The longest day;Talkback;Opinion

6th August 1999 at 01:00
A school reunion stirs unhappy memories for Jean Alder

They came in droves on a beautiful sunny afternoon, pouring down the school drive. Some came in cheerful groups, others more tentatively and alone. Those from further afield had clearly planned and looked forward to this for months. Others, local and more nonchalant, had just popped in on the off-chance. The off-chance of what? I looked into their faces to try to see what they were expecting. They kept looking in wonder at the buildings as if they had some secrets to reveal, but were strangely disappointed by what they saw. "It's too small," said one.

Then came the screeches of delight at unexpected recognition, giggles behind hands and shudders of horror. It had all been organised, of course. Pupils from the 70s and before were to go in the gym, the sports hall was for those from the 80s and the main hall for the rest. But there was always a touch of anarchy about the school, and in true Turnpike tradition all instructions were ignored. It took most people most of the afternoon to wander away from the front entrance.

There were more people present than on our current roll. I wondered about their experiences of the school. Most of them seemed to have genuinely happy memories of their time here, but my heart went out to the woman in a small knot of friends. She looked interesting: shaven head with lots of rings and studs about her face. But she had lost the animated look she arrived with. She had obviously expected that her teachers would recognise and remember her, and had not anticipated the polite but blank looks or the nervous smile as she prompted them with her name, form, nickname. The vulnerability of adolescence flickered in her eyes set in an adult face as she struggled to come to terms with a reassessment of her memories of her time at school.

As the hot afternoon wore on, there were increasingly honest appraisals of school days, and some men spoke with real and immediate bitterness of their experiences at the hands of teachers and friends.

This huge mass of people showed no sign of moving as the afternoon drifted into early evening, the air freshened by a thundery shower. They seemed mesmerised, held by invisible threads made stronger by the retelling of each reminiscence. The whoops and squeals had subsided into a low hubbub and small groups of people began to wander the site, peering into classrooms and staring out over the playing field. Eventually they began to float away. They left not as they had arrived, but slowly and quietly.

Gradually the buildings fell silent and I wandered the corridors, straightening the pictures and closing windows. I'm used to the school at the end of the day, empty of pupils and staff, and I know its song.

But tonight the song was different - strident and compelling in its insistence to be heard. I walked the corridors as one walks to calm a baby and slowly a peace descended. I wandered out into the cool evening air to the car park. The bunting was down and litter cleared away, but the intensity of the emotions stirred during the afternoon cast an uneasy shadow over the school.

I was glad that Monday morning was not far away and that our pupils would, in their childish innocence, drive away any ghosts left lurking in the corners. I am even more conscious than ever that I am helping to create memories for our pupils now and I just hope I've got it right.

Jean Alder is head of the Turnpike School, Newbury, Berkshire

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