As I prepare to attend the 40th reunion of Brookline High School’s Class of 1971, I think of the three different high schools I attended before my family moved to the United States, and of all the people I had to leave behind, some of whom have since passed away. Parts of me must have been left behind as well, since I find myself perennially harking back, as if seeking those missing pieces.
One small volume remains with me, containing “an infinity of traces” (Gramsci): my autograph book, filled with both sentimental and humorous messages, signatures, and tiny black-and-white snaps of schoolmates from Mount Hermon in India, Broxbourne and Parliament Hill in England. It has a satin floral cover, pastel-colored pages of pink, blue, pale green, and white, with a zipper wrapping around three sides to safeguard its contents, still unfaded after all these years.
Since nobody I know here in the United States seems to have one, I looked up the history of the autograph book. Apparently, as they were used by university students from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth-century, autograph books served a purpose not unlike the original Facebook. Subsequently they began to be replaced by yearbooks, in the U.S. at least (although when I got to America in my junior year of high school I didn’t know about that U.S. custom, so none of my Brookline High classmates signed mine). But girls, especially young girls, continued to use them, at least into the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as a verse like this one attests:
I wish you love, I wish you joy, I wish you have a baby boy;
And when his hair begins to curl I wish you have a baby girl;
And when she puts her hair in pins I wish you have a pair of twins.
Or this old chestnut:
Tulips in the garden
Tulips in the park,
But the best tulips
Are two lips in the dark
Miss Haslewood, our dorm matron, penned the following lines in my autograph book, evoking an even earlier era:
O’er roses may your footsteps move
Your smiles be ever smiles of love
Your tears be tears of joy!
By the late sixties we considered such sentiments “corny,” even in India where 19th-century tastes persisted as in many former colonies, and at age 14 I asked my friends not to write anything “stale” in my autograph book. Accordingly I received witticisms like this one, from my friend Preet:
When you get old
And think you’re sweet
Just take off your shoes
And smell your feet
(An effective cure for “swollen head” fever even when you’re young!)
As I left India, several of my messages admonished me not to forget my country:
. . . anyway, I just hope before
you do anything you will remember
your country, India, first.
or, again from Preet (since we had just been to the neighboring St. Joseph’s to watch a school production of Annie Get Your Gun):
Remember: “just like Falling Pants, Running Nose,” you’re an Indian too.
Her sharp, multi-layered ironies upon ironies of belonging and (mis)appropriation continue to tickle and prick more than 40 years later.
Some of the verses are juvenile doggerel, still eliciting a disgusted “ewww,” as in, “Little pig/Busy Street/Motor car/Sausage meat.” Many more are private, teenage-girl giggles. Several friends and teachers commended me to the care of God, invoked our shared love of singing, or reminded me that I talked too much. All of their messages are precious to me. Looking at my autograph book today and recalling the emotional goodbyes as I prepared to leave Mount Hermon—and India—that misty morning in Darjeeling, perhaps the least sentimental message came from my 1969 batch-mate Omprakash:
Wish you the best of luck in your unknown future.
He was right, of course; I didn’t know what lay ahead of me. But those heartfelt farewells enclosed tightly in my autograph book sent me on my way with confidence, my footsteps moving lightly o’er beds of roses. I was loved; I was missed; and again and again, if mostly in memory, I would return.