I was browsing Facebook recently and spotted, via a friend of a friend’s post, a group of people I’d gone to school with, organising a reunion and asking for guestlist suggestions. It may have been presumptuous of me, since I left at the beginning of fifth form and quite literally never looked back, but my immediate instinct was “OH GOD NO, NOT ME” and to get the hell off the internet before someone tried to rope me in.
This isn’t the first reunion in the 26 years since I left, and I don’t plan on breaking my record of nonattendance now. Age hasn’t mellowed my outlook, or increased my desire to revisit the past. I can still think of nothing worse than travelling 200 miles for the privilege of hanging with people who at best don’t remember me (to give you an idea of my impact and standing, I’m told I was removed from “notable former pupils” on the school Wiki page. The male head of marketing at a water company remained), or at worst, played a direct role in my wanting to leg it at the earliest possible convenience. As an adult, I deliberately avoid women who remind me of schooldays, so why would I volunteer for a refresher course in the real thing? I now choose friends on the basis of shared worldview, values and sense of humour, not because we were once trapped together in a building that smelled strongly of feet.
It wasn’t all hideous, of course. I was bullied but I also had friends. But my reasoning has always been that if I liked you enough then, I’d still know you now. Otherwise, Google can take care of everyone’s bragging and gloating needs without any warm Chablis and awkward silences. My partner, who has attended a few reunions himself despite generally being far less sociable than I am, doesn’t understand my attitude to what could be a lovely, harmless evening’s reminiscing. So this week, I held a Twitter poll to prove I’m not alone – though even I was surprised by the results. Seventy-five per cent of almost 3,000 people said they’d never attend a school reunion, only a quarter would even consider it.
But what was more notable was how different the levels of enthusiasm shown by state school kids versus those educated in the private sector (my partner included). I can understand the difference. Private schools are built on the idea of network, history and a sense of legacy. Regular events and updates are scheduled for former alumni, bursars routinely attempt to tap up old boys to fund the success of the new. But at state school, there’s no infrastructure for keeping in touch. If your school could barely afford textbooks, they’re unlikely to have a dedicated staff member to compile some glossy newsletter.
I now choose friends on the basis of shared worldview and sense of humour, not because we were once trapped together in a building that smelled strongly of feet
Besides, I imagine private school reunions to be a less socially awkward affair. The chances are that a public school kid with a decent career will reunite with largely similar adults to those they’d find themselves next to at weddings and meetings now. People are more likely to have uniformly done well in life. Comprehensive school is by definition a more cluttered and representative microcosm of society, with winners and losers, both with perhaps less in-built confidence.
Not that one has to be posh to catch up with former classmates, of course. I understand the universal desire to hark back to simpler times, to shared experiences and horror stories. I too get the occasional impulse to discuss memories of the pathetic riot and consequent imprisonment of a supply teacher in the geography cupboard. The teacher who walked his cat on a lead, the French and Music masters who double-dated two fifth formers because no one gave a shit about kids in the eighties. But I can do all this with my oldest friend Rachel, or one of the measly five school friends I’ve accepted on Facebook. I like them all, I wish only good things for them but see no reason to swell their numbers to accommodate someone purely on the basis of having once shared a bunsen burner. And even less, to then sit in a pub, all mentally calculating who looks older and fatter than whom.
Reunions can act as an exorcism of demons, I’m told. And perhaps there’s an argument for taking away the power of bad memories by revisiting the scene of the crimes. But the truth is, I no longer remember much more of the happy stuff from my school days. I’ve mostly forgotten what made me laugh, which lessons engaged me, the friends I didn’t retain, what was so terrific about the sixth form boy I worshipped out of all proportion. Life has moved on and now all I can remember is a constant yearning to get the hell out of there. And so I did, and while life has been largely great, sometimes dire, frequently complicated ever since, I’ve done it all on my own and mainly without being called a slag, getting told what to do or having to punch anyone in the face.
Of course, I understand the temptation to go back, two fingers aloft. The guilty hope that the raving beauty who laughed repeatedly at your big ears has no remaining teeth, that the person who mockingly called you ginge went on to have five redheaded kids who hate him, and that the teacher who said you’d never amount to anything is now hosing offal from a warehouse floor. But that’s what a cursory glance through Facebook is for and besides, the rewards are fleeting. God knows what tragedy has befallen them since school, and to engage in extreme levels of schadenfreude arguably makes you as much of a sneering arsehole as those you left school to escape. What purpose does it serve to wave your happy marriage, world travel, stellar achievements or size-eight gym-body in the faces of those who peaked at school or ended up down a different path? For a formerly unhappy schoolgirl, the only outcome far better than success is the realisation that you simply no longer give a shit.