I want to go in but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m standing in front of my old primary school in Pressbaum, a country town not far from Vienna. I feel foolish standing at the threshold and when someone finally comes out, I sneak in and take a few steps into the hallway. The thought of announcing myself to the office fills me with dread. What would I say? And who would care that I attended this school in the late 60’s and have traveled back to see it? I clearly hadn’t thought this through. What did I expect when I planned this pilgrimage? I take a photo and quickly leave before anyone can ask me what I am doing loitering in the corridor.
At the bus stop, I check the time table. I am the only one waiting until a boy, perhaps nine or ten, comes along and greets me. He too is waiting for the bus and without any hesitation he starts to chat. The boy tells me all about his school and how much he loves the place. I reveal that a long time ago, I too used to go to this school. I don’t go into details and he doesn’t ask. He is happy with his own chatter. ‘The music room is now a classroom,’ he tells me, ‘And the climbing wall had to be dismantled and rebuilt. Nothing stays the same,’ he says, shaking his head knowingly. I suppress my smile and encourage him to keep talking.
Clearly, he takes me for a local. At times he speaks so fast, I have to ask him to repeat what he says. This doesn’t worry him, and he continues to tell me about his life in broad strokes. He tells me that next year he will have to leave this school and he doesn’t want to go. ‘All the teachers here are nice and the school up the road is huge.’ I get the feeling he doesn’t cope well with change. Then, apropos nothing, he asks whether I’m not too hot in my leather jacket. ‘I am,’ I say and put the jacket in my lap.
The boy returns to his subject, telling me about all the changes he has seen at the school since he started there. I have an urge to tell him my story but don’t want to burden him with what happened long ago. There are so many things I could say, but I don’t. I remember visiting Sacre Coeur, the school he will attend next year. It was going to be my school too. As it turned out, a much bigger move awaited me. Australia, 16,000km away, was unfathomable and there was nothing that could prepare me for it.
As he speaks, I think about my old school I had come to visit. I can’t quite answer why I couldn’t bring myself to announce my presence. Maybe it was that I was searching for traces of that young girl I had left behind but realised that they had long been erased. So instead, I took the obligatory photograph; two dimensional and lifeless. I had made my pilgrimage and was now ready to leave. Then, a chance encounter with this boy. In him, I recognise the innocence of a bygone era. And as he speaks, I finally get a glimpse of her – that young girl of long ago, reflected in his clear, bright eyes.