School Reunion

I’ve been back in Belfast for a reunion of those of us who (more or less) started in Rathmore Grammar School in 1978 and left in 1985, 25 years ago.

I think everyone there was aware that this event was an intense, weird and probably unrepeatable experience; we have all changed in the quarter-century since we turned 18, and of course so has Northern Ireland. Out of 150 or so in our year, around 120 showed up, all I think with a mixed sense of curiosity and apprehension. But it was strangely excellent.

In the run-up to the event I had a nagging worry that I might get trapped near the bar by someone who I didn’t know especially well and didn’t want to talk to (a generic someone – nobody particularly in mind) but in fact everyone seemed to feel the same pressure to mingle. Pretty much everyone was using the opportunity to talk to people they hadn’t seen in 25 years, rather than just hang out with those they still see regularly. Even so, I know that I left after four and a half hours wishing I had talked to more people. (I wimped out not long after midnight; I imagine it kept going for another hour or two.)

I was amazed by how well most of us had aged. (One or two must surely be keeping portraits of their older degenerate selves in the attic.) We men had in general aged less gracefully, I thought; hair loss and greying making us look distinguished if we are lucky. Though the Head Boy of our year still looks cherubic, if a little careworn. He, poor lad, was called on to make a speech late in the evening when most of us had been there for several hours. I don’t think any sound system could have helped his voice be heard against the background of two and a half decades of catchingup on gossip.

A couple of brave trailing spouses had come too, thrust into a social setting where nobody was very interested in talking to them. The cliche is of course that people use these occasions to hook up with old flames; I did enjoy chatting to those I had snogged back in the day, but nothing further was likely to happen – at least one of them had completely forgotten our brief encounter, and for something that seemed so important at the time I confess the details have mostly slipped my mind too.

There were some moments of sadness. The event which sparked the organisation of the reunion had been the death about a year ago of one of our classmates; and while most of us have now become parents, a lot of us have also lost parents, and others (such as the older sister who used to babysit for us, long ago). We are all of course in our early forties; speaking only for myself, I’ve had the worst health I can remember over the last year, with back problems in June, bad flu last month, my continuing dental hassles and the less drastic but psychologically significant experience of getting bifocals.

But for me this was a very affirming experience. Partly it was just that spending an evening with people who are all exactly my age, for the first time since the final school disco (held for some reason in a small club on Donegall Square, rather than the more usual Greenan Lodge Hotel), made me feel that 42 isn’t actually all that old. Partly also that I felt a sense of integrating my roots. I’ve moved further away from Belfast than most of my fellow pupils (one other attendee had come from Italy; a couple of no-shows are across the Atlantic), and my father is twenty years dead, my mother lives in Dublin, my sister in France and my brother in Massachusetts. But the years I had shared with the people I saw last night were an important part of making me who I have become, and it seemed right and appropriate, and slightly wonderful, to raise a glass or three to celebrate that.

Edited to add: A trailing spouse writes.

One thought on “School Reunion

  1. Ah – y’know, that’s a good bit of perspective there. 🙂

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