To most of us children, the flame of the forest tree in bloom was synonymous with the advent of vacation time, after a long year at school and a much feared and hated October final examination.
That tree would start to flower by mid-October when students are busy sitting or revising for the ultimate test of the year; it would thus go unnoticed to most of us. By the time the torture was over the tree would be in full bloom to welcome us. However, as November went by and we gracefully and peacefully slided into the month of months — December — the flamboyant became the most majestic of all trees. The satchel (with contents) had carelessly been flung into a far-off corner of the room, and there begun the carefree life, with school and teachers pushed into oblivion. We children had come to associate this blooming tree with the coming of end-of-year festivities: it was fun time.
However, I do remember when the flamboyant had assumed a different meaning when I was a student of Gustave Colin (now Vele Govinden) Government school in the 1950s. I remember that in the northern part of the compound of the school, which had two parallel blocks of classes facing each other in the east-west direction some 100 feet apart, was a beautiful flamboyant tree, some 50 feet from the road; it stood majestically, still and alone, leafy and green. Because resumption of the classes was in January the prime blossom would be drawing to a close; yet it would still bear some patches of red and orange. I and my friends coming back to school would feel so different from the last time we had left last October.
We had that definite sensation of a déjà vu – of the hard year ahead, of inescapable daily classes for months to come — and the possibility of facing a new stern teacher, in a new classroom with new books. So on that very first day at school I would come early; some of my old buddies would join me to sit in the concrete shallow canal bordering the wall on the northern side of the compound. We were young, may be 9 years old; we would sit there and talk; what those conversations were all about would remain a mystery, all forgotten to posterity. Facing the south we cast furtive glances to those two cold, austere blocks of classes and the flame of the forest tree, still doing its best to hint to us that vacation flowers were over and it was time to call it a day.
However, I remember very well that now and then my friends and myself would go round below the tree, on the ground still soaked with recent summer rain. We looked for the reddish stamens of the flowers. They had a small tender anther attached to a long slender filament; so we would try to hook our anther with that of the opposite party and we pull; the one who had his anther broken lost the game. As children we tried as best as possible to humour ourselves into believing that we could prolong our New Year festival mood for a few more minutes and that class resumption was not for immediate; but deep inside us we knew that we were playing our last hand.
But for me, what I remembered most was that sultry atmosphere, though it was early morning. It was January and summer, and it used to rain a lot at the beginning of the year. The air was laden with humidity, a sad setup for studies to resume. As I sat there with my friends I contemplated the compound and the tree, with spots of orange and red flowers still peeping in between; and below the tree had gathered many apprehensive parents. They had brought their latest, youngest kids to join the institution for the first time.
There were tots around, all stressed, many weeping, or shedding some timid tears while whimpering and clinging to mother or father below that flamboyant tree. Perhaps the poor kids had heard about the hard time they would face in the new institution — full of severe big “ogres” ready to eat them alive! They would have to fare by themselves, far away from parents.
That flamboyant tree had witnessed many a miserable child and unhappy parent in those warm, sultry January mornings. The ground below, still strewn with a carpet of orange and red petals went unnoticed; it was no comfort or joy to anyone.
It was that picture of that tree, with fading flowers, with rain soaked tarred ground, with miserable small kids clinging desperately to relatives’ dress, trousers or hands that had impressed me most at the beginning of every academic year.
At that time, perhaps I felt sad for those tots; maybe it was more a sort of self-pity as I recalled my own case when I had to leave home and mother to join government school. I was so attached to home that going away everyday was a mild torture for me. Now as I sat in the canal near that northern wall and watched all that drama unfolding itself under that flamboyant I felt emotionally involved, sad and sorry for the newcomers. And that rain-soaked tree was no solace; it had born witness to that nostalgia for the just bygone jolly New Year, the anxiety of joining into a new standard with a cane bearing teacher, and the pity for the newcomers. We were emotional kids, we had come to look on January as a real, most feared era of our academic year.
Decades later as I passed by the school I would stop in front of the gates of the Alma Mater — and look at that tree and tried to recall my own bygone childhood. Then one good day as I stopped over once again, the tree was no more: it had been brought down. Being old it would have been a risk to the school children. The compound may look more modern and better cared for, but it was flamboyant- less. And I would ponder — where are those generations of weeping children? How are they faring in life? What has happened to them? For me the absence of that childhood flamboyant, which had seen so many generations of bygone school buddies, was reminiscent of the ephemeral and evanescent nature of human life.
Nowadays, it seems, most kids join primary school with glee and laughter. Times have changed for the better, so we are told…