From the outside, St. Mary’s Canossian College (an educational community for elementary, middle and high school students) projects a classic colonial presence that is both imposing and unassuming. None of its surrounding neighbors – the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) barracks, or the Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute, or the Hong Kong Museum of History – can rival its architectural aura and elegance. But none of these academic, military or cultural institutions were around at the time when St. Mary’s was my high school.
St. Mary’s was a place where my adolescent dreams and doubts, fears and fantasies once collided. It is also a place where many of my recurring nightmares of math tests and final essays still haunt me up till this day whenever I feel extreme stress or performance anxiety. These nightmares would take the form of fleeing from teachers through running down flights of stairs in the school buildings, or falling from great height to an invisible bottomless destination.
But on this day, as my husband Ken and I were strolling past St. Mary’s, listed as one of the must-see historical sites in his Hong Kong guidebook, we found ourselves lingering on the outside looking in – pausing, gazing and wondering…
“Should we go in?” I finally popped the question in a whimsical tone. I was secretly preparing myself for telling him stories of my teenage years of compliance and defiance inside and outside the classrooms of St. Mary’s.
“Sure. But is school over? Isn’t this Christmas break now?” Ken asked.
“Well, the entrance gate is open; there’s only one way to find out.” I started leading the way up the stairway to the main doors and pressed the bell. In an instant, a demur lady slowly opened the door with a wide-eyed look at my unfamiliar face – I immediately offered my credentials as an alumnae.
“Oh…welcome back! School day is almost over in the next fifteen minutes, but come on in.” She identified herself as Jenny, shaking my hand and flashing a beaming smile as if one of her daughters has come home to visit.
“This is my husband Ken.” I turned around and noticed him smiling with twinkles in his eyes, prompting an instant compliment from Jenny.
“Oh..isn’t he sweet… so gentlemanly.”
Her remark instantly cracked us up, evoking a semblance of family approval and acceptance that I had not asked for or expected.
“Please, take a walk inside and take photos. Just don’t go upstairs because classes are still in session.” Jenny encouraged us to make ourselves at home.
Over the next half hour, I showed Ken the tiny chapel where I used to kneel and pray with my classmates every Friday morning, the big tall steps where our headmaster Sister Rosemary used to lead the 8 a.m. daily assembly with words of wisdom and special announcements while all of us stood in lines and listened in silence.
“It was a classic Catholic girls school.” Ken told me later, “And it helped me understand you more.”
You see – St. Mary’s is an all-girls school with a robust reputation for training women to become aspiring leaders and productive members of society. Admittedly, I was one of those students who complied with the rules without complaints. I didn’t want to fail or cause troubles. But I was also one of those students who dared to push the boundaries beyond and dreamed big ideas.
It was at St. Mary’s that I had developed a firm foundation for the discipline of study and morning prayers. It was the St. Mary’s women teachers who had helped me cultivate a strong sense of self, as well as a moral duty to humanity. It was also at St. Mary’s that I first observed the remarkable dedication of the Catholic nuns in their daily spiritual devotion and selfless service to the student community.
During this Christmas season when we exchange gifts of love and greetings of peace, I am mindful of all those who’ve played a part in my past to shape my present – their teaching and mentoring are the best gifts I’ve received, and I know that they will last a lifetime.