For days I deliberated whether to go or not. But in my heart of hearts I knew I would not miss it for the world. Twenty years later, I would re-visit my old school, meet my old classmates, re-live a key milestone of our teenage years: the school leaving bash.
Our twentieth anniversary reunion was to be held in the same place where we had last met: our school’s assembly hall. On my way there, my head went blank as I prepared to enter a time warp, to re-live old chapters that had long been closed. I entered the hall and took it all in: names, faces, a torrent of events big and small. Memories that I had not recalled in decades, that I barely knew still existed, came back in a flash.
Some of the “girls” I didn’t even need to see their faces: I recognized the way they moved, talked, gesticulated, suddenly becoming aware of how intimately we knew each other, of how, really and truly, we were “sisters” who had grown up together during those pivotal formative school years. A few I barely recognized as I made the mental effort to go through a reverse metamorphosis and recover the girl I’d (barely) known back then from the woman who looked at me today. Most of us, however, had not changed one tiny bit. Same looks, same dress sense (or varying shades of thereof), same tastes, same attitudes, same… woman.
That is the part that really threw me. A few months ago, I reconnected with my best friend from those years over a cozy tete-a-tete like we had shared a million times before in another life. A highly successful professional, like many of us ladies, she was struggling with balancing life and career—or more to the point, the heavy demands of motherhood with the expectations of work. “Why” she asked point blank, “did they lie to us? Why did they make us believe that in life you can have it all?” “They” were our parents, our teachers, society in general that sought to inculcate a belief that daughters could have it better than their mothers, that modern women could be liberated from gender oppression … if only we were better educated, bolder in the pursuit of our (or their?) dreams. Yet, as the years went by, that belief, those expectations, turned sour as reality set in that life was more complicated than dreams and not lived by sheer will power alone. And tonight, as I stared at those way-too-familiar faces, I realized that we had been fed another big fat lie. Tonight, another illusion came tumbling down like a pack of cards.
Back then, as we had just celebrated our sweet sixteen, we were no mere “girls” who were going to become successful women and conquer the world. We were already women. The game had already started and any growing up we had to do was already over. The cards had already been dealt with and there were no second chances. The assumption that it was okay to have a carefree attitude was but a deception. The stories we were told that “ahead” of us there were many opportunities for learning, improving, maturing were just plain (often painful) lies.
The fact of the matter was one and simple: in those years of schooling our character had been shaped, our attitude towards life had been moulded, our way of relating to other people was set. Unless in the years ahead of us we were going to be willing to go through the excruciating process of unlearning bad habits, this was as good as it would ever get. Twenty years ago we were already the woman who stares back at us in the mirror today.
As we exchanged pleasantries and relived the friendships that had been, it was increasingly obvious that all of us had, in our own ways, suffered through life’s setbacks, somehow managed to survive and sometimes even thrive. The unspoken stories could be read between the lines of sharing about our children, partners, homes… in many ways, they were the labour pains we had to go through to carve out our individual female identities in twenty-first century Malta. Even on this happy occasion however, sadness, maybe even melancholy, hung over us like a thick blanket. Today we knew what we had been sheltered from back then: life is hard and oftentimes has a twisted sense of humour… at our own expense.
The evening passed like a dream, or maybe it was nothing but a dream. As I stepped out of the school gate, I overheard an exchange that, just like the previous few hours, sounded like a re-living of the past. Back then it used to be girls flirting with the boys. Tonight, they were ladies flirting with the gentlemen. The tone was the same and the words merely an echo of what had been. I smiled and thought to myself: within these walls I received not an education for (future) life, but an education of life. And though our best teachers did their utmost to parent us, fully aware that curricular subjects are merely an excuse for shaping us into women, our peers, our sisters, lived life for us—their mistakes our gain, their success our ambition. Those years were part of a much bigger and complicated story: of women bonding to create the world of tomorrow. And as we returned to the source where it had all started, we did not merely celebrate and remember our past, but the journey of women like us, before and after us. We recalled and honoured our timeless responsibilities as daughters, mothers, mentors and friends in the flowing stream of sisterhood.