Sunday 30 September 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music

I'm almost a third of the way through Middlemarch by George Eliot, a door-stopper of a book which I bought at a car boot sale (or was it a secondhand bookshop?) for a song. The novel is interesting and at times very, very funny, in that peculiar way in which some Victorian novels are. However, a few days ago, after reading a passage, I had one of those "moments" where different elements with no apparent relation to each other seemed to gel together all of a sudden.

The passage was about Mr Lydgate, the surgeon, and his thoughts on the kind of life famous people might have led before they'd become renowned. It went thus: "Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who 'broke the barriers of the heavens' - did he not once play a provincial church-organ, and give music lessons to stumbling pianists? Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbours who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame: each of them had his little personal history sprinkled with small temptations and sordid cares, which made the retarding friction of his course towards final companionship with the immortals..."

One of the disparate elements that latched itself on to the above passage was a flashback I had when I spotted an old classmate of mine from secondary school in a photo posted on Facebook.What's strange is that in the image she was in the background, in the midst of a group of people, the majority of whom were alien to me (except for the owner of the camera, who was of my acquaintance in university and was in the centre of the picture), and yet my former classmate stood out. Something she never did in class.

There are people whose invisibility is an open invitation to ask ourselves if they ever existed. We all know them. They are the quiet ones, those who're neither top of the class academically nor flunk out exams, the ones who shy away from contact with other classmates, even if they share the same interests. They're part of your life as a student, but you'd be hard pressed to name them. One day the teacher will say: So and So is not in class today because s/he has been taken ill and you will wonder who they are. My class throughout secondary school had more than thirty pupils. I think we were more like close to forty, or just over that figure. Believe me, in Year 9 it could get quite rowdy.

This classmate of mine sat at the back of the class. She spoke in a whisper (I once asked her to lend me a ruler, or a sharpener, I forget now. That's how I know what her voice sounded like). At the risk of sounding politically incorrect and undiplomatic, I must admit that in the looks department we, boys, didn't take much notice of her. It's not that she wasn't good-looking (she was, but then, again, I ignored that detail), but there were other girls who, we boys thought, scrubbed up better. And then there were also the Literature and Spanish (female) teachers on whom we, highly hormonal teenagers had a crush. Was that the reason why my former classmate apparently chose the mantle of impermeability?

I don't know. As for the fame to which the above passage refers, as far as I'm concerned, my ex-classmate hasn't discovered a new Uranus like Sir Frederick William Herschel did in 1781. But there she was, in that photo on Facebook, receiving her quarter of an hour, Warholian claim to notoriety. People like my ex-classmate are the small, imperceptible details in our lives. They make no big splashes, and yet years later, we stumble upon their faces on an old, yellow photograph, and as if by magic, we remember the clothes they wore, the phrases they overused, the way they walked. They're like autumn leaves, undistinguished and unremarkable when they all fall from the same tree in unison and pile up on the pavement. But, how many times have I not held an autumn leaf in my hand, its golden and orange hues announcing the arrival of one of my favourite seasons and marvelled at the beauty of it?

Some of us look back on our school days through the prism of those characters who stood out: the nerds, the bullies, the show-offs, the failures. Especially if they went on to become famous for whatever reason. But there's another group, smaller, perhaps, who never demanded any attention, in fact, they eschewed it whenever possible. They were like the proverbial still waters, whose depth we never really did find out. And then one day they suddenly turn up in our adult lives, like a song, performed a capella, whose words we never learnt and whose existence we never acknowledged, but whose melody becomes familiar as soon as the first notes kick in. These invisible classmates (or students, if you are/were a teacher) are the echo of an earlier life before Facebook gave them the fifteen minutes of fame they never sought.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I read Middlemarch last year and enjoyed it. I see JK Rowling's latest effort has been dubbed "Mugglemarch". I suspect this is unfair to George Eliot.

  2. very cool...there were some classmates like her in my class as well..and after meeting them years later i found that they had bloomed and are now even more visible than those "stars" from back then...think some need just time to unfold.. happy sunday to you..

  3. I wonder what made her stand out in the photo as she never did back then.

    Regards from the obscure provinces . . .

  4. For me, when I do that kind of recollection that involves all of my senses, it feels much like being in a time warp or time travel. As though that memory was a worm hole back to the past.
    I believe that I was one of those invisible people in high school. I'll never know for sure. But, I've learned that, "if your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it!".

