An old boy who visits Loyola School is always greeted with affection, whatever his station in life.
On arrival, you are glided into small talk by a priest or staff member who recognises you. You ask about the teachers of yesteryears, and comment on how the school looks different. In turn, you are quizzed about your whereabouts, whatabouts, and family. If you have chosen to visit alone, you are asked why you did not bring your wife, or classmates. The school seems to always have space for more of us.
I wish I could say the same for the colleges and universities I attended. A few years after we left Mar Ivanios College, a friend and I visited the place. The nice folks there could not grasp why we would care to visit our teachers. The security guards stopped us at the gate. A teacher-nun walked by, acknowledged us with a smile, and requested that she be spared from recommending our entry into the campus. A phone call to the Principal did not help either. It was probably an off-key day at Mar Ivanios. But such a situation is unthinkable at Loyola, even for a day.
Why do old boys visit Loyola? In the early 2000’s, I saw old students regularly dropping in to play football in the evening, on their way home from the nearby engineering college. During annual events like the basketball tournament, the School Day, and the inter-school youth festival, Loyola is invaded by hordes of alumni. Official batch reunions are usually held on holidays or weekends. On a weekday, if you find an old boy on campus, he is most likely handing over wedding invites to teachers personally. I could go on.
Perhaps it is easier to turn the question around and ask “Why not visit Loyola?”. After all, who wouldn’t drop in at a place he is so welcome to bathe in nostalgia?
Loyola is warm to those who visit her, and less kind to those afar. Do not expect an active Loyola fan page on Facebook. Or an up-to-date website on the internet. Loyola wants old boys to pamper her, as much as she pampers them. Hospitality begins, and ends at home.
Yet, visiting one’s school is not always a pleasant experience. The sadness too springs from the same deep well of nostalgia. For our images of the school are frozen from the past. On entering now, the tree-lined avenue and the fresh coat of paint lend the school a youthful appearance that syncs with our evergreen memories. But minutes later, face-to-face with more snapshots — a fenced playground, vanished woods, ugly buildings — our eye readily absorbs, but our mind refuses to accept. It takes a few hours to sink in: like us, the school has moved forward in life.
In that mood of reflection and appreciation, let us seek to uncover the secret of the school’s hospitality. What do we really mean when we say that the school welcomes us? Peel off the abstract layer. Look behind the buildings, and amidst the trees. Fr M.M. Thomas. Joseph Uncle. The priest, the teacher, the handyman, the bus conductor, and the gardener — they who continue to serve. Our visits to the school would be poorer without these people who link our past to the school’s present.
As the school grows bigger and older, and familiar faces fade, we will perhaps rely on abstract symbols like the school song, or House colours, to connect. But how will the school connect to us?