How were your school days? Fantastic fun and full of learning, or a grim stretch of miserableness and academic struggle? I went to an all girl boarding school in Devon for five years, due to my dad being in the RAF and being abroad most of that time, I left in 1976 and it’s almost 40 years to the day since I returned. I was never going back, ever. Boarding schools will do that to you.
In a life before Facebook, if you weren’t a letter writer, you lost touch. Phone calls were expensive and almost always hovered over by a watch-tapping parent, anxious to keep bills down. Dispersed all over the globe once set free, even those of us who were besties struggled to keep connections going -friends who lived abroad had to be written to on unworkably fragile airmail (does that still even exist?). And if you lost touch, how important could they have been anyway? So what was I doing last Sunday, heart sinking like a stone, just like it did every time I drove up that driveway back to school for another term, heading back for a reunion lunch?
At boarding school you know your classmates really, really well. We shared dormitories, clothes, every meal of the day, teary waves of homesickness and joy at letters from home. We could identify the owner of each pair of drip-drying knickers, hanging overnight on the luke-warm dorm radiators. We knew when each-others periods started, which pop star we were currently in love with (Peter Frampton and David Bowie, mostly). We could pick out, blindfolded, our closest friends just from the way they smelled, we were that close. We were, as Bev said this weekend, each other’s family.
So not surprising then, the overwhelming rush of unsettling emotion I felt when I saw my class mates again, most of whom I hadn’t seen for four decades. As my eyes became accustomed to how they looked now, I didn’t fight back tears, I battled with a Harry Potter level, magical wave of nostalgic time travel. Fabulous, but unnerving. ‘Weird’ hardly covered the first ten seconds.
We were amazed at how little the school building had changed, it was almost exactly as we remembered it, right down to the way the back door need a shoulder-shove to open it. It’s also a beautiful place, something that I’d blocked out completely. I remembered the way the flagstone floors looked where we queued for the one phone (one phone!) to make calls home and the slight change in atmosphere as you walked passed the head’s office. In an odd twist of fate that you couldn’t make up, we learned our old head, Miss Smith, died days before we visited.
We stood where our desks were in our old classroom, and I gazed out of the window at the totally unchanged view of Haytor (above), remembering how I daydreamed away French vocab lessons by planning my next sewing project (my friend Vicky’s mum knew me as ‘needlework Mandy’). It was incredibly moving.
The memories tumbled out with extraordinary clarity. We remembered the names of teachers, gardeners, girls in upper or lower years from us in a flash, which considering I can hardly remember what happened to me two days ago is nothing short of miraculous. What’s that all about?
But, of course, the best thing was reconnecting with the girls I spent nearly every day of my life with for five years. They were older, but exactly the same, Cindy’s huge clear smile, Bev’s infectious laugh, Laura’s quietly curious mind, Vicky’s sense of fun and Amanda’s singing. I stared into their faces and saw the girls they were then, trying to come to terms with the odd disparity between knowing them SO well, yet not at all.
We were missing my best friend Charlie, who died tragically last year, perhaps that’s what made the experience resonate so strongly, every step I took around school, I took with her. And once reconnected, we all yearned to know what had happened to Atsuko, Janet and Lynne, who disappeared completely. Where are they now?
We took our O levels 40 years ago this month, and dressed (after the 4.10pm tea bell) in the cork wedges, denim skirts, floaty maxi dresses and embroidered cheesecloth tops that Topshop and Zara are currently full of. We were style muses and we didn’t even know it. We wore our hair long, sunbathed using cooking oil and (apparently, although I don’t remember it) iodine when we supposed to be revising. We sang Annie’s Song by John Denver, Hues Corporation’s Rock The Boat, Karl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting and Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (thanks for the list Bev).
It seemed a lifetime ago, brought back into focus for one glorious, sunny afternoon. One visit back to the school building was enough for me, wonderful, but I’ve done that now. However, reconnecting with the girls was astonishing, the bonds we forged decades ago although a little rusty at first, remain amazingly strong. What a joy. And thank heavens for Facebook.