Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fantasies of the Unconscious - If buildings could speak

If buildings could speak ... what would the iconic Saint Joseph's Institution in Bras Basah Road say ...

My sons ... many have moved on and grown old. Young, eager faces take their place and time marches on. They no longer call me home. A new building far away has replaced me. I too have changed. I too have grown old but my memories are many.

I remember the sounds of laughter that used to echo through my halls, boys in white eager to learn, more eager still to play. How we crammed more than a 1000 into a courtyard for morning assembly back then, I will never know. Everything looked so much bigger when you are younger.

The Brothers stayed in their quarters on the school grounds just above the tuckshop. It was their sacred domain where one had to tread with care when you ventured into that block.

I smiled often when I looked upon the faces of the newly-initiated as they walked through my doors for the first time. Those young boys in their still-white shorts. They stood in awe of the Brothers with their flowing robes and hankies discreetly stuffed up their sleeves. They were not only the keepers of knowledge, they led us in prayer at the start of each new day. In time some would call them mentor, maybe even friend.

But education was very different back then. A man of the cloth wouldn't think twice to whip out the cane for indiscretions which today would seem so trivial. But there was a code back then that children should be seen not heard and rich or poor, there were no free rides. Discipline was held sacred. Step out of line and there will be pain.

The teachers sometimes came across as little a tinge smug - so secure in the knowledge that the pain they inflicted would soon fade but the lesson imparted would last a lifetime. And they were right.

I know this way of teaching - be it in school or at home - has fallen out of fashion today but for many years, it had worked well in building the character of a man. Maybe that's what went wrong in bringing up the youth of today. Rods were never spared and children never spoilt - how things have changed. I dearly miss those days.

I cringed each time I heard that whack during assembly. That mini sonic boom seemed to reverberate off my walls. Someone was being "caned in public" which was of course, the more harsh punishment to being "caned in private". Was it for flinging ink from a fountain pen on someone's white shirt, perhaps it was for cheating during a test, or fighting behind the dank school loo where oddly toilet paper could never be found or maybe it was for stealing a smoke at the sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street after a football game?

The lads, with eyes downcast, always took their punishment in stony silence. They would boast about it later - that it never really hurt and their friends would nod knowingly and let the lie go unchallenged. Still no one held ill will towards the teachers. You may not have liked them, they may not always have been fair, but teachers were a breed apart and respect was never compromised - never questioned. It was the SJI way - that chipping away of human imperfections leaving behind a young man with a burning can-do spirit.

I remember the school band playing merrily to mark my birth each year - Founder's Day. The music, it has really changed little over the decades.

Those military marches - always to a steady drumbeat, still brimmed with pride as young boys walked out into a man's world.

But I also remember the sorrow when the fury of war engulfed a country and hope was the first to die.

Many turned to me for refuge and sadly I failed them. Within my walls capped off with shards of broken bottles, hundreds flocked, hoping in vain that their sheer numbers and my sturdy brick could shield them from a world gone mad.

Legends would be written of those dark days and retold with suitable embellishments in years to come. One recounts how my hall, situated just below the chapel, was used as an impromptu hospital for the wounded as angry bombs rained from the sky.

A classroom became a silent morgue where mortal battered bodies were laid to rest as the unsettled spirits were released. Blood splashed on my corridors would remain for years (or so the legends go) as a unspoken memorial to innocence snuffed out in a heartbeat.

While I am a school no more, knowledge still pervades my land. No longer is this on corporeal paper but now it lies in oils, splashed on canvass, as works of art destined to remain immortal. My noisy classrooms are now temperature-controlled art galleries. The laughter of carefree youth has been replaced by hushed tones of those who come to understand and appreciate that which lies beyond mere words.

As a school I've lived a long and fulfilled life. As a museum, I am immortal for as long as history and memories continue to be made under my crown of a silver dome.

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