By Susan Roberts
Do you still dream about the passages in your old high school? Find yourself wandering up and down them as you slumber, peering into the past through half-open doors, listening to the chatter of your younger self and classmates, full of confidence, sure of taking the world by storm one day? Do you smile secretly as your ghostly self slides through walls and halls, knowing now that things didn’t work out exactly as you planned?
So do I.
Sometimes I wake up with a faint memory slipping away, and I know that I had a haunting return to the scholar I was then. And if the feeling is that strong for me, how much of it lingers in the old building itself, maybe inspiring others in a sort of morphic resonance? Is anything felt by the adolescents who currently inhabit those halls and classrooms, ripe with ideas of how they too will one day make their mark on the world? Or do they just think that their school is a creepy old haunted building?
The high school I attended in Pietermaritzburg in the late 1970s was old even then; it celebrated its centenary the year after I left. It also had a haunted classroom named in memory of a teacher who had died of Spanish Influenza in 1916. It was a small school, with only three to four hundred girls in it, but I always loved that building with its Victorian architecture, orange brickwork so distinctive of the region and era, and the smoothest, palest, most durable of wooden block floors. Wide passages and high ceilings rang to the shrieks and laughs of a bunch of girls who couldn’t wait to leave and go out into the world. Most of them, anyway.
The intimacy of such a small school meant that everyone knew everyone else’s name. In the five years that I was there, I saw prefects and seniors who excelled in all sorts of endeavours – hockey, swimming, even singing in the famous Natal Schools Choir and travelling overseas to Italy where they threw coins into Trevi Fountain in the hope of returning there one day.
I wonder if any of them ever did. I doubt it because, in each year that followed those great achievements, I saw many of our hockey heroines and swimming stars occupying menial clerical positions or serving behind local shop counters. The sinking into obscurity of house captains and overseas singers, post-school, was almost more than I could bear. Where are your dreams now, I thought as I watched them scuttle along pavements in cheap high heels, clutching fashion handbags and puffing on cigarettes, their backsides ever-widening on their dormant typist’s chairs, and in time, children clutching their skirts as they repeated the cycle of generations before them.
This made me more determined than ever to make my mark on a world that extended beyond those nurturing, promising school walls. But I didn’t match up to my dreams either. I never became the most famous actress in the world, that award-winning playwright or best-selling novelist, but something of those haunting dreams still unsettled me enough to spur me on when I picked up a pen twenty years later.
Of course, I have since realised that perhaps those other girls did fulfil their dreams. An impromptu survey during our matric year revealed that the chief ambition of 85% of the girls was to “get married and have babies” when they finished school. Of the 67 matriculants in our year, only four of us went to University, and another four became nurses. Twenty years later, at our reunion, it seemed that most of the others had achieved their ambition of getting married (some happily, some not) and having babies.
So in retrospect I’m grateful that I attended a school where all of our dreams were encouraged. It’s taken me thirty years to get my first two e-books published on Amazon, but if I can do it, so can anyone. Don’t let your dreams be forgotten. Keep alive that memory of your youthful optimism, and let it drive you forward, making your dreams reality, no matter how many years slip by. And spare a thought for the ghosts you left behind in your old school, to inspire today’s dreamers.