So we said goodbye to Ted Wragg this week, in a memorial with a host of memories and praises. And the education world mourns too for Peter Smith of the ATL; again there will be stories and tributes. For all the personal sadness around such departures there is always a curious satisfaction in looking back at someone's life of achievement, noting the twists and turns and battles and victories and defeats, and observing the qualities which make people tick. Obituaries are riveting reading, and grow all the more so when the subject is older. You can make up a portrait for any half-century from its obituaries: a sort of Aubrey's Brief Lives of work, play, faults and shining moments. Pleasingly, Radio 4 has just instituted its first weekly topical obit programme.
So perhaps it is time for teachers who want to enthuse a class to pick up, and pass on, a game that I invented with a few equally bored friends, when we were in our O-level year at school. We needed it. Life at that stage looked like nothing but an endless hurdle-race over tedious obstacles built for us by a faceless system: 10 exams at 16, three or four more at 18, university entrance, university Mods, Finals, job interviews... it was enough to make you stick your head in a bucket and howl. So to pass the time we set ourselves the task of writing imaginary obituaries for the year 2025 or later, recording our supposed lifetime achievements and incidents.
It was curiously gripping. I suppose writing about yourself always is, and this had the added quality of being pure fantasy.
Some took it terribly seriously, and gave themselves copybook careers in their chosen field (usually adding a Nobel Prize or two and a coy fleeting mention of a long happy marriage and numerous gifted children). Most of us, however, preferred to abandon realism and turn our future lives into picaresquely varied 18th-century novels. Some wrote in their future prison sentences, dramatic conversions to unheard-of religions, multiple affairs with film stars and (rather anachronistically) transportation to Australia.
Mine concentrated on variety, and on the comforting pretence that I might develop hitherto invisible gifts. I seem to remember it beginning "When her achievements in the fields of agriculture, orchestral composition, catwalk modelling and astrophysics are remembered, it seems ironic that Miss Purves will be remembered primarily as the century's leading military historian..."
It then went on to detail a life spent, among other things, in touring the West of Ireland in a song-and-dance act called Slap N Tickle, navigating a canoe up the Amazon, and designing the largest stained-glass rose window in the world while revolutionising the world of racehorse-breeding with the introduction of a six-legged thoroughbred. All very silly, very 16-year-old, and to be quite frank, probably the sort of thing that only gets produced in a boarding school in midwinter when there's a TV ban in force.
But I remember how liberating and stimulating it felt, and how encouraging to think how many years stretched ahead, how many twists and turns there might be, and how many things I had not even tried and failed at yet. I hated history, as it happened, especially the military sort; I was thrown out of the O-level art class for hopelessness, couldn't read music, was unlikely to be a model owing to the pudge and the spots, and did not understand physics. So there was a kind of vengeful satisfaction in making up a life for myself in which I wiped the eye of all the science, music, history and art teachers who saw nothing in me now, while at the same time sashaying along catwalks and doing high kicks in Ballydehob.
So there you are. An essay subject, to be set at annual intervals with a prize for the most far-fetched and ambitious life story laid out by a disaffected, over-tested, over-anxious teenager. Insist that it is written in proper obit style, rather formally. It'll cheer them up no end, poor little toads. If they insist they can then rewrite it in the style of Heat magazine interviewing their 60-year-old selves.
And meanwhile, at your own desk, doodle your own obit. "After 20 years of uneventful but dutiful teaching, it was perhaps surprising that Noreen McGarrigle should have been spotted by Brad Pitt while on holiday in Miami, and whisked into a world of celebrity and decadence. Her 15 films remain classics of the thriller noir genre, particularly the much-discussed fishnet stocking scene in The Unfaithful, but when she finally walked off the set amid international dismay, perhaps the greatest surprise of all was ..."
Fill in the blank yourself. Go on. You know you want to.