A person who is close to me this week said that, to her, “the past” encompasses the last six or seven months. It made me laugh a bit because my idea of the past stretches much farther back in time and space. When I think of the past, I think of twenty or twenty-five years ago, especially lately. It’s that time of year when, as a teacher, you watch the Grade 12s ‘leave the nest’ of high school. It gets you nostalgic, if you’re at all human. For me, it just pulls me back in time. You see, I teach at the very same school where I went to high school. I graduated in June 1989, so this is the 25th anniversary of my time spent at Marymount as a student. A bit Whovian, I know….
Anyway, graduation was last week. It took place in the very same church where I graduated. I remember, too, trudging down “The Green Stairs” every month or so to celebrate Mass. We wore grey skirts, white blouses, and heavy woollen cardigans with two white strips on the arm. The school’s crest was massive and covered (pretty much!) the whole of our left chest. You couldn’t miss us snaking our way down the stairs and then across the road to Christ the King Church. It also happens to be the church that my grandmother and great-aunts attended, so I spent a lot of time there, at Mass, as I was growing up. (I remember being bored, but I also remember being able to scam a peppermint Life Saver from my Gram Ennis if I got a bit restless….)
Graduation last Thursday night pulled at me. Part of it is the weird space/time continuum thing that happens in my heart. I still remember hearing my name called, winning the History award, and also going out on the front lawn to take photos with friends and family. That part really hasn’t changed. The other part that hasn’t changed, and hasn’t since I’ve started teaching at the school in September 2004, is the sad clutch of memorial awards. They always kill my heart.
One award in particular makes me very sad. First, though, I need to contextualize my first year at Marymount. To be honest, my Grade 9 year wasn’t easy. I was overweight, too smart for my own good, had Brillo pad hair, and wore crappy black orthopedic shoes because of a nasty hip surgery that I’d had as a child. I was bullied, no questions about it. (I figure this is partially why I’m so adamant about stopping bullying or anything that even slightly resembles it when it even seems to rear its head.) Anyway, my Grade 9 year was horrible. Most of my time at Marymount wasn’t easy, until I found a little group of outcasts who were a lot more like me than not. They made me feel included, rather than excluded, and that’s when I began to love Marymount. It snuck up on me, and that love sits firmly in my heart and soul to this day.
My great-aunt, Helen Kelly, was a Sister of St. Joseph, so she lived in the residence tower attached to the school. Some afternoons, we would meet behind the grand chapel, in the sacristy, and talk about family, or family history, or just about how school was going. She always made tea and had Peak Freans on a little plate, and she tended the flowers in the front flower beds around the white statue of Mary. Somehow, I think Aunt Helen knew what it was to feel a bit out of sorts, or not included. She did her best to make me feel at home. It helped.
So…back to Grade 9. I always think of the Bare Naked Ladies song, “Grade 9.” It wasn’t stellar. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, those Grade 13s are soooo cool.” (They even seemed to make the grey skirts stylish somehow, but I can’t imagine how now…) It’s funny that I didn’t know many of their names. I knew the older sister of a friend who also lived in the Minnow Lake area, so I always thought she was the greatest. She seemed to swoop up the bus stairs and down the aisle to the back, where the big girls sat. (It was so much a caste system then, even though I don’t think I fully realized it.)
Another girl who stuck out in my memory, even now, was a girl named Brinda Pada. She was in Grade 13, graduating in June 1985, and seemed so much of an ideal to aspire to…I guess we Grade 9s were always trying to impress the older girls. What I remember about Brinda is that, while other Grade 13s weren’t always friendly or even kind to the younger girls, she was. She smiled when you passed her in the hall and I remember thinking that she seemed almost, from a distance, serene. For someone who was bullied and an outcast, it mattered that someone was nice. Her sister, Arti, was in Grade 10. She was full of life, with a fabulous smile and infectious laugh. In contrast to Brinda, Arti seemed a bit of a fire cracker in spirit.
Was I their friend? No. Do I remember them? Yes. How could I not? They were kind to me, in passing, but in a way that marked my poor little Grade 9 battered heart.
I remember it being exam time, in late June, likely the 24th, and I remember coming to school and there were people crying. Sister Shirley Anderson, our principal, spoke to us on the announcements, telling us that something horrible had happened….we had lost two of our students. Our homeroom was silent. The school was silent. Into the space of the silence, the news of the Air India explosion over Ireland entered into our sacred space. The world never seemed the same after that. Brinda had just graduated and now she was gone. Arti would have been going into Grade 11, but she would never get there. They had been on their way to India with their dad, to meet their mum, who had gone on ahead.
Each year at graduation, the vice-principal calls out the Brinda and Arti Pada award, and my heart cracks, breaks a little bit more. It’s just short of thirty years, and I can’t stop thinking of the two of them. Their deaths, so unnecessary, stole a bit of innocence from all of us, I think. (I can’t speak for the other girls who were at the school that year, but I know it affected me. I learned that death could come without warning, regardless of age or gender. I learned that people could be evil in the world, and that there was no figuring out a reason why so many lives were lost. It was a rude awakening…)
So it’s funny when someone says “the past” is only just a few months gone. For me, the past haunts the building in which I now work. Good (and bad) high school memories hide around corners of the cinder block walls every day. Mostly, now, they’re fondly gilded in memory. The loss of those two girls, though, is a bad memory that can’t be banished….and probably shouldn’t be.
I think of them both every June…when the award is given…and when the CBC reminds me of the horror of the events of June 23, 1985 on an annual basis. There’s no forgetting them.
All this to say that we can’t always know what will happen in our lives, how they will change in a split second, how we will be severed from those we love so dearly without warning. All this to say that we need to value one another, in the face of greater evils that impinge on goodness around the world. By valuing one another, by treating one another with sheer kindness and compassion, we press up against any darknesses that are unnamed. We exist, and I think we do them some honour by living as they would live…with great spirit, compassion, and kindness.
I think of them still. I will never forget.