17 November 2022
50 years on.
By Lynda Goetz
A few weeks ago, I went to a school reunion. This may not sound like anything out of the ordinary. For all I know, readers may attend such events on a regular basis, although I suspect not. You, like many others, may have thankfully put those school years behind you with no intention of ever seeing any of your contemporaries again. You may, of course, have kept up with one or two ‘best’ friends, those who went on to the same university, or those who stayed local. Others may simply have been banished and vanished into the mists of time. Possibly, you made the mistake, as I once did, of going to a ten-year reunion at your old university, only to find that at that stage no-one you wanted to see had any interest in such an event. They were all far too busy getting on with their interesting lives. You did briefly wonder, though, why all those geriatric 70-year-olds, there for the 50-year reunion, were visiting their alma mater.
Now, about to enter my eighth decade, I think I understand at least one of the reasons – curiosity. It may be a last chance to see the place as it is now and to find out what those people you spent your formative years with DID with their lives. Too late now, for most of us at least, for grandiose projects and ideas (although that’s not to say I won’t write that novel, hold that art exhibition, renovate that old barn or move to France, Bali or Australia). Whatever it was we all hoped to achieve, may or may not have happened. Someone may have achieved fame; some, prosperity or professional success; others, the family and security which was all they ever craved: but it would be interesting to find out, wouldn’t it?
Well, of course, there are limitations as to what you will find out. As one of our number pointed out (while we tucked into pub sandwiches after our visit to the old school, very hospitably hosted by the current head, her deputy and some rather bemused Fifth Formers or Year 11s as they are now called), we were a ‘self-selecting group’. Out of a year group of 90 (three forms of 30, this was a state grammar school, not a fee-paying school with small class sizes), 40 of us turned up. It was known that a few had died, and they were remembered, but what of the other 40 or more?
For those of us who did attend, the event was a few years in the organising. This was not an alumni occasion arranged by the school (although perhaps state schools are missing a trick there?), but something which grew out of the Facebook group set up by someone who, I think, initially found an old school photo in their loft. Not much communication resulted, although there were some comments on pupils who were recognised and named. The group expanded a little. Then, in 2019, someone suggested a reunion the following year. This would actually have been a year early for a 50-year reunion, but it coincided with some event in the locality which would have added interest. Both were, of course, scuppered by Covid. At the beginning of this year, one of the group’s members suggested this October, coinciding with his, and a few others’ 70th birthdays. He volunteered to organise.
The occasion was generally agreed to have been successful, memorable and even enjoyable. Because it was arranged well in advance, our organiser got the school and even the local press on board. The majority of the group now being retired meant that even a few who lived abroad were able combine it with a visit to friends or family and join in. Those of us who had remained or retired in the UK were scattered. People came from Cumbria and Cornwall, Bristol and Birmingham. A few, although not many, had stayed relatively local. Some had retained links with the area as parents had stayed. My own links had been severed around fifteen years ago when my parents had moved away. However, even before that, neither the town itself, and certainly not the school, had formed any part of my return visits.
Visiting the school after 50+ years was strange. It was weirdly different and yet oddly familiar. A lot had changed and yet little had changed. The corridors may now be painted stark white as opposed to institutional pale green (as I at least remember them); there may be a one way system in place owing to the vastly increased numbers of pupils (240 intake each year as opposed to 90); the classrooms allocated to different subjects; the playing fields reduced in size because of the new language block and the music and drama block which have been built on them; the senior prefects’ room may now be the deputy head’s office and the school gates have key codes on them, but essentially there is something peculiarly immutable about the feel of the place.
As for the former pupils, it was an unexpected pleasure to find out what they had done with their lives. It turned out that the class of ’64 (at least those who were prepared to show up and hope to be recognised) had all been modestly, and in some cases more than modestly, successful. There was, inter alia, a well-known BBC producer, at least four doctors, a couple of lawyers, an architect, a banker who had used his languages, including Russian, to work all over Eastern Europe, an academic who had a mathematical theorem named after him, several nurses, some teachers and more than one IT specialist. Some had been and remained happily married; others had had more than one attempt at settling down. All seemed reconciled and even happy with how their lives had panned out, even where in some cases this had included tragic events.
Trying to recognise people was interesting. There were those who were instantly recognisable, even where they had not been particular friends or part of the same ‘crowd’; those with distinctive faces, or more often mannerisms which remained the same decades later; others whom it was hard to place or to see in them the eleven- or 17-year-olds from the photos. In some cases, having been given the name, the memories came back; the guy who had worked for the Transport Museum: of course, he was the boy who had been fascinated by buses! The pretty lady with abundant grey hair, glasses and a lovely smile; she was the quiet fine-featured blonde girl in one of the other sets with whom we didn’t really share any classes. The bubbly man with a large, bushy grey beard was likewise attached to a name I recalled, but a face I had forgotten.
We agreed that most of us had been lucky. Concern was expressed in some cases for the futures of children and grandchildren in a world which is more overcrowded and competitive than it was when we started out. (As was announced only this week, the world population has now reached eight billion – it was just three billion in 1960). There was a suggestion from one of the doctors about finding a way to benefit or contribute to the school, possibly by funding a scholarship or bursary. Perhaps state schools should, as private schools and universities have been doing for some time now, start to cultivate and keep proper records of their alumni and consider ways in which they might, in recognition of the education they have received, be prepared to give back. Social media might enable us to work on this one – as well as arrange our next get together.