Saved by the Bell

There’s something about our schooldays – and how we relate to them – that I’ll never truly understand.

Particularly comprehensive schools, the like of which I frequented in the 1980s.

When you were guests at these august institutions, the whole process felt torturous, and you couldn’t wait to leave. The desperation was palpable. Grey but gladiatorial, a stepping stone from 1960s image-light textbook traditions to the carefree, qualifications-for-all, GCSE era. With a wider curriculum, you might have opted for DIY cornea donation rather than triple-PE on a Monday morning.

The rules, the lessons you hated, the wacko, fruitcake teachers who themselves oozed the prison warder vibe from every leather elbow-patch were all fuel to the fire. No longer safe and snug in the artificial parallel universe of academia, the latter were themselves forced down their own narrow paths to serve their sentences.

And let’s not forget the pupils, or students as they are now ubiquitously termed. Waves of trainee sociopaths of every nutjob denomination with the vigour and determination to exhibit their skillsets with predictable regularity.

The current penchant for the student label does seem somewhat assumptive to me, or plainly ambitious, that they are all collectively studying. Maybe that’s a clever in-joke worthy of gold-star irony because the higher you go in education the less studying actually takes place.

It is not however the only liberal lashing of gloss being readily applied to the structures of modern UK education. Headmasters are now generally styled as ‘Headteachers‘, presumably to soften the appearance of power and control that were always a central feature of part-time educational incarceration. What teaching they actually (can) do will have to remain a matter for conjecture. Everything seems so, well, democratic.

In the same vein, many comprehensive schools have now become ‘academies’; a name change which you can’t help feeling is probably academic in itself (multiple puns intended). There are criteria that determine eligibility for the refreshingly novel nomenclature, but they still open the doors for every potential entrant in the catchment area. Plus ça change, as they say in the languages academies.

You do though have to admire the persistence of those still determined to characterise state schools as seats of learning even if in practice they still remain obligatory daycare centres for parents who work. And should it all really matter anyway? Everybody receives their allocation of GCSEs irrespective of the work that goes in. I mean, a lot of the coursework is simply topped up by the teachers, who themselves are under state-level scrutiny. Easier to coast through during the year with the kids reading silently in class and then do it yourself rather than trust the kids to submit the work that might determine your, sorry, their future.

I remember the old ‘reading’ ruse well, while the teacher absented themselves for a smoke and an hour to power-mark all the books they had neglected the previous evening. I can understand that though. Arriving at home having escaped for the day and then pulling out a pile of exercise books and the distinctive odour emanating – and serving to teleport your head back to the hellhole. It would have been enough to put anybody off their Fray Bentos pie.

Seriously though, life inside these schools was essentially being sent to a detention centre for the day. Watching Scum was like revisiting Metalwork in 1980. Thankfully without the potting shed.

So, having reminded ourselves of the horrors of school, one question jumps out and hits me like a poorly coordinated, swinging windmill playground punch: why are so many people trampling over each other to organise and attend school reunions? It doesn’t make any sense.

You see these events posted all over social media. People cannot get enough of them. Pictures of bullies and victims, truants and swots, mental masters and ratboys, all smiling and laughing together, apparently remembering and celebrating the good old days.

I just don’t get it. But maybe there is some unfinished business that the reunion squares off? Some closure for all concerned?

For the real victims of any historical pupil malfeasance, there is perhaps a belated opportunity to face off opposite their tormentors on a more level playing field. Perhaps even to put down some subtle verbal markers that wobble the erstwhile cads on their cocksure podia as the pupil messiahs.

Of course in the years following school, a number of these chaps who were not as cool will have been tentatively visiting local pubs and bars in an attempt to join the periphery of the wider in-group via odd snippets of conversation so that ultimately they could gain redemption as one of the lads.

A pub promotion, no less. A final propeller to blow oneself up the final rungs of the ladder to social acceptance. After all, once you reach the age of 18, all the laddish antics like drinking, smoking and running around after girls are no longer the restricted purview of the scallywag. So, the sensible but desperate downtrodden can trade their wise judgement for poorer longer-term health but infinitely greater pub status.

In the world of the reunion, some even rewrite history and track back their membership of the elite to their schooldays in the hope that after 30 years, nobody can quite remember. After all, among the messiahs and their followers, few are renowned for their numeracy, so an additional disciple over the 12 can effortlessly slide into a table place at the last supper.

Of course, for the former aggressors, perhaps there is some appreciation and even apprehension that the sands have levelled. They might therefore hope that time has been a great healer and that they won’t be embarrassed or at worst upended by a former social subordinate. You never know, they might even have joined the human race and feel some regret.

Generally though, people thirst after reunions not out of desire to see their former classmates. But to seek some sort of evidence that they haven’t been bettered.

And I have no problem for people who do big themselves up for a bit of one-upmanship. After all, why not stick it back to them if you think that you might land a blow that will hit home on a former nemesis? Just make sure that the job or salary you appropriate is credible, or you’re back to the laughing stock status you may have held in the eyes of the powers-that-were. You know, like making out you are a billionaire astronaut.

I did know of one guy who had been horrendously bullied back in the day, who flew in from Silicon Valley just for the reunion and then flew out again. That showed class. An understated middle finger to all the grunts who, at 50 and beer-gutted, were still chugging around in their rust-addled Ford Fiestas.

But you know what the craziest part of it all actually is? And it is not that people are so fixated on the celebration of the epoch of their most heightened despair.

It’s that 75% of them still live in the same Hicksville towns where they went to school and have continued to live in each other’s pockets since they were all happily breaking metaphorical rocks in the educational pen.

For them, it must just be a fortnightly get-together at best. I mean, half of them married their first boyfriends or girlfriends and many of them are step-parents to each other’s children.

For the genuine reunion-goer, i.e. one who did fly the coop and hasn’t remained tied to the hometown apron strings, why would you do it anyway? I mean, for reasons beyond your control, you had an obligation to attend a specific school, maybe two, for a certain period. So, at a push, you knew some people for 10 years as kids but most for 5. At best, it would warrant a hello and a 5-minute chat to exchange some positive memories, if there were many. And would you not try to keep in touch with more favoured people on a selective basis rather than have to sit through a whole evening with all the goons?

You can in any case catch up on the comings or goings of the last 30 years on Facebook or any other social media channel. So, it does raise the question of why people bother?

You see, the school reunion is not about reminiscing at all or even exchanging details that people choose to share. It is about re-invention, and I don’t just mean the far-fetched profession or putative salary that you elect to acquire for the day. It is about identifying the micro-detail that will allow attendees to get to the heart of a firm basis for an accurate (and hoped-for favourable) comparison with others. They yearn to achieve that for one reason:

The comparisons will be a potential source of validation – or stimulus for change – that may provide a desperately-needed injection of self-confidence – or impetus – for those in a rut. People who have been witnessing exactly that same self-confidence and personal vigour evaporating before their eyes in the course of the preceding decades. It’s a staging post in life for people who are starting to run out of steam. A water station in life’s marathon.

Of course, those who are doing just nicely are comfortable in their own skins and who they are, which is why they generally don’t bother turning up.

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