The moment I ascended the main stairs to go to the staff room, I rubbed my eyes for I thought something was wrong with them. I passed the familiar-but-small notice boards and the familiar-but-small Mother Mary statue in a hard-glass casing at the centre of the hallway. The bookstore on the school premises, which also sold stationery, was smaller still. The principal’s office revealed to me that day, its true size. There was hardly any noticeable change in the settings since I had passed out and yet something was amiss. Something strangely different about the place. Things keep changing and change is inevitable. Although I walked imperturbably, I couldn’t help being conscious of my surroundings. A short stride brought me to another set of familiar-but-small flight of stairs and soon I was in front of the unforgettable double-swing saloon doors, the entrance to the staff room, where I was to wait for Mr. Frederick Guilder, my science teacher. I was back in school, my school to seek advice on teaching as a career.
School – a place where children spend half their time; a place where they play and grow, fall and rise, fail and succeed, laugh and cry, argue and fight, plead and pray, sleep and dream and do all sorts of things that come to be reported diligently to their parents by the ever-despotic teachers. I sighed.
A glimpse of the familiar settings downstairs played across my mind when I was interrupted by the familiar-but-small indifferent face that appeared through the saloon doors a moment later. “Good morning Sir”, we shook hands. “Good morning dear” he said, the ‘dear’ uttered placidly. My excitement at meeting my old teacher was soon deflated. Mr. Guilder seemed to have forgotten me completely.
“Sir, I am Aditya,” I said.
“Hi Aditya. Which batch dear?”
His next words lessened my disappointment and somewhat cheered me up.
“Long time young man!”
Our talk was a very casual exchange of phrases “…… Well a teacher’s job you see, males do it for bread, females do it for butter. I hope you find a good position for yourself.” Some half an hour later I bade him goodbye. Leaving the unforgettable saloon doors of the staff room behind, I glanced sideways at the corridors and considered for a while.”Eight long years. Eight batches passed out. I shan’t blame him. I can never forget how he urged me to sing at the send-off party. Oh! But he might have urged many such kids and inspired several others in the span of eight long years! Not so easy to remember so many kids, is it? His indifference is quite natural then and that settles the matter.” However, there was something unsettled in my mind.
I decided to take the long way out, while leaving the premises. The students were already off to their homes. As I strolled along the long corridors, the empty classrooms all appeared familiar-but-small. Although, everything was okay, there was something very incongruous about them. Their size! Indeed, their size! Everything was familiar but appeared smaller, smaller than when I had seen them back then. It is a strange experience. You visit a place after many years and discover that the place has diminished, in spite of knowing beyond doubt that that simply is impossible. “Did the benches shrink as I grew? Did the blackboard diminish on its own? And the notice boards and the small bookstore? And Mother Mary in the hallway downstairs, did she as well, reduce in size?” The answer I think might be found in physics (optics) I suppose or more precisely, biophysics.
Our limbs grow, we grow taller and that directly affects our stride. It, therefore, takes lesser time to cover the same distance, which explains why it took me less time to reach the staff room. Secondly, our eyeballs too grow in size, or do they? I am not sure about this. If they do then my naïve reasoning tells me that the image formed on the retina of our eyeball might be diminished enough to produce an appreciably small picture in our brain. That might be a reason why objects appear smaller in size than they did eight years ago. For confirming my babyish speculation, I sought the Internet and a brief search landed me on a website where I found an unexpected answer. It claimed psychology to be involved in this ‘familiar-but-small’ business. Well psychology! – now that’s not my cup of tea. Perhaps someday I may be able to understand it.
One may mock me by saying, “It is all commonsense pal and not rocket science as you are inclined to think.” Maybe that’s true. We are smaller in childhood, so benches seem bigger, the classroom appears to be a big room with a big blackboard longer and wider still. Everything seems big at that time. And after we grow up and visit places from our childhood, everything seems to have shrunk. We grow tall and benches and desks come to touch our waists.
Once out of the building, I looked at the playground. It appeared as it was, as I had seen it during my school days. Behind me was the canteen, from where the refreshing fumes of chai and samosas would spread about the place and elevate the ambience around. The canteen – whose marble edge seemed lower now. The same edge where two mighty hands exchange food for money daily and where cherub-like arms grab eatables tightly – out of fright of losing them amidst the crowd of hungry fellow foodies who are literally on their toes busy thrusting forwards to claim their food.
These familiar-but-small things did not fail to make me nostalgic. Memories unfolded and came to me. A train of thoughts flashed across my mind. Munching tidbits and strolling in the corridors. Eating food and spending recess in the open playground, running all around for no reason, dirtying shiny shoes in the copper-red mud, bullying the timid and fearing the mighty and all those acts children like to do when they know they are unleashed from the confinement of the classroom where order and discipline was dear to the teacher in-charge.
All seemed big at that time. Now it is all small, yet potent enough to bring a smile on my face. Time is a wonderful thing, I began musing, A passage of time made familiar things small. Everything was the same, it was only that a long stretch of time had shrunk them. Nevertheless, I was a rich man as I left the school gates. Rich with memories of the 10 long years that I spent in this temple of learning.
P.S.: I am still in search of a plausible explanation to this familiar-but-small experience. If you know, please enlighten me.
The author is math and physics teacher at Billabong High International School, Andheri, Mumbai. He can be reached at [email protected].