School reunion draws some surprise guests to the blackboard…
In a small town like ours, it is certainly not unlikely that you will run into people you went to school with from time to time. The majority of residents will have attended one of three schools that have historically monopolised the district’s education system: Flinchley Academy (previously Comprehensive), St Joan’s Catholic School and Lethmachen Grammar. The latter traditionally accepted any child who passed their 11+ yet, in part due to its impressive academic reputation, over the last couple of decades The Grammar has evolved into an elite establishment streaming off the most promising pupils from the local primary schools. Competition for places has become so fierce that more affluent families are investing in second properties to ensure that they fall within the catchment area. Aside from impacting on the local housing market, this has also resulted in children from wealthier backgrounds increasingly dominating the school’s annual intake. Yet, even in the years prior to these developments, Lethmachen Grammar had something of a haughty reputation. A number of formal pupils contribute to this site, yet few seem to have fond memories of the place they often refer to as ‘The Grimmer’. With hindsight they believe they were led astray at an impressionable age; by teaching staff who encouraged them to look down upon the other schools in the area and to feel superior to other people in general. This attitude was tacitly cultivated through an endless parade of assemblies and ceremonies celebrating the history of the school and the achievements of its alumni (which amounts to building a few bridges and some minor contributions to Conservative Party politics). It is one of these ex-Grammar boys who has supplied the following report:
‘I first heard about the reunion on Facebook and I confess my immediate reaction was: what’s the point? What are we trying to prove? Although I still keep in touch with a handful of people from The Grammar, conversation rarely turned to our school days. Nobody I knew would be interested in attending a reunion, for them that whole era now seemed either unimportant or unpleasant or both. So if I did choose to attend I would have to go alone. What we would talk about after all this time? What could we possibly have in common? There were probably good reasons why I had lost touch with all those people; it was perfectly natural to move on. Yet Jason Nock was so persistent that in the end it felt discourteous to refuse. Not that he ever contacted me directly with a personal message or invitation; he simply requested that I like the page that he had set up for the occasion. To be honest I was surprised he even remembered my name. We had never been close friends. He was always the centre of attention, the life and soul of the party, whilst I loitered awkwardly in the wings. I am sure you know the type. It was as if Jason had been born with the awareness that this was his time to flourish, an inherent knowledge of how to manipulate the school environment to his advantage. These are skills that it takes people like me years to develop, and by then it is too late. Yet Jason slipped so comfortably into the role: admired by the boys, attractive to the girls and maintaining a good rapport with the relevant teachers. Of course he was a natural at sports, captaining a number of teams. Yet his academic work was also of an accomplished standard, and if his grades had been any higher they may have compromised his all around appeal. As to the future, Jason’s prospects were rosy; he seemed to have the potential to achieve anything. To think that was all thirty years ago now.
On visiting Jason’s Facebook page, I could not resist the temptation to take a quick browse. A date had now been set for the reunion (aptly, a school night); further details to follow. A healthy number of people, presumably notified before I was, had already signed up and confirmed their attendance. This included a few teachers, who had been lured out of retirement for one last performance in front of the class. As I scanned the list of names one or two inspired a flicker of recognition, half formed images of adolescent faces. Yet the majority were now forgotten, unfamiliar to me, and attempting to scrutinize the photographs of them as prosperous adults offered few additional clues. As an introduction, Jason had helpfully provided a paragraph of text about himself and what he had been up to, whether out of pride or a need to prompt our recollections it was not clear. Snapshots of his wife and children; Jason himself holding aloft various amateur sportsman trophies, looking a little younger than in recent family pictures. All in all, he seemed to be doing alright for himself: Executive Director at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals, a small but successful local company. Perhaps he had not quite achieved the lofty heights his trajectory at school had promised, but I was sure he was earning considerably more than me.
Somehow I became convinced that my attendance at the reunion was inevitable, predestined. Possibly I was swayed by the repeated notifications, status updates and latest additions that stoked the on-line air of anticipation. If you cast your mind back, last Thursday was a dark, dismal evening. The building had changed so much since my day that I was through the gates and into the ultra-modern entrance foyer without even the slightest twinge of nostalgia. No doubt due to Jason’s tireless efforts, a significant crowd had already assembled in the main hall, which was brightly lit and had recently been refurbished. Soon it was just like old times and we listened to the current headmaster’s introductory speech in respectful silence. The gathering was reminded us of the honours that Lethmachen Grammar had bestowed upon us; like the emblem of the lion on every blazer pocket, so we were the lions of learning. Fortunately Mr Peel, the deputy head master during our day, succeeded in lightening the mood when he took to the stage. The crowd particularly seemed to enjoy the superficially barbed, yet deeply affectionate remarks ‘Peeley’ directed at his old ‘nemesis’ Jason Nock. With the brief speeches concluded, and a generous buffet wheeled out, I braced myself for the true impetus of the evening. It was time to impress people who belonged to my past. Feeling a little isolated and self conscious, I gravitated once more to the fringes of Jason’s circle. He was charismatically holding court in the centre of the hall.
