Nostalgic is likely the most frequently used word to describe school homecomings—a sweet word conjuring sweet memories of carefree days filled with fun, laughter and hope.
Yet, an informal survey taken of several friends revealed that none would return to those days under any circumstance. A former classmate said that, when considering reincarnation, she feared that instead of coming back as a butterfly or a puppy, she might instead relive high school over and over and over again.
Perhaps, bittersweet might be a more appropriate word, defined as “pleasure tinged with sadness,” especially when one’s high school is a private Catholic convent school in a conservative Catholic country during the repressed 1950s, burdened further by stern German nuns who looked to me more like huge tree trunks, immovable and immutable, and who stripped whatever fun might have been intimated by “Beach Blanket Bingo” movies or the high-school musical of today.
The saving grace: wonderful classmates who seemed impervious to the constant drumbeat of “Ora et Labora,” including one spirited girl who swung her Sodality medal until it clinked to the beat of Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” which she hummed under her breath.
Filipinos seem to always have a way to escape, distance, deny, mask and obscure whatever unpleasantries beset them—a quality that not only lends some measure of joy, but proves helpful to future life in the Philippines.
I, however, was denied this one helpful gene, and reacted instead with resentment and rebellion. I was particularly incensed at what seemed to be an obsessive focus on the evils of sex, resulting in such anomalies as the all-girl prom, and a fear of pregnancy by swimming pool (my classmates will understand).
The final insult: the expulsion of three classmates during their junior year after they were seen and reported wearing jeans outside the school on a weekend. Even for the 1950s, this seemed draconian.
When forced to withdraw from college in favor of a male sibling, I was whipsawed by feelings of relief and anger at being forced to leave a school I resented. The universe took pity, and soon I arrived in California just at the start of the Decade of Protest with the three significant movements of the ’60s—Civil Rights, Antiwar and Women’s Liberation. My anger had found a home.
I did not return to the school until 47 years later for our golden jubilee, when it and I had changed—my anger now mellowed, more by forgetfulness than by forgiveness, and the school so dramatically transformed, it was hardly recognizable. My three expelled classmates had received letters of apology along with their belated diplomas; the school now fully engaged in the challenges facing the country, aware of its most powerful asset—the young women now being empowered to handle the challenges they will face in a changing world.
The few remaining nuns from my time, now also mellowed by age, seemed genuinely happy to see me again. One actually pinched my cheek, saying she was relieved to see that I had turned out “well,” as she had some “concerns.” I had to retort that I had turned out a lot better than well, but she was right to have concerns. She laughed and gave me a hug—an act probably verboten those many years ago.
It was, in fact, like all homecomings, where all is forgiven. As for my classmates, they have remained what I remembered them—the saving grace; fun and funny, gentle and generous, kind and considerate. All of them, without exception.
School homecomings? No bitter. All sweet.