Josna Rege

214. A Moment in Time

In 1970s, Britain, Education, history, Immigration, India, Music, Stories, United States on June 13, 2013 at 7:46 am
Lambert's Cove Road, West Tisbury (lescaret.blogspot.com)

Lambert’s Cove Road, West Tisbury (lescaret.blogspot.com)

My family immigrated to the U.S. in February 1970 when I was not-yet-sixteen, part-way through the Spring semester of the school year. My father, who had arrived nearly six months before my mother followed with my sister and me, had found us an apartment in Brookline, which had a reputation for its good public schools. Brookline High School was also known to be one of the most progressive public high schools in the country.

After some initial testing, BHS decided to place me in the 11th grade, as long as I took both  a 10th– and  an 11th-grade English class, since high-school graduation required four years of English. I was also placed in ‘Basic’ American History, since I had never studied U.S. history before and, even in such a progressive school, students were still segregated into Basic, Standard, Honors, and Advanced Placement tracks. It was a big school, with some 2500 students, and a highly stratified one, with students divided into a number of cliques based on the parts of town they lived in, their class or ethnic background, and their interests  and after-school activities. If you hadn’t been in the system from the beginning, rising up through the ranks in one of Brookline’s eight neighborhood elementary schools, you were unlikely to be able to form close friendships in high school. This was confirmed a year or so ago when I attended my 40th high-school reunion, in which most people socialized with classmates from their elementary school and almost nobody remembered me. In fact, one woman even asked, with utter lack of tact, whether I had been in their class at all.

Despite my sense of alienation at Brookline High, I met a few people became lifelong friends, and although they were very few, they included Andrew, who was to become my husband. Although initially the school’s culture gave me quite a shock, coming to it as I did after having attended three different high schools over the previous 18 months, it certainly did plunge me into American society, particularly American youth culture, at the deep end. The students voted to go on strike later that spring, in protest of the war in the jungles of Vietnam and on the streets and university campuses at home; there was no dress code, let alone a school uniform; many of the teachers asked to be called by their first names; in some classes we sat in circles rather than in rows and made contracts with the teacher about whether we would attend class and what work we were expected to complete; but for me perhaps the biggest change of all was the relationship between the sexes.

In 1960s India there was no such thing as dating. Even at Mount Hermon, my co-educational boarding school in Darjeeling where there were many activities in which both boys and girls participated, having a “boyfriend” meant walking round the school together in the five minutes of twilight between dinner-time and Night Study, sometimes surreptitiously holding hands, if Miss Hawke wasn’t on duty.  I arrived at The Broxbourne School in the suburbs of Hertfordshire, England, at age 14, but was much too sheltered and reticent to experiment with the dating ritual that some of the girls seemed to carry out with such ease. I made friends with the studious, university-bound girls and my interactions with boys were restricted to someone sending his friend to say that he liked me, evidenced only by being specially singled out for teasing from him and his friends. I never did learn how to engage in light, mildly flirtatious banter with members of the opposite sex, partly because by the time I got to Brookline High, dating was passé, at least in my group of friends, who considered themselves liberated from such old-fashioned practices.

All this is to explain how surprised I was to find myself, in my very first week at BHS while waiting in the House Office for placement test results, having a deep philosophical discussion with a boy, an open exchange of ideas that seemed to disregard completely the fact that we happened to be of the opposite sex. His name was Russell and he was a senior, soon to be graduating and going out into the world. We did eventually go out on a few “dates,” though I don’t think we ever called them that, and looking back, I give him credit for his gentlemanly forbearance, because I must have made it quite clear that I was neither experienced with nor interested in an American-style romantic relationship, and he honored my evident wishes. I felt on much safer ground with the philosophical discussions, of which I must have subjected him to plenty, poor fellow.

One day he came to visit after he had returned from a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, an idyllic island off Cape Cod. He had already graduated from high school, while I was preparing to enter my senior year, and our friendship was soon to come to an end.  Knowing that I was a fan of Johnny Cash, he had come bearing a gift of a purple plastic dorm-room waste-bin with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison printed on it (which I kept for years afterwards until it slipped away somewhere). And he told me about an experience he had just had, one Virginia Woolf would have called a moment of being, that I have remembered ever since.

He had stepped off the ferry onto one of the quiet, car-free country roads on the Vineyard (back then there were very few cars on the island) and had begun to walk down the road in the summer sunshine. He felt nothing but well-being all over, as he walked aimlessly and effortlessly along, not an ache in his body, not a care on his mind. And all of a sudden it came to him that, as a young man at his peak, he would never feel as good as he did at that very moment.

Russell told me this story with no agenda, making no particular point; he simply recounted his experience, sharing the insight that had come to him that early summer morning. Although I have fallen out of touch with him these past forty years and more, that moment in time has stayed with me, luminous, self-evident.

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  1. I was struck by Russel’s moment in time. It touched a deep cord in me and brought to mind two specific moments in my life I remember. Love your openness and story telling – full of humanity and grace. Thank you.

  2. I know a couple of Mt Hermon girls (and North Point boys as well). To my all-boys school experiences they seemed much more comfortable than I was, so evidently it is a matter of degrees.

    Russell is lucky to have had that experience that early in life. I can certainly say that I cannot relate an instance when I felt a sense of such well-being.

    What I like about your posts is your portrayal of memories in such a simple yet very thought provoking way. I have a lot to learn.

    • You’re right that it is a matter of degrees. Actually at Mount Hermon the boys and girls had very good relationships and today I feel the boys in our batch to be my brothers despite the distance in time and space. And in fact the American dating rituals of the 50s and 60s were very unnatural too. I feel that there is still a lot of dishonesty and insecurity between men and women, no matter where you are in the world. (BTW, I’ve written a number of stories about life at MH. If you have friends who went to school in Darjeeling you or they might like to take a look at them.)
      I can only speculate what Russell was actually feeling at the time. As I try to express it, though, 40+ years later, I inevitably introduce fiction. When I think about it again, I start second-guessing myself: did he feel only physical well-being but emotional yearning? Perhaps he told that story to remind himself not to yearn after some perfection that he felt he lacked, meanwhile forgetting to enjoy his youth and health while he had it.
      Thank you for your kind words about my stories. Sometimes I seem to take a long time to make a very simple point in very prosaic language. I’m happy to think that you take something away with you. I enjoy your distinctive voice—don’t try to change it too much; your writing will satisfy you–and others–as it allows you to express yourself more and more effectively in your own terms.

  3. Wonderful telling of time and place and feelings. I don’t remember realizing the feeling at the time, but I sure remember it now that I do have aches and pains and all that I didn’t have and didn’t fully realize then.

  4. What a lovely ‘story’ jo. You have such a good way with words. Xxxx

    • Thank you, dear Cussin. It’s perhaps more fun to look back on some of those schooldays, which were exciting at times but excruciating at other times–especially where the opposite sex was concerned! Love getting comments from you! xxo J

  5. Such a beautifully written snapshot of that time in your life. I was seeing and feeling the world through your eyes. Thank you for writing about your experiences.

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