I have never forgotten the parting comment our much admired history teacher made to us, a group of 18 year old girls, at the end of our final A-level lesson in 1996. After years of recounting tales of revolting (i.e. revolutionary) peasants, vain Kings, royal imposters, gruesome battles, Thomas Cromwell, the Hapsburgs and Tsar Nicholas, I thought she would tell us to go out and conquer the world. We may be women, but couldn’t we write ourselves into the male-dominated history books? Apparently not. “Go forth and procreate”, she said. I did my best not to vomit on my extended essay on Cardinal Wolsey. Intensive lessons, hours of exam preparation, future universities and careers mapped out for us, and this was her advice? At the time she said that we were the sort of girls who should procreate, so I suppose it was a compliment.
But how much, even back then, did we put our personal ambitions ahead of our professional ones? Looking back at our 1996 Leavers’ book on the way to the 20 year school reunion a few weeks ago, we weren’t all the radical, feminist bunch that my idealised recollections thought we were. About a third of the year put that their long term ambition was to ‘meet a rich man’ or simply to get married. Why? It was an all girls’ school: were we man-deprived to such an extent that this was our main goal in life? I bet none of the pupils at the boys’ school would have put that it was their ambition to marry a rich woman. Why weren’t our horizons’ broader? Or maybe we were just being honest – who doesn’t want to marry a rich man? It’s possible that I’m looking at 1996 with 2016 eyes and I wonder what the 2016 Leavers’ year book will look like and hope they’ll all want to be engineers, inventors and foreign correspondents, even if they do have to give it up (for a while) in their 30s to bear children.
So there we were, 30 of the class of 1996, back 2 skool for the afternoon. Two decades seemed like a long time and it made me feel old until I saw that the class of 1966 were also invited. Some people I hadn’t seen since school, others since the 10 year reunion, back when social networking barely existed and those who wanted to could easily hide from their old classmates. In 2006, most of us weren’t married and only one person brought a baby, who we cooed over and then went back to the pre-paid white wine. I believe that it was a success since I can’t remember much about the event, which is a mark of a good time in your 20s. 10 years on, life was different for most of us.
The school was different too, more hi-tech and modern, and they’d even done away with the now Dickensian-sounding blackboards and actual chalk. How are you meant to get anyone’s attention in a classroom if you can’t screech your fingernail down a blackboard? While the school was looking forward, for us, exploring the empty classrooms on a Saturday afternoon, it was easy to look back and remember when we sat at the individual wooden desks and hid bottles of hard liquor under the lids (as a class of naïve rather than wildly rebellious 12 year olds); when we started an impromptu rap group (the songs are better left unrecalled); when we formed a sit-down protest on the netball court to stop it being turned into a staff car park (it became a car park and still is). What I hadn’t expected was the number of things that hadn’t changed: the chemistry lab wooden benches and the D-handle suction doors; the smooth black floor of the drama studio; the rubbish bins by the entrance (yup, still there, although to be fair it’s no longer the main entrance); the disinfectant smell of the locker room loos; the window seats where we clustered in our usual huddles.
So what else hadn’t changed? First of all, pretty much everyone looked exactly the same and some people I hadn’t seen since we were at school. I reject the idea that men age better than women; in fact I think it can be the other way round, although I appreciate that women have more aides to youthfulness at their disposal (make-up, a salon hair dye, spanx, hot wax…). I would go so far as to say that we’d improved with age, and I’m not just talking about no longer spraying Sun-In on our hair or lathering Clearasil on our distressed skin. It was more that there was a collective feeling of genuine confidence in the room and it had to do with the fact that (funnily enough), after 20 years we’d all moved on. I didn’t arrive at the lunch in abject misery because a friend didn’t sit next to me in double-Biology. I wasn’t plunged into the depths of despair because people were passing notes which didn’t include me (handwritten notes! So 1990s). Gone are the days of writing lists of our friends in order of preference, depending on our mood. In all honesty there was none of the competitiveness that everyone seems to associate with school reunions. It may be disingenuous but I don’t think we were comparing notes on who had married the richest man to see who had managed to fulfil their teenage ambitions. We’d all formed our own lives: we had travelled, lived in other countries, we had (or had had) careers, we had hobbies that weren’t just netball and boys, and perhaps inevitably, most of us had followed the history teacher’s advice, even if we hadn’t acted on it straight away.
There was coffee, a talk about the school, lunch, a tour, more coffee and then off to the pub for the evening. There was nothing remarkable about it and yet somehow there was. It was more than just an exercise in nostalgia. No-one had been forced to attend the reunion and yet I am sure that there were a lot of mixed feeling about going back. For some, it had taken courage – either Dutch courage or, in one friend’s case – a drive around a roundabout a few times until she decided to take the exit that led to the school rather than the one that led back home. But what about the people who didn’t come back? Some would have rather eaten their own arm than come to the reunion and, in hindsight, I understand why. Let’s face it, it was a girls’ school and we weren’t always nice to each other, to put it mildly. And I was one of the ones who on the whole really liked being at school and I am sure I did my share of the not-being-nice as well.
At the time what you don’t know is that the cliques don’t matter but that they’ll always exist (whether you’re at school or at the school gate), that when you’re older you’ll crave individuality rather than be desperate to have the right basket bag, doc martins or denim jacket. You don’t realise that school days are the best days for some and the worst days for others, that there is a whole lot of life beyond it and sometimes you’ll be up, sometimes you’ll be down, but what you won’t know is when or why and the best you can do is just to make your own path and be decent to people who are having a hard time. I’d love to bottle up the feeling I had at the reunion and hand it to my first procreation, my daughter who is starting school in September, so that she can take a swig of understanding when she needs to over the next fourteen years. Clearly this won’t happen: instead, the reasons why she listens to me now will decline as she grows and by the time it matters she probably won’t be interested in a word I say. But hey, she’ll learn at her own pace and that’s all we can hope for.
I would do well to listen to my own 18-year old self’s parting comment in the Leaver’s Book: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught” (Oscar Wilde, obvs)