  5. Thanks a lot for your comments.

    Dominic, you had me in stitches. Funny htta I just read yet another good review about it. But others haven't been so kind.

    Claudia, thanks for swinging by. Perhaps there are people who don't want to unfold. But for me it's somewhat eerie to run into those faces again more than twenty years later in a context so different from the one I left them in.

    Mim, what made her stand out in the photo (and apologies, because that's not very clear in the post, but I don't want to change it) is that she was surrounded by people apparently associated with my acquaintance at uni.

    This "invisible" girl was in my secondary schoo. How did she skip that middle level (college) and jumped straight to my post-university days? The photo was taken in Cuba when this acquaitance from uni went back (she lives in the States) to visit her family. For all I know she might not even know my ex-classmate, but I doubt it. All the (mainly) women in the photo were smiling and looked as if they knew each other.

    Paula, thanks for your words. I was thinking the exact thing when writing this post. What if I was an "invisible", too, for some people? EVen though I did stand out for being loud and being the soul of the party when we all went out on Saturday night, I sometimes retreated to my own little cave. So, maybe some people might not have even known who I was.

    I hope you all have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Excellent post. An old class mate looked me up, some time ago, via Facebook. It took me some time to remember who she was; I guess she did not stand out in my memories. I enjoyed conversing with her, and was please she remembered me. Like the Cindy Jordan song; what a voice.

  7.'ve got me curious now! I just had a friend who said that she was reading this and I put it on my list....behind three others at the moment....I may have to move it up!! Loved your thoughts about this invisibility thing....what is it that causes some to be more invisible than others I wonder? I don't think that I was invisible...but I had my own group that I hung out with...but when talking with some of my old classmates, it's funny how we have to pause to remember some of the people in our class. i don't know if it is that they were invisible, or that we just didn't hang out with the same people....what I wonder is if those that we don't remember remember us?? I guess that is something to ponder on a Sunday evening!!

  8. Cuban, I know just what you mean. There are always people who never stand out at school but later on in life if we get that chance to meet them again they shine and we wonder how we never noticed before. Sometimes we ARE those people and it's everyone else noticing.

    I'm only in close contact with one person I knew at school, most of the others I haven't seen in years. I'm not on Facebook either which is probably why I've got no idea what any of them are up to. This post has come closer in tempting me to join Facebook than anything else so far.

    That clip was stunning, I love Irish music and singing.


  9. What a beautiful, beautiful post, from start to finish. I read Middlemarch long ago and adored it -- even that one sentence that you quoted is something to marvel at in how the words are strung together, no? It's funny, but I've been nostalgic of late, going through old photo albums of my high school and college years, and I was having many of the same thoughts. What strikes me as well is how little we actually do change and how easily we can remember "those days," how we were, who we are.

    Thank you, Cuban, for such a deep and thoughtful, lovely post.

  10. Many thanks for your comments.

    Isn't that clip a work of wonder? I've actually singed up to their youtube channel. Everytime I hear that song, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention.

    Greetings from London.

  11. I've never been able to finish reading Middlemarch. Not one of my favourite classics!

    I loved your story about your classmate. She reminds me of my husband. He is a quiet, shy and still man, who just gets on with his life...and yet he has been instrumental in implementing behind-the-scenes tax law changes in South Africa. I think it's because, as my Oupa (grandfather) said: "When a quiet man speaks, the heavens weep." If only the rest of us could learn to be still enough to listen.

    A great post, Cuban! :)

  12. Lovely piece of reminiscence. I've had similar flashes of memories from my past, too, where you remember someone whom you never tried hard enough to know back then, but now you realize that s/he may have turned into a good friend if only you'd given them a chance.

    Capacity for reflection and acknowledgement of missed opportunities, I believe, are the some of the more positive blessings of growing older :).

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  14. I simply love this post! It's so well that you've made us'll think back about our school years. I know what you mean. Maybe we've missed getting in touch with so many interesting people because of invisibility. As for me, I wanted to be like that girl, invisible, but for some reason I stood out some how. Maybe it was my temper or my personality.
    You've made me remember what my literature professor and mentor said to me. "You're like a violet, spiritual and practical". He also meant I was one of those flowers that not many notice.
    I even thought I was invisible for my students, but I've learnt that I was not.
    As for you, I don't think you were invisible for anybody at the university, not for me at least. Happy week.



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