A final affair by the poolside;Summer Diary

14th August 1998 at 01:00
If there is such a thing as the mid-life crisis then mine started at 9.45am on September 5, 1991, and lasted about five minutes. It was at the end of a swimming lesson. The class had left the pool area to get dressed and I was preparing for the next session. I was in my room adjacent to the pool when I heard the new class arrive while the first group were still changing.

To the best of my knowledge I've never had a panic attack, but this must have been the nearest I got to it. I shook uncontrollably and told my team teaching colleague there was no way I could face up to taking that period. I must have looked and sounded ridiculous, but I couldn't care less.

She handled the situation very well, which later made me think that the warning signs must have been in evidence for some time without my knowing, and she suggested that I stay in my room while she took the class. I followed her advice for all of two minutes, then with a "get a grip of yourself Cairney" self-admonition I went back to the pool and completed the lesson. That was it. Over.

It was a very melodramatic conclusion to a two or three-month period of professional reassessment, during which I had persuaded myself that I had had enough of teaching and wanted out. The poolside catharsis was the end of it, and what I called my "appetite" for the job returned. Eventually other forces overcame the appetite and I took voluntary severance last year.

All this came back to me recently when I received information from someone who had been in my class of '62 at the Scottish School of Physical Education at Jordanhill. He had gone to the bother of having a trawl of all those in the year group to find out how they had got on in the intervening 36 years.

Since leaving the SSPE I had never felt any inclination to attend a class reunion, because, frankly, towards the end of my time there I couldn't wait to see the back of the place, but I had no objection to taking part in this retrospective exercise and was keen to see if any of my compatriots had acquired the glittering prizes that had passed me by.

My first response was to count those who had taken early retirement. While doing this I noticed that some had taken the ultimate retirement route. Four of my former classmates hadn't made it to 1998. Among the "deceased" category, one had drowned in Hong Kong when his car went into the sea while returning from playing golf. Another, one of four African students, died when he mistook a bottle of weedkiller for lemonade . . . yes, and I couldn't resist a slight smile either.

On an even sadder note, if that's possible, one of the star football players in the year was now confined to a wheelchair after having contracted multiple sclerosis during the mid-eighties, shortly after his wife died.

On the brighter side another footballer of consequence had achieved national recognition by becoming coach of the national soccer team (we never called it soccer in the sixties). Yes, Craig Brown no less.

I suppose I could have counted Craig as one of the retirers from teaching, but then I remembered that he never really taught, well certainly not PE, and him selected as student of the year as well.

Some of the cohort had made a very early exit from the profession and taken up other careers, including "building company" and "medical rep" (he was the one who injured his back playing rugby on the opening day of the three-year course and spent the whole of the first year with his torso encased in plaster).

Eighteen of the 36 had retired early, either from mainstream teaching or related spheres such as community education and leisure and recreation, and six are still in harness. Only four of these are teaching PE. Of the others, one is an assistant headteacher and the other a deputy head. This is probably the most glittering prize of all, unless a headteacher in a Canadian primary school beats it.

Perhaps they are both outdazzled by another of our African students who retired as a lieutenant-colonel and special assistant to the head of state for military sports in Ghana. To think that this was the man who, when he swam at all, spent 90 per cent of the time underwater.

By my calculations 36 years times 36 students equals 1,276 years. Even allowing for a reduction for those who didn't make it this far, it's still a whole lot of lifetimes, a whole lot of happiness and sorrow and whole lot of emotions in between.

John Cairney

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