By Susan Roberts
A few weeks ago I had a Facebook conversation with an old school friend who now lives in America, and we relived so many memories. Some things that she couldn’t remember came flooding back to me like a tidal wave, and yet some names she mentioned brought not a glimmer of recognition, and I felt embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t remember certain people.
It got me thinking about how selective memory can be. It’s not the first time this has happened. Sometimes an incident that stands out for one person has no place in the memory of another, and yet some things that we hold dear forever and cannot imagine anyone forgetting, turn out to mean nothing to others.
A year or two after leaving school I met one of my old teachers from a few years before in the street, and I had to remind her which class I’d been in and what I had studied with her. I was quite horrified because she was one of my favourite teachers but clearly I was not one of her favourite pupils.
Conversely, about twenty years later I was wandering through a shopping centre in Johannesburg, when I recognised my art teacher from school. I caught her up and she remembered me, and even asked after two of my art buddies from the same class. She had an amazing memory. We were not only two decades further down the line, but five hundred kilometres away from that school as well.
This also got me thinking about how some meanings can be read into situations, that may not be so. My Facebook friend from the other night remembers a teacher picking on her unfairly for what she imagined was a certain “look” on the girl’s face. I had endless battles with a Religious Education teacher who constantly blamed me for being a “giggly girl” like my sister. (Neither my sister nor I have any idea where that came from! I mean, is there something wrong with enjoying life?)
Once we had a Geography teacher who started ranting at us and then burst into tears one day in front of the whole class while we were calmly drawing maps or something, and we still – forty-two years later – have no idea what happened to upset her.
I had some great teachers at school, but it was the bad ones who helped me to decide something important: I have never, ever wanted to become a teacher because I knew I would be one of the bad ones – one of those impatient, snappy, unfair bee-yatches who would be universally disliked – particularly if I ended up teaching a subject in which I had little or no interest, which is the way the teaching system worked back then.
When I started at university, all those who enrolled on teaching loans had to register for maths and geography because those were the subjects they needed teachers for at the time. I’m eternally grateful that I was able to sign up for bizarre stuff like history, classical civilisation and introductory law, alongside my majors of drama and English literature. No one’s children had me trying to teach them maths and geography a few years later – something for which we can all be grateful!
Here’s another thing that I didn’t realise until I attended my twenty-year high school reunion: we are what we are by the time we leave school. There wasn’t one girl at that reunion who surprised me. In one way or another, they all turned out to be exactly the way they always were. Of course, some had changed their looks, lost or gained weight, gained or lost husbands, had children or emerged from the closet. No matter what diverse jobs we held down, we were still essentially the same as we had always been in school – class clown or painfully shy; most likely to succeed at whatever we did or most likely to make a botch-up of it; caring and considerate or brash and insensitive – we had all become what we always were.
The little group that chatted on Facebook the other night has been chatting again. The following day three more of our old classmates joined the discussion – one from England, one from New Zealand and one from South Africa. Much hilarity and mirth whizzed around the earth’s atmosphere from five different continents and it felt as if we had never been apart. In fact, we had such fun that one of the girls decided to form a Facebook group for our school year and so far we have 11 members.
There’s talk of having some kind of reunion, but as much as we’d like to physically get together, it’s probably a bit beyond the bounds of possibility with all of us being so far apart geographically. However, we’ve got the next best thing – a friendship that has stood the test of time and lasted for almost half a century so far, with no end in sight.