assemblies where my friends and I --- the minority that *gasp* preferred English to Chinese as a medium of commmunication --- huddled together and had no idea what was going on. The opening strains of the school song brought back not a jot of memory in me; either they've changed the song since my time or I've thoroughly suppressed any recollection thereof. I couldn't even understand half the song --- or, for that matter, half the announcements. Some things never change.

After the ceremony was over, while I was hanging around to wrap up work responsibilities, I thought about retreating up, towards the portion of the school grounds where the old buildings, with my former classrooms, would have stood. But I shrugged off the impulse; the landscape had changed beyond imagining, better to rely on memory instead. Moments later, an old classmate walked by, possibly with someone else whom I also used to know. I blinked not, nor extended eye contact, preferring to dwell in the anonymous shadows rather than own up to being alumni and having to retread thin memories from almost twenty years ago. As soon as work stuff was done, I skedaddled, without a backward glance. Some places you just gotta leave behind.

People I know laugh when they find out what primary school I'm from --- my academic marks measure up to its pedigree, but my fluency in Chinese, not so much. At some point, they ask if I'd send my kids there. Sometimes I laugh, somestimes I roll my eyes, mostly I shudder at the thought. A cold breeze nipped at me as I walked out of the school last night. However the school has changed since I was there, whatever else they've done well in the interim, I don't think I could consign flesh of my flesh to its care. So long, and thanks for all the fish.


At 9/07/2004 1:13 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...

Commiseration is sweet indeed

At 9/08/2004 10:19 pm , Blogger Irving said...

isn't the singular form of "alumni" supposed to be "alumnus"?

as in, "cackled with unmitigated glee when I quietly confessed that I was, in fact, an alumnus."

At 9/09/2004 6:30 am , Blogger Tym said...

You are right, aklw. In point of fact, it should be alumna since I'm female. Duly corrected, thanks!

At 9/12/2004 8:32 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 9/12/2004 9:15 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are from Nanyang Primary School.


At 9/20/2004 12:36 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...


As am I.



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