It has been 150 years. Quite unbelievable when I hear it at first. But then I calculate – 1862 to 2011 – yes, it has indeed.
Going back to St Joseph’s Convent High School in Saddar on Saturday to celebrate Feast Day makes me feel proud of the milestones it has achieved.
Passing by the staff room reminds me of how I shuddered at its saloon-bar swing-door entrance. Abdullah’s (late) canteen brings back the memory of milk toffee, aloo bukhara, Pakola in a plastic bag, Slims chips.
Some things remain the same 150 years down the road. The main hall is still crammed. “The sardine effect,” quips Nina Sethna, the Cambridge biology and Pakistan Studies teacher. Backstage is as noisy as ever with a control freak from every class yelling to make sure everything’s perfect. And then, I hear a shrill whistle. Geography’s Suroor Akbar, who taught sports for years, still uses the ultimate weapon to keep the garrulous girls quiet. And it still works.
At the hall, English language and literature teacher Faiza Kazi welcomes everyone to the Feast Day celebrations. “You girls are very lucky that you are students while the school turns 150,” she says with her unique pronunciation of 50 – fif’Teh.
In a simple ceremony Math teacher Aileen Soares presents a card to Sr Zinia Pinto – who was principal for 30 years – and Urdu teacher Sabira Siddiqui comes forward with a bouquet of flowers. “You can see the flowers are blue, the school’s colour,” Ms Kazi remarks.
The school’s principal Sr Julie Pacheco gives priceless information: “This school started on March 18, 150 years ago, with just 10 students, many of who didn’t know how to write with ink.” These celebrations will continue all year long to commemorate the extraordinary journey.
Feast Day to most of us just meant free chips and juice. This year, however, transparent pencil cases and pens imprinted with the school’s motto “Forward God Helping” were also distributed.
But it was when the festivities begin that it fully hits me how times have changed. Girls from classes 6 and 7 peform awkward sanitised bump-and-grind routines to hip hop and RnB. The entire audience of long-haired, plain-faced girls in Gizri stone-coloured uniforms bursts into the chorus. I had never thought I’d hear Usher’s “OMG” and “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas being played at the Convent. For all her years, Ms Siddiqui is unfazed. “The girls are more confident now,” she serenely explains.
Skits and adaptations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are played by the younger sections. The characters, all short, strain to project their voices to the microphones dangling from the rafters. Girls in skinny jeans slip into the male characters. One mischievious class decides to poke fun at the other schools in the city, Baconhouse, Ammah Farsi, Karachi Punctuation School.
Towards the end, the school song is sung with girls raising their arms enthusiastically for the last line, “We’ll always have a special thought for our dear convent home.” As the last note dies off, hooting and clapping breaks out. I look around confused. That was sacrilegious in my time.
Things have changed. Apart from the hip hop, girls now wear identification cards around their necks, security cameras have been installed and the staffroom is locked when the teachers leave the room. But the zealots in the brown uniforms have the same drive and hopefully will continue to for the next 150 years.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2011.
Correction: March 20, 2011
An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated the date of St Joseph’s establishment was 1856.