Somewhere, suspended in the golden past, there is a classroom VII B, with the monsoon clouds looming large outside, my light green raincoat hanging on a peg in the passage, the heart-warming smell of new books and sharpened pencils and a voice on the speaker leading us in prayer.
We were many new girls that year in the mid 80’s. Funnily, all of us had names starting with S! Sarada, Simran, Sumati, Sarina and me- Suchitra. The classes were much smaller than the ones I was used to in Delhi, the corridors quieter, the bathrooms sparkling clean. There was no standing in balconies, no running up the stairs and definitely no shouting. While many may have chafed at such discipline, I thrived on it. The structure and efficiency put me on a permanent high and I enjoyed every single moment of those four years in school.
“Anne’s Aspirations” on the ground floor right by the staircase were a daily reminder of what future was hoped for us.
“We inspire our girls to be women—with a strong faith in god, themselves and others.
Women of intellectual integrity, strong sense of family, simplicity.
To be poised and elegant etc etc…..
But the stand out sentence for me has always been
Women who will transform society, not just fit into it.”
That may not have quite the same ring as ‘smash the patriarchy’ but it was as open a door to that as any! Besides being a brilliant response to those who sigh when I constantly question the status quo, (well that’s what they taught us in school), I would also be inclined to say it contributed to the evolution of my feminism. I am sure that all of us Anneites scattered across the globe today, whether we are artists, film makers, home makers, doctors, engineers, architects, editors, entrepreneurs, all carry within us this spark which makes us the leaders and change makers, not just followers.
There is a long list of wonderful teachers who helped shape our personalities and for me—- a very keen interest in studies. Thank you Ms Patrao for the most vivid history lessons ever ( can you imagine that we were divided into the British troops and Indian revolutionaries standing on opposite sides of the classroom and told to RUN towards each other and eventually be bundled into the Black Hole of Calcutta. Try forgetting that chapter!) , Ms Nadkarni (with her acid wit and the most beautiful handwriting), Mrs. Radhakrishnan (a true lover of the English language), Mrs Subbarao ( with her elegant and genteel way of teaching Biology), Mrs Sheshadri ( and her amazing maths worksheets, probably two decades ahead of their time) and Ms Freny Barucha (for going out of her way to coach me in English speaking and to whom I owe my current capacity for public speaking).
But the strong force holding us all together in her iron fist, the sun in this solar system of our school lives, was undoubtedly ‘M la C’ or the woman we knew as Mother. More of a Mary Poppins that a Mrs Weasley, it took me many years after school to recognize what a strong impact she had made on me and moulded and shaped the values I held.
In the mid 80s, much before the middle classes discovered political correctness, we were addressing as ‘helpers’ those who swept and cleaned and worked in the school. We celebrated their day and thanked them. Our school captains were called Leaders. We had a Ring Ceremony during school leaving and I still have the silver ring safely tucked away in my cupboard. We had tables filled with a delightful heap of books for academic prizes and I still remember the thrill of seeing those tables in the Principal’s office every year, super excited about choosing my book. Among the books I chose and read were Rebecca and Gone with the Wind. What a wonderful way to inculcate a love of reading and give a book so much value!
It is difficult to articulate exactly what she did since we were too young to sense the dynamics or understand the workings of a school, but she was clearly the one who gave direction to the way things ran. She was the thought leader and while everyone who passed through those years in St Anne’s may not feel so strongly, I for one am eternally grateful to her for creating a school which was clean, disciplined and had a strong culture of efficiency and doing the right thing that permeated through everything we did.
All of us remember her stern expression telling us: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” Sometimes she would pop out of her office and look at us admonishingly if we had been clattering up the stairs. But there would always be a twinkle in her eye and she would tuck her wimple and give us a crooked smile and we knew that she loved us with all our imperfections (even with rolled down socks and rolled up skirts contrary to her commands….)
Despite being a convent run school, we had the most secular upbringing with no overt Catholicism imposed on us in any way. The only time we would be reminded of being in a convent was when the Catholic students would disappear to the mysterious 4th floor for one class while we did Value Ed.
We had opportunities to do everything from state level handwriting competitions to sports, from inter school essay competitions to walking down single file to Regal to see ‘Quo Vadis’ and then ‘Gandhi’. We sang, we danced (bless you Kavita Shahani for giving us the fright of our lives with your language and temper), we had inter house dramatics, Hindi and Marathi elocution, Sports day, Helpers’ day, Children’s day, Teachers’ day. We prayed, we debated, we marched around the ‘backgarden’. I know I am sounding like it was just a couple of midnight feasts and tuck boxes away from an Enid Blyton school. But that is genuinely how it was for me. I loved the school and I simply could not get enough!
Some of us visited her in Pune a couple of years ago. She looked a bit older but with the same twinkle in her eyes. She recognized me right away and we spent a good hour reminiscing about the teachers we had during my time. As we left, she reminded me that every day and every night, every Anneite is in her prayers.
As we hear news today that she is ailing, we hope she knows that she is in the thoughts and prayers of every Anneite who ever knew her. My batch mate just said on the school whatsapp group that she identifies herself as an ‘eternal Anneite’ and so let the last words here be our Anne’s anthem:
Come Anneites ! Gather now, with faith un- shaken, let deep integrity our hearts awaken, where in the world we go, let faith and courage show that we will always know, our Alma Mater.