Sunday 28th September 2008

Denzil Mohammed
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Pres spirit rises again

I approached this career guidance thing with some trepidation. I’d done it before elsewhere; it was the school I was worried about.

The last time I drove up Carib Street, what I saw was embarrassing: wild vines billowing over pedestrians’ heads, sun-bleached buildings, and a sort of interior fence within the outer walls, which, for one thing, didn’t make sense to me, and secondly, despite being new, seemed already to be decaying, reflecting the run-down, had-its-time and now past-its-prime college.

Not much of a Presentation.

But what did present itself to me on Thursday was, well, different.

I drove in opposite Grant Memorial, my other alma mater, but couldn’t find the vines. The fence was still perplexing but looked brand new. There was no litter in sight. The Old Block looked young—and got a more dignified name, too.

There was a guard—in an actual guard hut—sans the bus driver uniform “Ronnie Man” used to wear when he took a dollar from us every time we were late for school.

Then, as I walked up from the car with every magazine, book and newspaper for which I’d ever written, I was presented with a smile. And it couldn’t have come from a more surprising place.

After all, Ms Hosein never smiled. I remember her sluggish gait up the Old Block corridor, each step more reluctant than the last, going to another rowdy class full of foul-mouthed fools who could care less for her or her effort—and certainly didn’t give a flying fish for French.

Riding on reputation

Why would she have smiled, I suddenly thought? And why did she stay?

Perhaps she held out hoping something would change, that somewhere beyond tomorrow, beyond the cussing and shouting and walking in and out, beyond the “we-go-Pres-so-we-too-bright” mind-set, that she’d be able to smile, and to smile not from the muscles in her face, but from deep within—and mean it.

She meant it on Thursday (and she’d nicely lost weight), so I knew something had changed.

Pres was riding on its reputation and little else for quite a while, even when I was there from ’93 to ’98 before heading off to Fatima.

South people might be able to tell you: The prestige school had lost its prestige. It was in physical and psychological disrepair. The football matches were lost, the behaviour was bad, and the scholarship list increasingly diminished. All it had was this thing called Pres spirit.

You see, there was a freeness in Pres. We’d plan our own grads and teachers would not even be invited. For a long time, there wasn’t even a security guard. I used to break class and travel to a friend’s house to watch music videos. And when RIK had its “fire sale,” half the school was in front of the store.

Freedom within structure

The system operated on a tacit understanding that the boys were responsible enough to handle themselves in this freeness; that the school, like a good parent, had done its job and knew the children could take it from there.

For that, among other reasons, we felt proud to be Pres and loved our school for it. Pres spirit.

But the same rules cannot always apply. Times change and, with it, people and attitudes. And when the college started its tardy crackdown, staff experienced inertia and students resisted. The college went through three principals in a year. Everything suffered, the spirit too, I was certain.

I had a chat with Jaiks, whom I knew as the VP and who now sits in the principal’s chair. He talked about five- and ten-year strategic plans. He showed me a “matrix” of offences and penalties. He mentioned “contracts” students and their parents had to sign, rules and regulation books, new systems in place, and a new attitude of staff and student. And he gave me a copy of the fattest, prettiest yearbook I’d ever seen.

I’d also never expected to see so many official-looking plans and thing.

“A culture change,” he called it.

That takes a while, I said.

“You saw any litter in the yard when you walked in?” he asked.

No, I didn’t. But don’t the boys now feel restricted in this regimented environment? I mean, we used to suckle on freedom back in the day.

A boy walked into Jaiks’ office at that point. Lanky, pants falling off and a strange hairstyle if ever I saw one (and, if you know me, I’m no stranger to strange hairstyles).

“Foster, what’s the matter?” Jaiks asked.

And there he flashed his signature smile—one full of warmth and compassion and solidarity. A bit worn, now, with age, as his greying temples revealed, but otherwise the same.

“Nothing sir, just need you sign this.”

And the boy smiled too—not the perfunctory smile of a boy in front of his elder. It was the bashful smile of a boy who knew he would be taken care of, and was grateful, but just didn’t know how to show his indebtedness.

The boys in the auditorium roared in approval at something the MC was saying before sending them off to the seminars—the usual thing from Pres boys. And that’s when I realised: the Pres spirit was still there. It had remained the same, impervious to outward changes and regulations and strategic plans.

“Freedom within structure,” Jaiks said, smiling.

I smiled, too, from deep within.

The boys roared again.

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