Heritage: School reunions – the past is a foreign country

Heritage: School reunions – the past is a foreign country

by Martin Brisland.

Have you been to a school reunion?

I recently attended a school 50 year reunion. For months, since I first heard about it I was apprehensive as I had not set foot inside since I left.  Fifty years is a very long time, in fact the event was pandemic delayed to 52 years.

Who would turn up? Would I remember them? Would anyone remember me? What memories and feelings would be stirred?

I tried asking  a few of the people I knew at school to join me. Their reaction was negative as they either didn’t enjoy school or they just did not want to look back. Yesterday’s gone.

So off I went alone telling myself an early exit was highly likely.

The informal evening was actually really positive, enjoyable and I am glad I went. Naturally the conversation meant many memories were stirred from their slumbers.

Seeing myself in a class photo from 1969 I noticed I managed to keep my top shirt button undone. A real act of rebellion in those far off days. 

A major takeaway was how many things have moved forward for the better. In the 1960s we had some ex military staff who had been emergency trained after WW2 to plug a shortage of teachers. Most teachers were caring and wise.

However, the trauma of the war years definitely showed with a few staff who had very authoritarian attitudes towards teenage boys and the youth culture of the time. The flying board rubber was their weapon of choice and sarcasm used routinely. Maybe they were suffering from what today we call PTSD?

There was a generation gap. All we wanted to do was grow our hair and listen to rock music. All some staff wanted to do was stamp out the “permissive society” of the 1960’s. 

I avoided being caned but it was used by some teachers with relish. There was even a popular BBC sitcom called Wack-O! It ran until 1972 and was about the exploits of a drunken, gambling and cane swishing headmaster who terrorised staff and pupils alike. Thankfully corporal punishment in state schools in England and Wales was prohibited from 1986.

 I was most impressed with the emphasis on the mental health of present day students. We saw a wellbeing room where students can take time out during the day. They may need to calm down after an argument, they may be dealing with problems in their family or just be in a low mood. Whatever the reason, it was a safe space to nurture the soul by reading, playing a board game or just sitting with your own thoughts. The only rules seemed to be no screens to gaze at and no talking unless a quiet whisper.

I left the reunion feeling positive about the schooling of the current crop of teenagers. A part of me wished I was young again as today’s system would have suited me well.

 The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This oft quoted first line to LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go -Between wistfully condenses the problems inherent in our remembrance of the past. 

A book I actually read in my school days and a quote I now understand.

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