I grew up in Madras (as it was called then) and though a Hindu by birth, went to a catholic school for girls. It was genial Sister Claire who was the Head Mistress then, an Irish nun who was strict but kind. I never did know her last name and that was the way it was with all the nuns there in this sprawling convent school with spacious grounds that had marigold, Tulsi, rose and jasmine plants dotted with tamarind, gooseberry and coconut trees. We had volley ball, basketball and tennis courts with separate grounds for track and other athletics. We had to wear light green pinafores over cream shirts. The length of the pinafore had to be slightly below our knees and if it didn’t reach that far, the Sisters would tap our knees with their wooden sticks and send us home with a note.
We also had brown shoes that needed to be polished every night with white knee-length socks on all days except on sports days when we wore white canvas shoes. I remember the night before sports days when we had to wash those silly canvas shoes and use the white liquid polish so the shoes would pass inspection. Inspection was every morning before assembly when we stood in lines in height order. I was one of the tallest in my class so invariably I would be at the back of the line. Being tall also meant you were visible when you got into trouble so it was not always a good thing.
Our teachers had to speak excellent English and the nuns insisted that the only language spoken in school was English except of course during language class. The nuns were very strict when it came to behavior and grooming. We had two second languages to choose from: Tamil and Hindi. We didn’t have grades, we had classes and forms. So first form would be equivalent to sixth grade. We had art classes, music of course with all the singing that went with it. Theater was a big deal as well as we had two big productions every year. Sports was emphasized and like Harry Potter, though without that Sorting Hat, all the girls from Kindergarten to 6th form belonged to a sport’s team which was named after a flower. We had Roses, Lilies, Violets, Lotus and Shamrocks. Competition was fierce on sports day. A whole day dedicated to sports and various matches. Each team wearing their colors and fiercely loyal to their cause. It didn’t matter if you had two left feet, or were a natural athlete, you had to participate and play for the team. Parents, grandparents, relatives would come and sit on the stands and watch as the teams competed.
The nuns lived on campus. They had a closed off section where they had their rooms and they would retire there every evening after school ended. They had responsibilities within the school but also taught catechism classes. The catholic children would take catechism classes which provided deeper insights and the non christians were taught all the songs and were told stories from the bible. We grew up singing Amazing Grace, Silent Night, Jingle Bells and many others as each class had to by rotation a chance to lead the assembly every morning. We would gather as a school here and walk into a huge assembly hall with a stage and stay standing. The nuns were very particular we stood up straight and didn’t slouch. You would get a tap on your shoulder if you were fidgeting or talking. Assembly would start with announcements from the headmistress followed by a theme for the day by the class selected. It would be often set up very much like a choir led by the music teacher. This would last for 15 minutes and then we would say our prayers and go to first period.
Inside the school grounds was a beautiful, old yet well maintained church. All kids regardless of age or affinity could visit church. I remember going every lunch time and feeling a tremendous sense of peace every time I walked inside. Slightly dark with filtered light from stained glass windows, candles burning in the altar and rows of wooden pews where we could kneel for a while in silence. Nobody asked us to go. We just wanted to be there. I think there is in many a direction within that works like a compass once we stop questioning the intent.
I did learn about the story of Christ, about angels, and the significance of Christmas in school and I am grateful for that knowledge. I loved watching the lighted stars that would go up in front of some of the houses in the neighborhood. Dad’s best friend was a Wilfred Koilpillai, a tamilan christian and we would visit them, have delicious fruit cake that Jean Aunty made with dried fruits that were soaked in rum for about six months. We didn’t have turkey but there was da chicken version for sure and rice as every region modified Christmas to suit their culture and their diet. I traveled later, lived in the Middle East and learnt much there as well. As a mother today, raising children in a world where we are bombarded with incidents of intolerance, I wish that we could all understand a little more about each others heritage. It’s no longer six degrees of separation between us, it more like four degrees and that is a lot closer than we think to find comfort in isolation and the myth of us vs them.
To peace on earth.
To joy in our hearts.
To love that overcomes.
To humility in our actions.
To respect and equality for all life
To the true Spirit of humanity