At first it was all in good humour. Jason, flanked by a couple of cronies he had obviously maintained contact with, regaled us with exaggerated tales of his youthful escapades. What surprised me was the depth of detail with which he could recall the staff members he had plagued. Jason not only knew their names and the subjects they taught, but could also describe their appearance intricately and mimic their mannerisms perfectly. It was as if they were back in the room. Or we were back in theirs. There was a certain supply teacher that Jason had been especially fond of, even though she had only been with us for one term. Who could forget Miss Linden, he demanded? Who, but me? Next the results and controversies of every sporting event were recounted, whether inter-house or opposing rival schools. Many of those present were probably drinking too much, no longer knowing their limits, simply glad to be free of the kids for the night. Yet Jason seemed to be slugging back the bubbly particularly recklessly, as if he needed the courage to fuel his stories, to keep people listening. Although those about me continued to be entertained, I noticed an embittered, sour tone beginning to creep into his reminiscences. Before long the collective memories had been dispensed with altogether. No more awkward romances, no more fashion disasters, no more cancelled parties. Instead Jason was demonstrating his photographic memory of the old school registers. Swaying unsteadily on a chair he had called for silence in the bustling hall. Then, in a slurred, bullish voice he announced the name of every pupil who had not attended, following each name with a drawn out laugh of derision. Members of the crowd began to shift uneasily. This was no joke; it was evident he genuinely despised all those who had ignored the invitation. It was as if each had personally offended him with their evasiveness, their disinterest, their soft resistance. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Jason, suddenly looking a little queasy, was obliged to depart the hall in search of the toilets. Someone threw on a compilation of well known chart hits from ‘our era’. When Jason returned he still looked ill. I have no idea why he chose to speak to me that night. As I said we were never close. However, this is the story he told me:
‘‘I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark…but as soon as you’re out those doors there isn’t a light anywhere. Of course I knew where I was supposed to be going, only things don’t look the same these days. Without realising I must have taken a wrong turn. Being lost wasn’t so bad for a while. I was quite enjoying strolling the corridors and remembering all the laughs we had in this place. That was when I saw the child. We both stopped still, him like a sentry at the far end of the corridor. Although he was really only a silhouette, I could make out his school uniform by the moonlight. It took a few seconds to register what I was seeing. Then, without warning, the boy took to his heels with a sort of nervous laugh and disappeared down a side corridor. I ran after him; don’t ask me why. There was no way I could keep him in sight, like I said the whole building is pitch black. The direction I had followed led me to a dead end. All that was in front of me was a closed classroom door; I think it had once been my home room. Catching my breath, I put my ear to the door and listened hard. At first there was nothing but dead silence, a sort of low drone, like I hear in the factory at nights. But I’m not fooled so easily. Sure enough, I heard something: whispering on the other side.
Perhaps I should have questioned what I was doing. Why would anybody still be at school at this time? Yet at that moment all I cared about was knowing the big secret. Flinging the door open I stepped onto the threshold. Dozens of eyes met mine in silence, glinting like marbles in the darkness. The classroom was packed with children, sat stiffly upright at their desks, as if waiting for someone. Their teacher? Was that why they were here, without light? Were they all in detention? It couldn’t be me they were waiting for? You know how I am, usually got a joke on hand to break the ice. But for once the words just stuck in my throat. I think I got as far as gasping ‘Why…?’ but that just made them stare fiercer, harder, like they really hated me. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Then, as if obeying some secret command, every single child in that room began to rise slowly from their desk. Was their teacher here at last? I did sense a sudden presence at my shoulder. Someone at the back of the room pointed a finger at me. ‘You don’t belong here’. That was all they said. Softly, but making it sound like a threat. All the time, the front rows struggled closer through that crowded room. Some of their faces caught the moonlight coming in through the windows. Do you understand? That was the worst thing of all! Because I recognised them. The faces of those who did not come tonight. Only they hadn’t needed an invitation because they had never left, they had been here all along. I felt the shadow behind me move closer, but I no longer thought it was a teacher. It was more like a zookeeper about to throw some live prey to a pack of lions. Something broke and I turned and ran, faster than I ever did on the track. Behind me, I heard a classroom door slamming shut.”
In a sad coda to the above tale, word has reached us that this week Jason has been signed off sick from work, for what will possibly be the long term. Apparently his ailment is stress related. Colleagues report that when he returned to work on the Friday morning after the reunion they initially assumed his behaviour was the result of a hangover. However the main nervous symptoms persisted: Jason appeared terrified of opening any door when on his own, even doors leading into rooms he was very familiar with. This neurosis prevented him from entering the boardroom, the accounts office, even the bathrooms at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals. ‘They will be waiting for me’ he sobbed to one mystified business associate, ‘One day I will open the wrong door and they will still be there, waiting…’